March 16, 2006

Signs of Freedom

Sign in the window of a feminist bookstore: “Hate-Free Zone.”

Handwritten sign on the door of a New Age gift shop: “Please respect that this is a cell-phone-free zone.”

Bedsheet sign hanging from the balcony of an apartment building: “What Does Freedom Really Mean?”

Hm, I think. “Hate-Free Zone.” A laudable ideal. But how are you going to compel it in practice? Are you going to check all customers’ emotions before they walk into the store? What if a man with a gripe against feminism walked in looking for a book for his daughter, or to educate himself about views he opposed? How do you decide who has hatred, anyway? How do you decide if you yourselves have any hatred in you? Will women who hate patriarchy be turned away from your store? What if you could install a hateometer at the door and turn away anyone whose heart contained hate? Would that practice increase freedom or make this a better world? What if your hateometer could change their emotions, freezing the specific neurons that carried hate? Would that increase freedom?

“Freedom” there doesn’t means freedom to do what you want; it means freedom not to be confronted by those who make you uncomfortable or those to whom you feel superior.

The cell-phone-free zone carries this to an extreme: the freedom to forbid others anything that rubs you the wrong way. The freedom to deprive others of their freedom reigns even when the others are people who have freely decided to enter your area of commerce. In this case, the thing forbidden is a symbol of unenlightened living, of impoliteness, of belonging to the coarse masses; and the prohibition pretends to be a symbol of the management’s enlightened progressivism. Notice how coyly it’s worded: the forbidding party acts from high-minded motives, using a gentle style. But do any of the store’s employees or managers or owners possess ever use cell phones? What if a customer saw an item in the store that she knew her friend would love, and wanted to call the friend on her cell phone and say, “You have to come here right away and buy this”? Would that be permitted? Or would the customer have to step out onto the sidewalk to recommend that someone else enter the store? And what if the cell was so disturbing to so many people that it started losing you business? Would you take it down

“What does freedom really mean?” My immediate response is: “It means that you are free to hang this sign from your balcony. You can express any view you like, and you need not fear arrest.” But somehow I don’t think that’s what the signmaker meant by freedom. I don’t have any evidence for this, of course, but I’m free to speculate. I’m speculating on the basis of the sign’s anarchist visual style -- big messy black letters on a ripped bedsheet – and provenance – the balcony of a studenty apartment building. I speculate that the signmaker would laugh derisively at the idea that “freedom” means what ordinary people in this society have meant for the past two hundred years. (Otherwise, why hang the sign?) We are dupes, the sign implies, if we think freedom means freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of religion. These are sham freedoms: the sign wants us to think about what real freedom is. And the answer, I speculate, is that there is something called “true freedom” that is not found in commercialistic representative democracies with large economies, overwhelming military power, and dominant mass media. This true freedom is spiritual. It can be experienced in any environment, even in a tyranny, even in jail where one is serving time for a political protest. That is where one finds true freedom: protesting within unfreedom.

That kind of “true freedom” was characteristically touted by Soviet-style and other fascistic dictatorships for decades during the twentieth century. Oh, you Americans! You think you have freedom with your elections and your newspapers, but we have true freedom! We are free to read the right things; we are free from the temptation of reading the wrong things. We are free from the delusions of the free market; we are free to rely on the decisions of our leaders. And we have freedom to dissent, too: it’s just that we’ve put our dissenters in a region where decent people are free of them.

In the case of the first two signs, freedom is not positive freedom to do something. It’s freedom not to be impinged upon by the inconvenient, the unseemly, the uncouth, or the low-status. (The bedsheet sign could be a protest against an infringement of freedom – but what?) There is an important place for this kind of “freedom from” in American society: freedom from discrimination, and the last two of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom from want and freedom from fear. But where is there a place in these signmakers’ worlds for the positive freedom to do as one likes? Does it only apply to people who wish to do what the signmakers approve of?

I’m waiting to see a sign, “Free Zone.”