MQ-8: Let Freedom Reign (‘Mythquake’ series)

Summary of another chapter from the Mythquake book-project.

The previous chapter, ‘MQ-7: Sugar and spice‘, covered probably the most controversial class of mythquakes, around cultural, societal, interpersonal and personal definitions of gender. It’s controversial because it’s something every person will experience in daily life, and causes constant friction between the self and the Other – in every sense of ‘other’. Yet though the ‘gender wars’ can often be explosive, and can cause real damage not just to individuals but to entire societies, they’re not in themselves the most serious class of mythquakes: we still have to dig deeper to get to the real tectonic plates of myth. This chapter explores one of those deeper myths, the notion of ‘freedom’ – a mythic structure that embeds a potential for societal upheaval on a truly grand scale.

This chapter contains the following sections [all notes-only]:

  • Freedom-to and freedom-for
  • The wrongs of rights
  • There are no rights

Book-development notes are shown in italics inside square-brackets, [like this]. Further commentary on the development-notes is in ordinary type inside curly-braces, {like this}.

MQ-8: Let freedom reign

Richter 8: Great earthquake. Can cause serious damage in areas several hundred kilometres across. Equivalent to around one thousand megatons of TNT (San Francisco earthquake, 1989). Around one per year on average.

Mercalli X: Most buildings, some bridges damaged or destroyed; dams and reservoirs seriously damaged; water thrown out of rivers and canals; large landslides; ground cracks over large areas; railroad tracks slightly bent.

Mercalli XI: Most buildings collapse, some bridges destroyed; underground pipelines destroyed; roads break up; large cracks in ground; rocks fall; railroad tracks badly bent.

Freedom-to and freedom-for

[Paediarchy » ‘freedom-to’ vs ‘freedom-for’; myth of ‘rights’.]

{“Let freedom reign!” – a great catch-phrase, yet it can conceals a morass of really serious problems, some of which immediately become evident once we understand the prevalence of paediarchal thinking, particularly ‘Western’ cultures’ concepts of freedom. There’s a huge structural difference between ‘freedom-for’, as the ability to act on shared purpose, versus ‘freedom-to’, the ability to act on personal purpose without reference to others’ needs or desires. The notion of ‘freedom-from’ implies much the same confusions: all too often it turns out to be a self-centred ‘freedom-to-not’ do something that is actually needed in a societal context or, in the case of something like ‘freedom from fear’, is an insistence that someone else is responsible for providing the conditions for that ‘freedom’. All of which leads us, inexorably, to the well-meant shambles that underlies the entire concept of ‘rights’.}

[“health is a right, not a business!” – poster I’ve seen frequently on my travels]

{Everywhere we go – especially in ‘Western’ cultures or ‘Western’-influenced cultures – we’ll see references to rights. Health is a right, education, the right of way on the road, the right to strike, the right to vote, the right to silence, animal rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, prisoners’ rights, pensioners’ rights, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’; the whole monolith of the Bill of Rights or the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet what no-one seems to ask is where those rights actually come from, or what needs to be done – and how and by whom – to make them real. That kind of ‘cultural blindspot’ is an almost guaranteed precursor for major mythquakes…}

The wrongs of rights

[Rights vs responsibilities – “I have rights, you have responsibilities”; ‘rights’ as structural abuse – ‘jus prima noctis’; ‘women’s rights’.]

{In essence, a purported ‘right’ is simply a declaration of a desired outcome in a social context: but on its own it tells us nothing about how that outcome will be achieved. In practice, a ‘right’ is the outcome of a complex interlocking set of mutual responsibilities: to make it work, we need to start from those responsibilities – not from the purported ‘rights’ – and map out those actions and interlocks, emphasising the mutuality. What we usually find instead in the ‘rights’-discourse is a notion that the ‘right’ somehow confers the absence of responsibility – a non-mutual relationship that damages or destroys the interlocks that would make the ‘right’-outcome real. In effect, the concept of ‘personal rights’ sets up expectations that will frequently fail in real-world social context – setting the scene for frequent low-level mythquakes.

Where the purported ‘rights’ are demonstrably mutual, the model can just-about be made to work, though often with awkward inefficiencies – such as in many legal systems, and in some countries’ traffic-laws. But where the ‘rights’ are demonstrably non-mutual – and especially where those non-mutualities are enshrined in law – the scene is again set for many mythquakes, but often at a much more severe level, all the way up to full-blooded (and bloody) revolution. Past examples include the bizarre ‘jus primae noctis’ – a feudal lord’s ‘right of first night’ with the bride of any newly-married couple; sometimes it can be seen in the absence of a right, such as the laws which made it illegal – on pain of death – for a peasant to defend himself or his family against any form of attack by any so-called ‘nobleman’. Lack of mutuality is often based on fact of birth, such as gender, immigration-status, religion or race – as in the legal structures and strictures of the now-defunct apartheid system, or the still-extant Israeli system – and in effect is a form of legalised abuse, since it assigns all responsibility (and, often, blame) to those who do not have the purported ‘right’. In those terms, for example, almost the entire of the purported ‘women’s rights’ discourse can be interpreted as state-sponsored abuse of men – and hence, in the longer term, a guaranteed source of the kind of tensions that can explode without apparent warning into an extreme mythquake.}

There are no rights

[‘Rights’ as a religion – the paediarchal religion of the toddler’s self-centred tantrum; there are no rights, only responsibilities.]

{The intent behind the idea of ‘rights’ is often noble enough – human rights, animal rights, the right of freedom from oppression – but the painful reality is that it just doesn’t work in practice. On one side we have the blunt fact that many claimed ‘rights’ are little more than an attempt to satisfy a two-year-old’s tantrum of “mine!” or “shan’t” – or to protect ourselves against others’ such purported ‘rights’. The other side is that the rights themselves are an illusion, a mirage: the only thing that is real is the mutual responsibilities from which those supposed ‘rights’ can exist. So the only way forward is to start from the responsibilities – not the ‘rights’.

A useful example of this is in traffic-law. Most traffic-law in the US is based on the concept of ‘right of way’ – and the only way that it can be made to work is by forcing everyone to stop, frequently, in order to re-establish whose ‘right’ has priority over those of others’ ‘rights’. When the priorities of those ‘rights’ are exactly symmetrical – such as four vehicles arriving at the same moment at the ubiquitous four-way-stop – the only way to resolve the clash is by one person arbitrarily overriding others’ supposedly-identical ‘rights’: hence the continuing prevalence of ‘might is right’… In British traffic-law, by contrast, no-one ever has right of way: instead, the entirety of the law is framed in terms of ‘responsibility to give way’. The responsibility is on all road-users to optimise the usage of the road by all users: no-one has automatic priority over anyone else. The same logic is extended further in countries such as the Netherlands, which have intentionally removed traffic-signals from some junctions; and perhaps even more in many less ‘controlled’ countries, where the complexity forces a more fluid relationship with all other vehicles, if often in what seems like barely-credible chaos!

The key point here, though, is that there are no rights: only responsibilities are real. Any attempt to claim or enforce purported ‘rights’ – especially ‘rights’ that are inherently asymmetric – will inevitably lead to mythquakes: and the more forcibly those ‘rights’ are promoted or defended, the more violent the resultant mythquake will be.}

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