Peace Matters Index

struggle for freedom

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The terrorist threat and the turn to authoritarianism in some Western governments are not the only threats either to human rights or civil liberties. There are many other pressures in the world whose tendency is to restrict and circumscribe the freedom and privacy of individuals. More assertive religious organisations impose limitations on the free speech of others by claiming to be 'offended' by criticisms of them or 'insults' to aspects of their faith. In response, and with a desire generally to be concessive and polite, people impose censorship on themselves. The demand for 'PC' attitudes and behaviour has been a threat to free speech for some time now, having started on campuses in America and spread to other countries and other areas of social life. The motives behind it - the desire to see equality and respect reign - are good; some of the effects are bad.

The technology of our age is itself a threat to freedoms. The British government, in choosing to go down the route of biometric data identity cards, has accepted the fallacious argument that because one can do a thing, one must do it. Its use of surveillance cameras and electronic monitoring of internet traffic has already made true the prediction that technology will allow for the constant unobtrusive policing of individuals, not just for detecting crime and terror, but for controlling and managing, for keeping watch even over the innocent and the private. Technology is the instrument for the realisation of that bureaucratic despotism against which Max Weber long ago warned.

It is not a large step from surveillance and control of the actions of persons in public space to surveillance and control of the opinions of persons in private space. In part the latter is already happening; personal emails and telephone conversations are being monitored. Circumstances in which opinions, beliefs and attitudes were unacceptable to the authorities abounded in the past, and a number have been surveyed in the foregoing pages as a reason why liberties and rights had to be fought for. It still happens; in strict Muslim countries not only do the Religious Police strike women with their whips for showing an ankle, but also the entire society is geared to preventing unorthodox thought or opinion - the society is itself an agent of policing, forcing conformity. There is no guarantee that what happened in the past in Western countries, and what happens in these strict religious countries now, will not happen again in our societies. And this dismal thought occurs even though we believed our rights and liberties were guaranteed by our human rights conventions and our civil liberties. They are fraying before our eyes; and we have to ask at what point the fraying will stop.

The world has international conventions on human rights - they are far from fully effective but they make a difference at times - and a nascent International Criminal Court as a step towards enforcement of them. In national polities the rights and freedoms of citizens - their civil liberties - are not an exact mirror of human rights, though there is a large overlap. One main reason why a given country's civil liberties regime is not a straightforward download (so to put it) of one or another standard human rights convention is the margin of discretion taken by states in matters of interpretation. Genuine differences of opinion can exist over what counts as an invasion of privacy, or what comes too close to being a cruel punishment (capital punishment?), or where limits of free speech lie, and what sorts of expression count as speech at all (is pornography speech? Should it be protected by free provisions?). Nuances of policing practice, the handling of race discrimination cases, the degree to which religious observance is in the public sphere, all involve civil liberties considerations too, and societies are in a constant state of negotiation with themselves about them.

There is nevertheless a consensus in Western liberal democracies over what count as the core civil liberties, and since the atrocities of 9/11 these, as we see, are being subjected to persistent and mounting threat under the guise, partly spurious and partly self-deceiving their erosion is a price worth paying for security.

Such a process is hard to stop, and whereas it is easy to pass a hasty law limiting or abolishing a liberty, it is far harder to get that back. Interference with any liberty that a people has should only be allowed after a thorough examination of how long it took to get and at what cost, and why it was needed in the first place. The liberties and rights of modern Western people were bought with such blood, tears and sweat their possession is so precious, that their abrogation is a scandal, worse: a crime.

If there is one thing these pages might do, therefore, it is to remind us of the reasons why we struggled for our liberties, how much it cost our forebears to get them, and therefore why it matters so much that we should fight to keep them, now that we are actually in process of loosing them. Let us fight, and fight again, to keep them, remembering the much-quoted adjuration of Churchill: 'Never give in, never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’ They were words spoken in the darkest hour of war, in 1941, when this country stood alone against Nazi Germany, and help had not yet come.

For us now the adaptation has to be: never give in to the thieves of our liberties, for possessing them and protecting them is the duty that our rights impose. It is what we owe the dead who bought them for us with their lives, it is what we owe ourselves in our aspiration for good lives, and it is what we owe those whose lives are to come: the inestimable gift of liberty, and security of inalienable rights.

A.C.Grayling. Towards the Light of Liberty – the struggles for freedom and rights that made the modern western world. Walker 2007.


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