Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Freedom shouldn't mean doing exactly what you want

Words can be weapons which are used against the vulnerable, minorities, the powerless and voiceless. Some information needs to be kept from the wider public

Monday 13 December 2010 01:00

Freedom: a word laden with meaning, that turns the heads of billions, moves the world, holds more power than tanks and guns, is imbued with poetic resonance and romantic spirit, a spark that fires up the human soul. The course of history is changed by its restless demands and always for the better.

It makes up the milestones towards progress and enlightenment in all societies and throughout time. Witness the surge in optimism when delicate and resolute Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest; the emotions stirred when the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the Chinese civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo, was placed on an empty chair in Oslo; the global outrage that burst forth when Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' chief trouble-shooter, was arrested in Britain to face extradition to Sweden on rape charges; the fury felt by parents of protesting British teenagers who were intimidated, kettled, beaten and frightened by the police.

The daughter of a distinguished lawyer was among them. He said to me: "I can't believe this is happening in our country, our democracy, land of the free they tell us." He spoke as if his heart had been ripped out. A Bulgarian mother, who migrated to the UK three years ago, was just as appalled. She watched the scenes on television in my home and was overcome: "This is not the Soviet Union. This is what the communists were doing. I can't believe it is happening in the free world."

These are instinctive defences of a precious right, still denied to most humans, which even in the most mature democracies can be and often is so easily taken away by the powerful. But freedom has never been as free and simple as the songs of freedom that serenade it. Nor is it always the small, good guy, taking on the dark forces. The WikiLeaks drama supposedly embodies that struggle. It doesn't. True, Assange and his web warriors have opened up the labyrinthine crypts and vaults holding official US secrets and conspiracies, and thereby have exposed the lies governments tell and harm they wilfully cause. Diplomatic niceties sound even more fraudulent than once they did; the communiqués about and between various states reveal such dirty politicking their leaders will never again be believed. They deserve no better. However, the widespread cynicism will now burn all before it. Without trust between rulers and the ruled, governance is impossible. (That is what Mr Clegg and co need to understand.) Assange's freedom to publish, while vital, cannot be the only consideration. What happens next? Who deals with the ensuing disarray?

Students on demos this week – whose protests I completely support – were rightly asked to consider those questions. Libertarian adults meanwhile feel it is an affront to be asked to do the same. Did the WikiLeaks team spend any time pondering what would happen when they let secured information fly out, as their excitable virtual carrier pigeons obscured the sky? Or was it the thrill that got them, the glee of the bedlam they were able to generate? We journalists must interrogate our own motives too as we relish the endless revelations. We have no means of validating what is going out – and some of the material must be inaccurate or incomplete. The freeing up of so much untested information makes folk swallow and gorge on it, surely very unhealthy. And it will lead to instability in parts of the world where frustration is high and basic needs are unmet. Without social and political stability there can be no sustainable liberties – obvious, really.

A harder, though equally incontrovertible, truth is that even in the most developed of democracies, where freedoms are guaranteed by constitutions and cumulative wisdom, there are legal and also unspoken, generally understood limits to what is acceptable in the public space. These are indeed frequently and necessarily contested. However, in the last decade, an unprecedented resistance has being mounted by those who cannot compromise, who truly believe anything goes and that restraint is a form of censorship. These freedom fighters have brought down political correctness and delivered the dubious benefits of loose tongues and careless thoughts. And so now we have the abominable Frankie Boyle making filthy jokes on TV about disabled children while people roll about laughing I presume. And an invitation is extended to the Muslim-hating American pastor, Terry Jones, by the English Defence League who want him to arouse true patriots. Liberty is stained and deformed by fundamentalist libertarians and they are too full of themselves to notice.

But they must. The hitherto lawless and feral internet world is having to becoming more self- aware and conscious of the effects of words and images on real lives. Legal constraints are creeping in too. Good. It's time the space was civilised. Freedom has given licence to cowards to abuse, threaten, intimidate, cruelly demean, give vent to racism, sexism, paedophilia and the most wicked emotions of which humans are capable. Even more nauseating are their claims of high virtue and democratic valour. (This will set them off, the demented bloggers, the bulldogs who go after me week after week.)

Absolute freedom can wound. Words can be weapons which are used against the vulnerable, minorities, the powerless and voiceless. Some information can provoke such devastating consequences, it does need to be kept from the wider public. Imagine what might happen if neighbourhoods were told the identity and whereabouts of a reformed child abuser, or Mary Bell. If political exchanges let out names (unverified) of informers in conflict areas, entire families would find themselves enveloped in violent fury.

Let me reiterate. To long to be free is a basic human desire which must be satisfied. Artists, writers, commentators, leaders, all citizens must be able to express themselves without fearing reprisals. But mature reflection must accompany freedom to stop its collapse into chaos. Norman Mailer wrote back in the rebellious Sixties: "... Our long odyssey towards liberty, democracy and freedom-for-all may be achieved in such a way that utopia remains forever closed, and we live in freedom and hell..." His potent warning speaks to our times and we should listen.


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