Recently, my attention was drawn to this music video from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion that celebrates Canadian culture as a place where you’re free to be yourself. The idea promoted for Canada’s 150 is that regardless of our ethnicity, religion, sexuality, or use of profanity, we should all just be free to be ourselves – that’s what it means to be truly free. (Before you click the video link, please note that it contains mature subject matter.)
This seems to be one of the mantras nurturing contemporary Canadian culture: Canadian society is an inclusive, diverse nation where everyone is free to be exactly who they define themselves to be. “When we’re free to be ourselves, then we’re free!” This is what will make a country work well.
Diversity can be a great thing. It can be a great thing about being Canadian. But, the message of the video needs to be challenged: does diversity require the absolute individual autonomy to be myself and to require you to not only tolerate me, but affirm me? It’s an idea reinforced in many places in culture, not least by the man I saw this summer in Toronto wearing this t-shirt:
Is my life only mine? Am I free to be myself? Is this the only way to be free? To express myself, to do what makes me feel good? Is it possible within society?
Even the Simpson’s knew twenty years ago that there is something wrong with this sentiment:
John Locke, that champion of individual liberty, knew that the right for you to swing your arm had to stop at my nose. Freedom isn’t free of content or constraint. Even John Mill in his classic treatise On Liberty, wrote that society constrains our freedom in necessary ways.
Although people should have freedom to have whatever ideas they want and to express them with liberty, he conceded that there is a difference between opinions and actions. Freedom of action finds its limit when it causes harm to others: ‘The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.’
The absolute freedom of self-expression becomes impossible when your freedom bumps up against mine. What constitutes harm, and therefore a limit to freedom? Who gets to decide? Whose freedom is curtailed in order to protect the freedom of another? Must certain freedoms be privileged over others? These are pivotal questions for Canadian society today.
(And why, in a world so conditioned by naturalistic determinism, are we so quick to assert the notion of freedom anyway? The logical inconsistency seems to have passed us by. But that’s for another day…)
My life is far from mine alone. I belong to myself, to God, and to others; I cannot live in society and express absolute freedom. Eventually, someone will remind me that I am not free to snap their undies.