Tag Archives: freedom

Are you a free spirit?

It’s one of those terms that sounds really good if you don’t think about it. I have thought about it. I am not a free spirit.

My spirit is limited by my body. I’m a physical entity and biology, physics and other branches of natural science inform my experience on a daily basis. There’s a great deal I cannot do.

My body most assuredly isn’t free. I live with pain, stiffness and limited supplies of energy, all of which is often frustrating to me. I cannot reliably do all the things I want to do. I’m hardly unusual in this. Like all working people I’m also sorely limited by my position in the economic system I am obliged to inhabit. I cannot just go skipping off when I feel like it.

I was hurt by existentialism at a formative time in my life, and this has left me invested in the idea that we can only be free in so far as we are willing to be responsible. If you measure my freedom by my willingness to take responsibility, I am an incredibly free being. I’m actually a lot less responsible than I used to be because my child is an adult now. Many of my responsibilities are things I have chosen to carry.

I’ve encountered the kinds of free spirits who move on in a state of carefree joy, with no concern for the mess they leave in their wake. Freedom is always going to be tempered by your ability to care and your unwillingness to hurt, use, or abandon other people. I’m a profoundly relationship-orientated spirit and I’m in it for the long haul. I find my happiness in deep and long lasting connections with people. Doing that requires collaboration and compromise. I have no interest in being free to dance away as soon as I’m bored, or annoyed or things get difficult. I’ve had that done to me, and I do not like it.

When people describe themselves as free spirits, it can often be with complete unawareness of the privileges they have – especially health, money and leisure. It’s easy to be a free spirit when you can afford to do whatever you feel like. It’s hard to present yourself to the world as a free spirit when you’re working multiple jobs to try and keep your family alive. It’s worth being alert to feelings of superiority around ideas of not being a sheep, not being obliged to go along with the crowd. Most of us have limited options and cannot simply choose to be free.

There are other things I am bound by, as well. A sense of community and of other people being entitled to my care and support, especially. A sense of duty towards the living world that means I cannot go carelessly on my way. 

I have no doubt that the majority of people who consider themselves to be free spirits also consider that to be a good and virtuous way of being in the world. It can have everything to do with wanting to create, wander, love and exist lightly. Being a free spirit off grid is really hard work though. Being a self employed free spirit is no kind of easy option. It’s important to ask what we want to be free from, and what we want the freedom to do, and what the price tag is on all of that. If freedom means that someone else pays for it, then it isn’t really freedom at all, its privilege.

I prefer the idea that we can’t be free until all of us are free.

Make mediocre things because that’s awesome

There is a famous Neil Gaiman talk in which he says that whatever happens, you should make good art. I am here to argue. The idea of ‘good art’ can be pretty intimidating, especially when it feels like everything is on fire. When you and/or the rest of the world is in crisis, making good art can feel like a lot of pressure. 

It is good to make things. Make the things that cheer and comfort you. That might not be art at all – it might be lunch. It might be rubbishy comfort food lunch, it might be awesome legendary lunch, it’s all good. Make the lunch you need right now.

Make a pillow fort. Make a bigger pile of cats. Make a mess. Make something so that you know you are alive and real and able to change the world around you. 

If you want to make art, then make art, but don’t put yourself under pressure to make good art. Do what you can. You might not have the skills and experience yet to be able to make good art, and some of us need to spend years making shit art first, and that’s fine. Make what you want to make, for the joy of it, not to meet some imagined standard. Maybe you’ll develop the skills to make really good stuff and maybe you won’t but either way it’s fine.

There’s a particular magic around making bad art, and being able to enjoy that and share it. I’ve had some wonderful bad poetry sessions in my time. I delight in bad taxidermy, and terrible paintings of animals by historical people who had clearly not seen horses from the side, or lions… There can be utter joy in the cheerful sharing of rubbish things. There’s release and relief in not having to be good. How much sweeter and gentler life is when you don’t have to be brilliant, when it is safe to laugh at yourself and you can enjoy offering up your crapness for other people to laugh along with you.

What I tell people at the start of bad poetry workshops, is that everyone can write bad poetry. It’s totally accessible. The more awful the poem, the better. If you accidentally write a good one it’s not a disaster, no one will think less of you for that. Then we get in there, and write deliberately terrible things, and laugh a lot, and relish the rubbishness. There’s joy in it, and freedom. 

One of the easiest ways to write a really bad poem is to be self important, grandiose, overblown – like someone trying too hard to make good art. There are in fact no guarantees that trying really hard to make good art will lead to something good – you might just end up with something awkwardly self conscious and pretentious instead. There’s no point focusing on the intention to make good art. It’s a lot better to focus on the pleasure of the process and the scope to do something interesting or enjoyable.

Rights and responsibilities

One sign of a healthy society is that the rights and responsibilities of people are entirely connected. My freedom should be limited by my not having too much impact on your freedom. Your safety should be in part my responsibility. When this goes wrong, people suffer and we cease to have a meaningful social contract with each other.

American gun law is a case in point. The right to own guns has, for far too long, trumped the right of people to be safe. It’s especially hideous that children being safe in school is considered a less important right than that gun owners be free from responsibilities.

In the UK, we’re increasingly seeing things like the right to affordable food and housing being less important than the rights of a relative few people to underpay workers or make a massive profit from rent.

While covid restrictions have been awful to deal with, I do not believe that my personal freedoms are more important than other people not dying. I also recognise that my not catching a horrible illness, not enduring being sick, or facing the risk of death or long term health problems also involves other people upholding those restrictions. By collectively limiting our freedoms over the last year we have been able to keep each other safer. And again, there are issues around the ‘rights’ of certain businesses to keep making profits from unsafe workspaces at a cost to everyone’s health.

All too often we’re persuaded that we can curtail other people’s freedoms while leaving our own unharmed. The brexit fiasco has been an unpleasant illustration of this. The desire to restrict freedom of movement for other people has of course restricted freedom of movement for UK citizens. When we don’t see our rights and responsibilities as interconnected, it is much easier to persuade us that someone else can have their rights removed without it costing us anything. The suggestion that we step away from human rights laws so that the government can punish specific people it doesn’t like should, surely invite the question of which freedoms the rest of us are prepared to lose.

Because once someone isn’t entitled to a fair trial, none of us can be sure that we are. Once someone isn’t entitled to privacy, none of us are. Once the police have a free pass on committing crimes in certain contexts, none of us can be confident of being dealt with fairly.

Ask what your freedoms cost other people and not just the people around you, but also people in other countries, and the environment and other living beings. Ask what your responsibilities uphold – whether they are part of a social contract that tries to balance everyone’s interests, or whether you are being exploited for someone else’s unfair advantage.

The joys of walking for transport

I’ve never driven a car, and I’ve not lived in a household with a car since my mid twenties. I’ve walked to shop, and carried groceries home. I’ve used trains and buses, and occasionally I get lifts, but mostly I’ve walked, or cycled. I don’t really enjoy cycling so these days I mostly get places by walking to them. Where I live was picked out with that in mind.

Most of the time, walking for transport is a joy. I get outside, I get exercise, I see wildlife, I meet people. While I’m walking, I get time to process ideas and feelings and come up with ideas. If I’m walking to work or to meetings, I get time to ready myself. I arrive calm and mentally prepared and I am never held up by traffic. At the end, I get to do my digesting on the way home, and I usually arrive home calm and on top of things.

I do not have to do radical things to feel adventurous. Every now and then I end up having to walk in adverse weather conditions – in snow, and ice and heavy rain. I have the kit for this, although as downpours increase in violence, I get soaked through more often. I do not need to seek out mountains to feel a bit heroic. Some weeks, all I have to do is handle the regular shopping in the conditions around me. I do not have to challenge myself with grand gestures to feel alive. I feel alive every time I’m going somewhere.

Often, the green answers are presented as losses. Could you give up your car? Could you do without it? As though the car makes us better off, and poverty is what we get in its absence. I’ve spent enough mornings walking past lines of traffic, seeing the faces of people stuck in their cars. None of them are smiling. I’ve got stress free easy movement, peace of mind, lower expenses and a healthier body because I walk. Every time I walk past a traffic queue I am reminded of the riches inherent in my choices.

There is so much freedom and independence to be had if you can set of from your own door and head out into the world on your own two feet. We could leave the roads for those who need them – for those who do not have the privilege of being able to walk, for the emergency services, for the movement of stuff too heavy to carry about on shoulders. We could empty our roads and fill our pavements, and put calmer human interactions into our days. We could improve our air quality and our personal health. It remains a mystery to me why more people don’t see the freedom and wealth inherent in walking as more desirable than the cost and stress of being in traffic.

Too much responsibility

As a teen I really took on board the idea that we can only have freedom and power in so far as we are willing to take responsibility. On the whole, I’ve found that a useful approach to life. As with all things, you can end up with too much of it. Too much responsibility does not translate into too much power, or too much freedom. There’s a point somewhere on the scale when a lot of responsibility means a loss of power and a closing down of options.

If responsibility is taken by someone who does not have the means to deliver on it, there are going to be problems. Being given responsibilities in a job, or a relationship, but denied the resources to deal with those responsibilities, is a crushing thing.

There are things we definitely cannot and should not be made responsible for. Other people’s inner lives are a case in point. We are responsible for how we treat each other. We owe each other basic care and respect. We owe it to each other to listen and try to factor in each other’s needs and issues. However, too much responsibility for someone else’s feelings and thoughts puts you in a place of powerlessness and may be deeply harming. If I am kind, careful and respectful and it still isn’t enough… If it is my job to magically know what others want and need, without being told… If it is my job to twist myself in knots trying to give someone else what they want… responsibility becomes a noose around my neck. I’ve been here, and making a person this responsible for someone else’s feelings is a form of emotional control, and pretty abusive stuff.

Sometimes, if we take on too much responsibility, we deny someone else the opportunity to grow and flourish. Parents who try to do everything for their kids mean well, but do not allow their children to discover and own their own power. If we take on too much responsibility for someone else’s life, we can take power from them, undermine their dignity and sense of autonomy.

If we make ourselves responsible for things we cannot have any say in, we can drive ourselves mad. A person suffering from anxiety may feel that everything has to be perfect, even when many things are beyond their control. Not being able to make things perfect may cause a great deal of fear. On its own, this may seem preposterous, but when you factor in what happens to people when they are made responsible for things beyond their control, continuing with those expectations even after the situation has ended, is not so irrational. Who knows who else might want the same level of responsibility from you?

It is good to pause now and then and ask what we’ve shouldered, and whether we should still be carrying it.

Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.

Freedom, responsibility and community

I ran into existential philosophy in my teens, and with it the idea that you can only have freedom in so far as you are willing to take responsibility. It’s a notion I’ve carried with me into everything I do. What it gets you, is a very different sense of what freedom even means.

All too often, people take freedom to mean selfishness and the scope to do what one will, act on whims, run off alone and generally be antisocial. Now, I’m very much with the wiccans on this one – an it harm none, do what you will. Freedom without being alert to harm is not any kind of good at all. Freedom that doesn’t care about harm easily turns into abuse and exploitation. We can think about how big companies treat the planet and living things. We can consider the freedoms the rich have and who pays for those.

There’s a lot of noise in politics at the moment about the way in which those who have should not be called upon to support the have-nots. Freedom from social responsibility for the rich is not something I understand. When it manifests, it is framed as a good thing for those being relieved of their responsibility, but what does that do? What does it mean to feel no responsibility for anyone else? No duty of care? No ownership of the suffering of others?

When we undertake to be responsible for each other’s wellbeing, we create community. When we are willing to care enough to lift up those who are less well off than us, we increase the amount of good in the world. When we see ourselves as involved with and invested with the lives around us – human and non-human alike, we are rewarded by our own sense of connection. The person who engages and takes responsibility is never alone. The person who can only care about themselves can only seek comfort in wealth and material goods, and these things do not provide comfort.

Rather than talking about freedom from responsibilities, we need to explore the very different kind of freedom you get by taking responsibility for other lives. It is an honour and a blessing to hold that kind of responsibility. It is a place of power and openness, and it lifts the person who gives as much as the person who receives.

Where do we stop?

Sometimes it is important to ask where something is going and where it will stop. Politicians tend to erode rights rather than taking them away in massive, easily spotted slashes. Selling off our assets bit by bit. Where will we stop when profit is more important than planet? Where will we stop with pollution? When there’s an obvious trajectory and a run of small moves along it, asking about when we stop is a very good idea.

However, where does this stop can also be a derailment tactic. I’ve seen it used repeatedly in this way. What happens is that the trajectory imagined is not a logical one – take Jeremy Irons’ bloody stupid suggestion that allowing gay marriage would mean fathers could marry their sons. This is ‘where will it end?’ logic. Pick a ridiculous outcome that will make people feel uncomfortable and pronounce it as the logical conclusion of letting the thing happen.

Then, rather than talking about the real issue, you have to deal with the derailment. You have to explain that this is not a logical progression. Further, these derailments often have a sting in them – note how the Irons unpleasantness creates a link between being gay, and incest. The derailer will often have a go at invalidating the centre of the argument by such associations. What next, giving the same rights to animals? (Because this lot are so close to animals that I see it as a logical progression…)

The other thing the derailer may do is to make some issue of theirs centre stage, or some imagined fear. This distracts from the actual issues. Take for example, the suggestion that we should be licensing acid to make it harder to buy. This is because throwing acid in the faces of people has happened a lot in London this year. Response: Where will it stop? Are we going to ban all dangerous chemicals? What about my drain cleaner? (I paraphrase). Now, to my mind, the right not to have acid thrown in your face should quite obviously be more important than the right to pour dangerous chemicals into the water system. The freedom of the person who is not directly affected by anything at this stage should not be more important than the wellbeing of people who have already been hurt, and the people who realistically will be hurt in the future. How much are we inconvenienced if buying chemicals for home use requires jumping through a hoop or two? Far less than we are by having those same chemicals used as weapons.

Of course what complicates things is that oppressive governments play with this in sinister ways. Fear of terrorism is a popular way of getting a population to accept monitoring, loss of privacy, restriction of rights and so forth. There’s never going to be a tidy answer here.

On the other hand, are we looking at a restriction of personal freedom that represents social progress? The loss of freedom to privately assault one’s spouse is a loss I think we should all feel good about. The loss of the right to keep our data private is an example in the other direction. Very little good can come from it, and in the wrong hands it can do considerable damage. I think the only answer is to look hard at what’s at truly stake, and pick your fights carefully.

Controlling the movement of people

For the mediaeval serf, movement wasn’t an option unless your Lord moved you. If you didn’t like how your feudal master behaved, you could not vote with your feet. You had to stay where you were put, and live and work there your whole life. You could be moved of course if you were marched into a war, but you wouldn’t get any say in that, either.

These days we don’t need permission from Barons and Counts to move around – at least not within the countries of our birth. We generally need permission to move country, and countries want to control who can move where. Young, qualified, able bodied people are more welcome than others. The rich are always welcome to move and the poor are discouraged. Unless we need them for something. Plenty of industrial projects have been built on the backs of very poor workers. From the Irish navvies digging the canals to the modern Eastern European fruit picker, those with power like to move those with less power about to work for them.

It’s not so very different to the mediaeval model. Companies replace baronies, and the scales are bigger, but the effects are much the same. Now if you want to change country it’s not a baron who needs to write a letter of consent, but a company that will employ you.

We’re told it’s for our own good, and our own safety – to make sure we don’t have too many, and that we have the ones who are needed, and to keep the dangerous ones out. Our mediaeval peasant friends were told that it was about eliminating vagrancy and crime, and it meant there wouldn’t be rough, unruly people from other places coming into their place and making it all worse. Nothing much changes.

Much of the terror we experience in the west is home grown. We’re encouraged to think it sneaks in across borders to attack us from outside – something other, that we could keep out if we tried hard enough. Americans are more likely to be killed by other Americans than by anyone from ‘away’. We’re more likely to die to air pollution, traffic accidents, heart attacks and our own lifestyle choices than we are to a terrorist.

Freedom of movement can really undermine exploitation. If workers can move, then screwing someone poorer becomes that bit harder. It can help people remove themselves from wars – which are generally harder to sustain when no one is there to fight. It can help people get out of toxic systems, and escape persecution. Freedom of movement has the potential to be a source of good for the vast majority of us. It’s never been popular with feudal overlords because it undermines their power.

Contact and Consent

To be able to give consent, in any context, we need to be making a choice freely, from a position of being properly informed about what we might or might not be consenting to. It needs to be as possible to say yes as it is to say no. I have a lot of issues around political consent, and the differences between what you’re told you’re voting for and what happens when people get into power. I think manifestoes should be legally binding.

For the last four years or so, learning to say ‘no’ when I want to has been a big part of my journey. I still have learning to do around how I manage other people’s needs, and learning to say ‘no’ when I’m exhausted and so forth – but  generally I’ve been getting better at all this. I avoid situations where I do not have the right to refuse, and I keep away from people who have dubious ideas about what consent even means. I am more well, and more at peace in myself as a direct consequence.

As I’ve commented before, I’m not a massively tactile person. Arty, folky, Pagan and Green communities can all be rather huggy places, and some days I manage that better than others. If it’s meant, and felt, then a hug is something I’m usually fine with. What I struggle with is hugging people I don’t really know, and faking what for me, would properly be a small emotional intimacy.

It occurs to me that I’m usually very passive around social gestures of affection. Even with the people I would be glad to hug, I wait to see what they do, more usually, and I don’t offer. The notable exceptions are the people with whom I have deep and well-established relationships anyway.

I could become someone who can comfortably offer and seek affection. It’s something I intend to explore a bit, picking people I trust and feel safe with, people who speak to my heart and with whom I would like to be more open. I will probably be painfully awkward and like a creature with far too many elbows, but I would like to be able to do this gracefully, and my only option is to learn.

The freedom to say ‘no’ is only a part of what consent means. Now I need to start working on the freedom to also say yes.