What is Freedom? (12): Uniqueness?

“Freedom breeds uniqueness” says Venkatesh Rao. And indeed, freedom means the ability to make different choices and therefore allows people to head off in different directions. Conversely, nothing gives a better clue of oppression and dictatorship than displays of uniformity and collectivism.

However, could it not be the case that people all agree on things and have come to this universal agreement in freedom? When something is true, we should all accept it uniformly if we are rational human beings that think freely. Hence, people who look like they’re the pinnacle of unfreedom because of the consensus they display, are in fact free. Freedom is then not an appearance but a capacity, namely the capacity to make a voluntary and informed choice between propositions. This capacity can lead to diversity, but also to uniformity.

Sounds obvious, but often we label people unfree merely on the basis of how they look. Often when we see conformism there is in fact freedom. The rational consensus cited above may appear to us as something less than rational and based on group pressure or confirmation bias. Buddhist monks may sound as if they are merely reciting the same age old mantras they were taught by their elders whereas their detachment is in fact a form of freedom. The burka wearing Muslima may look like a victim of religiously imposed conformism but perhaps she made a free and informed choice to be what she is.

Hence, uniqueness may well be a sign of freedom, but freedom is more than just apparent uniqueness. Uniqueness can even be a cause of unfreedom. The urge to be unique can lead people to torture themselves in order to achieve something, or can lead them to reflexively oppose themselves to others (as we see in some subcultures). There’s nothing free about the compulsive effort to distinguish oneself or about knee-jerk opposition to others.

More posts in this series are here.

What Are Human Rights? (42): Individual, Not Individualistic Rights

Opponents of human rights often define them as expressions of the individualism and antagonism that is typical of the West. Human rights are viewed as claims against society made by individuals who want to be left alone and who need rights in order to live their peculiar kind of lives free from the intolerance and interference of the larger community. As such, human rights are believed to be incompatible with, detrimental to or at least utterly useless in non-Western societies that are more collectivist, more communitarian, more focused on harmony and less interested in protecting and fostering peculiar lifestyles.

I don’t want to argue for or against these characterizations of Western and non-Western societies, although I do believe that they are wrong and simplistic. I’m also not expressing myself about the relative moral value of individualism and antagonism as opposed to community. What I want to do here is object to the portrayal of human rights as individualistic rights or as rights that promote individualism. Although human rights are the rights of individuals and not the rights of groups, there’s nothing in human rights that makes societies necessarily more individualistic or antagonistic. Many human rights are designed to protect communities, bind them together, and allow them to co-exist with other communities. That’s the case for the right to religious freedom and the assembly and association rights, but also, perhaps less obviously, for freedom of speech. A major function of speech is persuasion. People speak in order to persuade and bring outsiders into a group that holds certain beliefs. This is even more evident in the case of the right to political participation. I don’t understand how anyone can fail to see the importance of community in the system of human rights.

Human rights even have a collectivist side to them. Collectivism is

any philosophic, political, religious, economic, or social outlook that emphasizes the interdependence of every human being. (source)

Indeed, everyone’s rights are dependent on everyone else’s rights. Few if any of my rights make sense if I’m the only one having them or the only one being able to exercise them. If I can speak but nobody else can, then what is the point of me speaking? I will just be talking to walls. If I have freedom of religion but nobody else has, then with whom will I worship and congregate? If I have a right to a fair trial but everyone else is forced to give false testimony or no testimony at all, then I won’t have a fair trial. Etc. The effectiveness of my rights depends on everyone else having equally effective rights. Individualistic rights are therefore nonsensical.

A remark that’s probably superfluous: I’m in no way defending collectivist politics or disparaging the value of individualism. My point is limited to the proper definition of human rights. Calling them individualistic rights or tools for the promotion of individualism at the expense of community, harmony and belonging is just plain wrong and betrays a lack of understanding of their true nature. On the other hand, pointing to the collectivist strand in the system of human rights doesn’t imply a value judgment about collectivism vis-à-vis individualism. It’s just one strand among many, and one that should be mentioned in order to counter some common mischaracterizations of human rights.

(By the way, Marx as well was guilty of these mischaracterizations).

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (19): Psychological Reactions to the Threat of Disease

There sure are many reasons why countries become or fail to become democracies. In this blog series I’ve mentioned climate, geography, inequality, external triggers, prosperity, religion, resources, education etc. An original approach to this question looks at psychological reactions to the threat of disease:

Conventional explanations for a country’s political system would draw on its history, economy and culture. Randy Thornhill from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, however, thinks it might be determined by the threat of disease in a region. This triggers psychological biases, which originally evolved to prevent illness spreading, that also hinder the emergence of democratic ideals. (source)

The logic is that people develop psychological reactions – call them biases – which they need to protect themselves against infectious diseases, and these reactions in turn make it difficult to adopt democracy, individualism and an attitude of criticism of authority.

The starting point for Thornhill and Fincher’s thinking is a basic human survival instinct: the desire to avoid illness. In a region where disease is rife, they argue, fear of contagion may cause people to avoid outsiders, who may be carrying a strain of infection to which they have no immunity. Such a mindset would tend to make a community as a whole xenophobic, and might also discourage interaction between the various groups within a society – the social classes, for instance – to prevent unnecessary contact that might spread disease.

What is more, Thornhill and Fincher argue, it could encourage people to conform to social norms and to respect authority, since adventurous behaviour may flout rules of conduct set in place to prevent contamination. Taken together, these attitudes would discourage the rich and influential from sharing their wealth and power with those around them, and inhibit the rest of the population from going against the status quo and questioning the authority of those above them. This is clearly not a situation conducive to democracy. (source, source)

What is, initially useful for public health, becomes detrimental for self-government:

[S]pecific behavioural manifestations of collectivism (e.g. ethnocentrism, conformity) can inhibit the transmission of pathogens; and so we hypothesize that collectivism (compared with individualism) will more often characterize cultures in regions that have historically had higher prevalence of pathogens. Drawing on epidemiological data and the findings of worldwide cross-national surveys of individualism/collectivism, our results support this hypothesis: the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism. (source)