In this era, the demise of democracy is depressing for some political pundits, but does that intrinsically imply a demise of our freedom? As democracy is oft erroneously conflated with freedom, it is imperative to appreciate differences, despite being unequivocally entwined.
As some people bemoan the loss of freedom in Australia, lamenting it no longer exists as we previously believed, is that true? Is a threat to democracy a pessimistic perspective about the polarisation of politics, with the rise of both the alt-right and far left across the west, or is that perception a realistic response to endangered freedom?
As we currently discuss tenets of religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of sexuality and freedom online among other things, we need to recognise freedom is not absolute but relative, ensuring the security, safety and sanity of the populace. Reality dictates understanding this and consequent limitations, simultaneously acknowledging its significance but without infinite expectations
British 19th century philosopher, J.S. Mill, opined in “On Liberty” in 1859, that freedom was only deserving the name when the pursuit of our “own good….did not deprive others of theirs”.
German psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, regarded some people fearful of freedom itself. In his book “Fear of Freedom”, Fromm asserted that while democracy had freed us from the “shackles” of past centuries, societies had been created where people felt isolated from others, with relationships that were impersonal and insecurity replacing a sense of belonging. Published in 1942, 21st century reality seems not altogether dissimilar.
Fromm contended if people were not united “with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work,” it could destroy individual freedom and integrity of self. They experience “The despair of the human automaton” which is “fertile soil for the political purposes” of authoritarianism.
Indeed, radical psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, proclaimed in 1960 in his book “The Divided Self” that some people live and feel as “prisoners without bars”, leading to freedom as redundant and irrelevant in their lives. Is freedom then only an ideal to be dismissed as untenable?
Obviously, as reflected by on-going debate about freedom, the concept is complex, but enforcing absolute freedom simply cannot work with the human condition. What’s important is to embrace faith in freedom, relatively, so people are not frightened into submission and deny their responsibilities as both private and social individuals.
American political philosopher, Thomas Paine, wrote wisely in 1776: “those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must…undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” There is no freedom in fear.