The problem with freedom

Gender and society satire from the 1890s

A satirical cartoon on gender roles in society from the 1890s

In the 1920s, tobacco companies sought to increase the number of women smokers. So for the Easter Sunday parade of 1929, a group of public relations and marketing experts hatched a brilliant plan on their behalf. They paid a group of young, attractive, fashionably-dressed women to march in the parade and, in unison, light up cigarettes. The women proudly exclaimed to the parade goers that they were smoking “torches of freedom“. Photos and stories of the women circulated wildly. Almost overnight, smoking had become a symbol of female independence and liberty.

I learned about this historical event years ago when I was in grad school. But it recently came to mind once again, amid the debate about freedom of expression following the attack on a French satirical newspaper earlier this month.

Rightfully, following that event there has been an outpouring of sentiment in favor of free speech and in defiance of terror and intimidation. I won’t get into my own thoughts on the specifics of this event, or some or the more controversial details — namely, the arrest by French authorities of dozens of individuals for hate speech following the free speech demonstrations, or the allegedly hypocritical policies of some of the demonstrating world leaders — subjects which have been covered ad nauseum already. (A good approximation of how I feel on these subjects is here.)

On the other hand, what I haven’t seen to this point, and what I personally am yearning for, is an intelligent discussion about not only our legal rights as citizens, but what it truly means to be “free” as a human being. And I think this is a discourse that religion, and especially the Baha’i Faith, can help move forward in a big way.

The concepts of freedom and liberty in the Baha’i teachings are, dare I say, starkly at odds with how most of us in the West tend to think of them. For Baha’is, freedom is as much about “willing submission” as it is about legal rights. As most of us see it, freedom and submission appear incongruent. But for Baha’is (and many other people of faith, it would seem) that’s not the case. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the assumption of an inherent conflict between these two concepts is reflective of our society’s tendency to conflate freedom with recklessness, and our narrow-minded obsession with the right to behave destructively.

Freedom is a subject that is touched upon in many places in the Baha’i Writings, but there is one particular passage written by Baha’u’llah in particular that I wanted to highlight (in somewhat abridged form, below):

Know ye that the embodiment of liberty and its symbol is the animal. That which beseemeth man is submission unto such restraints as will protect him from his own ignorance, and guard him against the harm of the mischief-maker. Liberty causeth man to overstep the bounds of propriety, and to infringe on the dignity of his station. It debaseth him to the level of extreme depravity and wickedness…

True liberty consisteth in man’s submission unto My commandments, little as ye know it. Were men to observe that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven of Revelation, they would, of a certainty, attain unto perfect liberty… The liberty that profiteth you is to be found nowhere except in complete servitude unto God, the Eternal Truth. Whoso hath tasted of its sweetness will refuse to barter it for all the dominion of earth and heaven.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 335-336)

There are two concepts of “liberty” discussed here that appear very different from one another. In the first paragraph, we hear of liberty as the choice to act without “restraint”, like an animal. In the second, liberty means quite the opposite, a bounty that is earned through “submission” and “servitude”. Baha’u’llah disparages the first (the human being’s behavior should be worthy of his dignified nature, not that of an animal) and extols the second (a deeper sense of freedom can be gained through restraint and self-discipline).

We Americans, it would seem, are particularly skeptical of submission and servitude, and perhaps for good reason. The American revolution itself was fought to break the yoke of submission to our colonial masters, and our Civil War over a cruel and unsustainable institution of forced servitude by one race over another. That liberty and freedom are such ubiquitous themes in American art, culture, and commentary should surprise no one*.

Nonetheless, even here in America we are well aware that freedom should have limits, especially when one’s personal freedom infringes upon the freedom of others. Most of us are familiar with one particular hackneyed example: that you can’t yell “fire!” without good reason in a crowded place. But there are plenty of more subtle examples that we tend to accept in our everyday lives without much controversy. You can’t drive your car without paying a tax or toll to help keep up public roads and highways; you can’t light up a cigarette in certain places where people would be forced to inhale your secondhand smoke; you can’t dispose of things in your own backyard that could potentially make it into the public water supply; and on and on.

But what Baha’u’llah is describing in the passages above, I think, is something different. His commentary is aimed as much at the individual’s wellbeing as it is that of society at large, and the focus seems to be on the self-governance of one’s own behavior, rather than the imposition of laws from above.

This is what got me thinking of the young women’s “torches of freedom” demonstration mentioned earlier. No one in their right mind would call for an outright ban on female consumption of tobacco products. But for an individual to smoke simply as an expression of liberty is the height of stupidity, if for no other reason that it risks ensnaring the smoker in addiction and robbing the individual of another freedom, namely the right to good health and long life. The “torches of freedom” anecdote is an especially revealing illustration of the hollowness of this type of free expression, in that it also reminds us that yielding to clever marketing is its own unique sort of constraint on liberty, in that we are forced in a particular economic direction even as we ourselves foolishly believe we’ve made our decisions independently.

Is it any less pointless to say and write offensive things — the very thing that sparked the recent worldwide discussion on freedom — simply as a demonstration and celebration of one’s right to free speech? We who insist on doing this, in any form, naively think we are free; instead, we are entangling ourselves in a web of ugliness, arrogance, and mutual suspicion. It should be legal to express anger, spitefulness, and disregard for the sensitivities of others. But let’s be clear: when we succumb to these temptations — or even worse, practice them deliberately as somehow noble gestures — we are anything but free.

Let’s be thankful for the rights we have, and that we live in democracies that, for the most part, do not punish us for what we say and how we say it. But let’s also practice restraint with how we exercise those liberties. That way, maybe we can exalt the word “freedom” towards something more meaningful.



*Though I’m less well versed on European history and culture, I’m sure you could write something similar about Europe.


3 thoughts on “The problem with freedom

  1. I’m so happy you raised this issue. I believe so strongly that we should not be the cause of insult or injury to others. What some people do not realize is how very offensive it is to Muslims to publish an image of the Prophet Mohammed. I believe that the paper could make their point in any other way without publishing the image. Our writing and all of our communication should aim at bringing about unity, not conflict. Yes, sometimes conflict is unavoidable if we are to stand up for justice. But I don’t think that deliberate antagonism serves any good purpose.

  2. Pingback: When did we all get so sensitive? |

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