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Freedom and democracy: Two sides of the same coin

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Tue June 16, 2013


The public debate which is currently being waged inside the T&T Guardian and between that newspaper and the T&T Express, is a fascinating mix of issues and personalities. Much heat is evident, generated to a large degree by individual vanities, personal and corporate, but there is an insufficiency of light mainly because the discussion is being conducted at cross-purposes. The protagonists are screaming at each other but in a language which is not common to both of them. The T&T Guardian trumpets its position as a “guardian of democracy”; the T&T Express beats the “drum of freedom”.{{more}}

Democracy and freedom are distinct through related concepts. Meaningful, popular, representative and participatory democracy is inconceivable without individual liberty or freedom. But “democracy” and “freedom” respectively asks and answers fundamentally different questions, namely:

(1) First, the “democracy” query: Who is to determine what am I to do or be?

(2) Secondly, the “freedom/liberty” question: What are the boundaries, if any, to be placed upon what I am to do or be?

The first question (democracy) relates to who governs, who determines policy, and who sets boundaries on the individual’s scope of action or being. The second issue (liberty/freedom) concerns an absence of restraint on one’s conduct/action or at least the extent of the restraint ___ the boundaries ___ to be placed on one’s conduct/action.

One’s perspective on the origin or source of one’s liberty/freedom may influence the extent to which one is resolute in the promotion or defence of liberty/freedom. Those who truly believe that all fundamental, individual rights (the right to life, to privacy, to property, and freedom of expression, of assembly, etc.) are God-given or natural rights, are likely to be uncompromising in refusing the imposition of any restraint, save and except that which is absolutely necessary for the very enjoyment of those rights/freedoms or one or the other of them. Those who hold that all fundamental, individual rights are social rights determined by the society through a representative and participatory democracy, are likely to permit, or accommodate themselves to, legitimate and effective compromises on the absoluteness of these individual rights/freedoms. Of course, there are still other persons who insist that there is at least one fundamental God-given or natural right, that is the right to life, and that all other rights/freedoms are social in nature. Accordingly, variations of responses may depend, at least in part, on one’s conception of the source/origin of liberty/freedom.

Whatever the source/origin of individual rights/liberties/freedoms, once established in the constitutional framework of the society, are inalienable in the precise sense that they belong to the individual and are not transferable to another.

In the current debate in Trinidad and Tobago, the T&T Guardian seems to be emphasising democracy without which freedom is not really realisable. Democracy provides the basis for orderliness; the absence of it inevitably leads to anarchy and disorder. Freedom cannot thrive in disorder, anarchy, or anomie (normlessness). On the other hand, the T&T Express appears to be extolling the value or virtue of individual liberty/freedom to such an extent that it is prepared to open the door of freedom of expression (freedom of the press) to irresponsibility. Its caveat in this regard, however, suggests that “this freedom to be irresponsible” ought to be avoided or contained but does not offer any signposts as to the extent to which this “irresponsibility” ought to be permitted.

It may well be that the T&T Express in its now famous Editorial did not articulate its “freedom to be irresponsible” with the requisite clarity. Some relevant queries accordingly arise, including: Does freedom of expression include a freedom to lie? Is a freedom to lie or to publish an untruth not legally permissible (even if morally reprehensible) if it does no harm or damage to another individual or the society? Should the freedom to be irresponsible in speech/writing not be a species of freedom of expression to be restrained if it is reasonably required so to do in the interest of certain specific public purposes and also reasonably justifiable in a democratic society?

Two practical issues frequently arise in any consideration of freedom/liberty. First, is freedom/liberty a “value” to be preferred to other “values” (democracy, security, jobs, education, health, housing, etc.) in society. Where does freedom/liberty rank on the totem pole of individual and social “values”? And are there any trade-offs to be made, and to what extent, between freedom/liberty, on one hand, and any other “value” on the other? Secondly, a confusion exists among some commentators between freedom/liberty and capacity. I have the freedom (in the sense there is no legal or other restraint imposed upon me by another or the society) to run the 100 metres in 9.58 seconds. But since I do not possess the physical and mental capacity of Usain Bolt to do so, I simply cannot do it. It is easy to conjure up other examples, including in the material sphere of life, to illustrate the distinction between freedom and capacity.

Answers to these and similar queries or issues would undoubtedly shed light on the current freedom/democracy debate in Trinidad and Tobago. It is truly an important conversation which ought not to be trivialised or encumbered by smokescreens.

Once we accept that freedom and democracy are different sides of the same social coin, we are likely to have greater clarity on all the issues involved. In the process, we ought to avoid all the other side-shows. The main event is the conjoined edifice of freedom and democracy; it is not a theatrical production, however, interesting may be the cast of “dramatis personae”. Passionate polemics provide good copy but at times like these we ought to reflect on the poetic musings of W.B. Yeats: “The best of all lack conviction; the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In such circumstances, the centre will not hold and things will fall apart! Two great newspapers (Guardian and Express) and a magnificent nation, Trinidad and Tobago, are too important for all this unnecessary bad blood! We need light, not heat!