Reading time: 3:00 | Nothing don’t mean nothing honey if it ain’t free.
For Janis Joblin’s Booby McGee being not constrained to anything was his way of exercising freedom. Others didn’t agree and saw Janis Joplin as a threat to their values (values are often confused with rights or freedom), which were tied to many things and thoughts she didn’t care much about, even despised. Today, Janis Joplin is an icon of diversity, as are many other artists of her time.
When we talk about freedom, many of us think of things like the freedom to travel (denied to the East Germans until 9 November 1989), the right to chose your profession, the suffrage granted to women, or the right to marry your significant other (in many countries denied to gay fellows). Many people understand the right to carry a weapon in the USA as natural law. Many Germans believe the right to drive as fast as they want on the Autobahn is an existential expression of their freedom. We certainly agree, living your liberty is a diverse thing by itself, causing myriads of discussions.
But, as it stands today, diversity is under attack across the board, being the right to choose your gender or sexuality and loss of biodiversity the most notable ones.
That is because freedom often is understood as a principle that only applies to me, my peer group, my people, my way of life. To accept or even value other people’s or species’ way of life, such as a non-binary human existence or the lives of ordinary insects, needs a more profound understanding of diversity’s power. Many people don’t recognise that. They often feel threatened when they experience the diversity that feels alien to them—for instance, the lawn of a front garden. A diverse, rough pasture that can sequester carbon and feed millions of insects and other animals is an alien experience for many neighbours. Inevitably, that will ultimately lead to social exclusion if one refuses to mow the lawn weekly. Freedom and diversity are the two sides of the same coin. More freedom, naturally, comes with more diversity.
There are two ways to understand freedom. The freedom to be let alone, not to be constricted in your liberty by the government, is called negative freedom. Positive freedom, however, is the rights that are given to you by the constitution, the rule of law: the right to assemble, the right to speak, the right to take part in the shared power of democracy, and many more.
Francis Fukuyama writes in his trailblazing book Identity, chapter 5 Revolutions of Dignity:
“Modern liberal democracies institutionalize these principles of freedom and equality by creating capable states that are nonetheless constrained by a rule of law and democratic accountability. The rule of law limits power by granting citizens certain basic rights—that is, in certain domains such as speech, association, property, and religious belief the state may not restrict individual choice. “
The rule of law, it seems, is the defining frame of freedom. For populist leaders and authoritarian regimes, the rule of law has become too lax on many issues they consider dangerous to their power. In Poland, Hungary, even the UK, they are rolling back laws and thus constrain the freedom of minorities—often sugar-coating it with a pseudo-democratic consent of the majority as widely opinionless by-standers.
But history has shown repeatedly that the progress humanity has made in technological advancements, health, wealth, and the ability to pursue one’s happiness is the direct result of a liberal rule of law that allows as much diversity as possible.
Francis Fukuyama, citing Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, writes in chapter 6 Expressive Individualism: “Figures such as Vincent van Gogh or Franz Kafka, unappreciated in their time, became iconic symbols of the obtuseness of a philistine society that could not appreciate the depths of individuality they represented.”
In the same streamlined society as back then, without today’s diversity, Vincent van Gogh and Franz Kafka wouldn’t be famous pillar’s of western culture but forgotten oddballs of the past. Individuality, and thus diversity, is the key to science and art, entrepreneurship, the great inventions, and the vast progress humanity made. We shouldn’t constrain ourselves and should neither constrain other living species on our planet because there’s a hell of a lot to lose.