Some words are flexible. Love, for example, might encompass your feelings for ice cream, the relationship you have with a grandparent and the things you do at night with your spouse. Some words are even more flexible, encompassing not just diverse concepts but diametrically opposed concepts.
For example, you might organize a protest for freedom without anyone else having the slightest clue what, specifically, you want. You can crown your automobile advertisements with freedom, you can anoint your Marxism with the sacred oil of freedom, you can even use it to lend a sanctified air to your fried potato snacks. You can call your preference to pollute the air freedom because nobody can tell you what to do while also insisting that you need freedom to coerce others into participating in patriotic and religious rituals. It is a freedom to abort a fetus and a freedom to exist for fetuses. Freedom hangs like a giant, 1980’s style gold medallion, upon the carefully permed chest hairs of both the labor movement and the “right to work” movement.
The closely related concept we call liberation follows similar lines. According to Victorian intellectuals like Rudyard Kipling, it was the duty of the enlightened world to liberate savages from their science-denying superstitions, human sacrifices and plural marriages. Some of these “savages” took the completely opposite stance – Mahatma Gandhi for example argued that Indians needed to be liberated from Western domination so that they might embrace cultural and religious traditions, like the caste system. Liberation theology seeks to liberate the poor and oppressed through participation in the Sandinista revolution while post-modern thinkers worry about liberating us from the “oppression of freedom” and Thomas Sowell of the Chicago School of economic theory yearns to liberate the animal spirits of the market.
Freedom and liberation can be, and usually are, broad, contradictory and effectively meaningless in serious discussion. They are the wet dreams of a propagandist, the ultimate safe but inspirational nonsense for an advertiser, an excellent tool when you wish to lie to yourself. Let’s break these words down step by step and see how they grew so pernicious.
First, we need to decide if freedom and liberation are actually separate ideas. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, liberation is “the act of becoming free.” Freedom is “being able to live in the way you want.” The distinctions seem trivial and, indeed, we can eliminate the word “liberate” from the English language simply by using the word “free” as a verb.
That said, there seems to me to be a difference in connotation. This might very well be a bias unique to myself but freedom, I think, is more often used in a positive, active sense. That is, somebody powerful and vigorous would describe the state of their being as “free” more often than they would say “liberated” while a sick or marginalized person would tend to lean in the opposite direction. We might then think of “freedom” then as the nonsense of a happy or aggressive person and liberation as the nonsense of an unhappy or timid person. Since the words are practically identical and I’m not interested in discussing timid or aggressive people in this article, let’s combine the ideas into a new word, “freeberation.”
Freeberation is so often nonsense because it contains its own opposite. Take for example the freeberation present in most modern constitutions regarding searches and seizures. “Freedom of searches and seizures” or if you prefer “liberty of searches and seizures,” can be interpreted with equal validity to mean “freeberation to search and seize” or “freeberation from searches and seizures” even though the freeberation to search and seize and the freeberation from searches and seizures are exact opposites.
These freeberations to and freeberations from are always, without exception, mutually exclusive. My freedom to speak my mind, universally and without exception, cancels the freedom of someone else from hearing things they might not like. My liberty from searches and siezures universally and without exception cancels the freedom of investigators to pursue criminals wherever they wish. This is why, when a constitution puts forward a freeberation it always specifies if that freeberation is positive (freeberation to) or negative (freeberation from) because, if it didn’t, the law would be just as meaningless and nonsensical as cold heat, dark brightness or the sign that protester at the top of this post felt the need to wave about.
At this point I admit we can rescue freeberation from the steaming piles of bull it usually inhabits simply by specifying if we want a freeberation to do something or a freeberation from something. “Freedom of expression” means literally nothing, but freedom to express is meaningful and, likewise, freedom from expression is not a logical absurdity. And we could shut down the propagandists, advertisers and idealists to a large extent if we got them to describe their freeberations in “to” or “from” terms.
But we often don’t. Our libertarians declared themselves the champions of freedom, our Marxists declared themselves the champions of liberation and our imperialists sailed into Japanese ports carrying the sacred cargo of freeburation, contradictions be damned. I think it’s safe to say our Marxists and Libertarians use freeburation in its nonsense form because they are either confused or because, more commonly, they want a weasel word with which to eternally move their goalposts and explain away their failures. However, the imperialists in Japan (and China and Korea, to lesser extents) were probably not just being dishonest or stupid with their freeburation lectures.
According to Choi Kyeong-ok’s excellent book “Translation and Japanese Modernity,” the 19th century Japanese initially interpreted freedom as “ja-yoo” (自由). Ja-yoo meant, in practical terms, “doing whatever I feel like and to hell with the consequences, to hell with my neighbors and to hell with my duties.” Unsurprisingly, the Japanese were not overly enamored of this “freedom” idea.
The Japanese interpreted freedom in this very negative light because the imperialists didn’t understand their own definitions. The Dutch and English and Americans consistently described freedoms to do things while forgetting the huge numbers of freedoms from they had built into their traditions. The Japanese had no background for sorting out the freeberation from and freeberation to-style contradictory nonsense and thus interpreted it in a purely freeberation to sense. Pure freeberation to is, of course, a horrible idea they were right to fear and reject.
At first this seems to be, on the part of the imperialists, the same dishonest and/or ignorant nonsense libertarians and Marxists engage in to this day, but I think they deserve more of a pass than our modern propagandists and idealists. This is because, in the 18th and 19th centuries, freeberation actually referred to a relatively stable (though logically unrelated) set of freeberations to and freeberations from. Namely, the imperialists were talking about the specific list of discrete ideas set out by John Locke and the Baron de Montesquieu. They were, in other words, not talking about a coherent logical concept when they lectured the Japanese on freeberation, but to a potpourri of traditions that seemed natural to the imperialists but had no contextual meaning to the Japanese. Freeberation didn’t begin to make sense until enough Japanese people had read Locke or Montesquieu to figure out the traditional hodgepodge of stuff the Dutch called freedom.
We can, theoretically, recover this logically disparate but specific use of freeberation in the modern day, but that would require we understand the particular traditional foundations of our beliefs. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I don’t hold out much hope that labor unions, anti-mask protesters, Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party types will bother to understand the traditional foundations of their movements, much less specify the freeberations to and from they want.
In summation, freeberation unspecified is pure, self-contradictory bull with literally no meaning. We might fix this by specifying if we want a freeberation to or freeberation from something specific. We might likewise impose some sort of meaning on the term by referring to a specific set of traditions. However, absent these specifications, it’s probably best to assume anyone inspiring you with the majesty of freedom or liberation is either confused, trying to con you or both.
Thank you for the article. I definitely agree that ‘freedom’ is one of those vague terms thrown around , and we often use such terminology loosely without precision. Without an ‘apples to apples’ agreement of the definition, it is difficult to have meaningful dialogue.
I am not sure I understand what freeberation means, is it the contradictions between ‘positive’ (freedom to) and ‘negative’ freedom’ (freedom from) ?
There’s definitely a contradiction between positive and negative freedoms, but I called it freeberation just because I thought it sounded funny and because I was tired of writing “freedom and/or liberation.” 😉
Dear Ben and Andrew,
Hello! I have taken more time to pay this blog a visit, and I have enjoyed reading Ben well-reasoned post here about the connotative and denotative laxity in the use of such a much-bandied word as “freedom”. Yes, I concur and second both of you.
By the way, Ben, I would like to inform you of a typo in your sentence “My liberty from searches and siezures universally…”
Wishing both of you a lovely weekend!
Thank you for stopping by:)
You are welcome.
Thanks for the heads up!
Haha! My own comment also contains a typo, as I omitted the apostrophe and s in my phrase “Ben well-reasoned post”.
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This is a great posst thanks