Ambiguous Freedoms

In my first year at Oxford, a fresh faced ingenue, I wrote an essay I believed to be revolutionary. A game changer. My controversial thesis was freedom is reduced in a democracy because we are forced to define our identity repeatedly due to the presentation of choices. I submitted it, the title ‘The Freedom to Live Ambiguously’ meriting its own title page. The tutor returned it. 43. A single comment — do people in Switzerland seem less free — served to eviscerate and burst my arrogant bubble. I had not singlehandedly disproved the entire Western Liberal Order (funnily enough).

Recently I discovered it, languishing in the back of a drawer. Marvelling at my chutzpah, I couldn’t help but think that, with the minimal wisdom one can acquire in two years, there could be a grain of truth within it — if combined with a sense of proportionality.

The essay needed the caveat that it’s not The Freedom. It’s not worth fighting wars over. The Declaration of the Rights of Man, the Constitution, the UN Declaration aren’t referring to this freedom when they discuss. But it is a freedom. The freedom to live ambiguously is not trivial, even if it is not of paramount importance.

What do I mean by the freedom to live ambiguously? It is a freedom to live in ignorance, to shrug your shoulders, to not have a stance or an opinion. It’s the sentiment of Brenda from Bristol saying ‘Not another one!’ when told there would be another election. It’s the freedom to be unaware of issues, to not take sides, to live life without being torn one way or another. It’s the freedom not to have things pressed into your conscious.

Perhaps it is best illustrated by what it is not. When I ask you “Do you like Marmite?”, you may love it, hate it, or not know. If you do not know, you can choose to form an opinion (falling into the love-it/hate-it camps) or you can consciously disengage — you can choose not to form an opinion. Whichever stance you take, you are now in a different position from where you were before I presented the Marmite question for your consideration. There’s something added to your identity. You, whether you like it or not, have been dragged into the Great Marmite Divide. I have made you a conscientious objector, a Lover or a Hater in the Marmite Debate. You have to take up this role, regardless of what you may have wanted, by circumstances I have placed you in by presenting this question to you. Prior to this, you may have never thought of the question — you didn’t have a stance. Now, your Marmiteness is an expressed, articulated part of who you are.

Less trivially, it is shown in the dreaded ‘Where are you from?’ question. This rudeness of this question partially derives from the imposition of an obligation to coerce one's identity into a set of narrow labels. It’s forcing them to define who they are, in an interaction that they have not chosen to undertake.

So, why is this freedom rarely discussed? The rather dispiriting adage is that if you have thought of something new in philosophy, either someone has thought of it first, or it is wrong. Indeed, it is counter to one of the more consensual areas of political philosophy. A view there is an obligation to be politically informed is shared by Mill, Kant and Rawls. If I have a duty to do something, I am not free to refrain. If this obligation is paramount, the freedom to live ambiguously cannot exist.

Yet I do not think this is the case. The Canon wrote in a different era to ours. Information was ferreted away, sequestered in valuable books written in inaccessible languages. Issues were fewer when the world was not hyper-connected. The epistemic exposure of Kant was limited to the small German town of Konigsberg. The extent of these barriers to access of information, coupled with the nature of these polymaths desperate to break them down, the idea of wishing for their construction would have been inconceivable. It’s no wonder that the freedom to live ambiguously does not loom large in their thought.

Today, we have hyper-connectivity; ever more complex issues; a mind numbing swell of information. 174 newspapers worth of information per capita is produced each day. We’ve all seen the consequences. Partisanship is rife, debate increasingly bitter and resentful, and the overwhelming sense of fatigue has resulted in egregious violations of political norms. Political opinions stick like barnacles, doggedly adhering even in the face of ever increasing evidence to the contrary, weighing us down.

It seems more likely that our political obligation to be informed lies somewhere on an Aristotelian Golden Mean. The virtue of being informed is important, laudable, but should not be held at the expense of all others. As cowardice and foolhardiness are to bravery, ignorance and rigidity are to well-informed. Once we recognise the obligation as constrained, we can make space for the liberty.

What is centrally at issue is the degree of control we ought to have over our epistemic space. By epistemic space, I mean the things that we are aware of — things that can enter into our judgement.

It is clear that the answer will not be an absolute. This is due to the lack of appeal of both sides of the spectrum. Total control over epistemic space leads to the problem of echo chambers, and denies the freedom to individuals to change their views. We are stuck with the views that we are born with. Moreover, if I define my epistemic space I, perversely, relinquish all freedom to live ambiguously. In so doing, I have dissected all my attitudes, pin my colours to a mast, and am a Pro/ Con/ Nuance/ No Comment for everything

The other side is that no or minimal control over epistemic space is where we are now, and we have this exhausting imposition of definition and redefinition. So it cannot be that we relinquish all control.

Therefore, the Goldilocks point is in the middle. Given it is in the middle, it seems the only answer we can find is by a reflective equilibrium. We ought to ask questions where the cost of forcing someone to define themselves outweighs the benefit. This seems dissatisfying, but is really a development of a far simpler idea — respect, and manners. Old fashioned though it sounds, the only way to get to this golden point is to think before we speak, and to empathise and consider what we are asking of others. We need to recognise that to ask is not a neutral act, but that, much as asking for a favour or a discount, something that occurs with an accompanying cost. Given that cost, we need to think before we speak.

There are some indicators that this freedom is beginning to be recognised, and steps taken to protect it. Take gender fluidity. It is laudable in its recognition of the importance of not being forced into a label one way or another — to live ambiguously. Yet for gender fluidity to be fully successful in rejecting labels entirely, it must be the case that recognition of this and other freedoms cuts across the political spectrum. Currently, though one may have rejected stifling gender labels, one's identity is defined in other ways. If you assert you are gender fluid, you will most likely be assumed to be the young, left wing and well-educated — given the ‘woke’ tag by the Piers Morgan's of the world. But again, this is a violation of manners. It’s presumptuous and rude, and its continual existence means we are a long way from a pure freedom to live ambiguously.

However, despite this, there is evidence that there is a longing for this freedom on the right. Think of the focus on manners, decorum, respect — this lack of intrusion, this emphasis on privacy is symptomatic of people wishing to return to an era when they did not have to choose. The ideal would be the ability to reject all labels, and still leave all other parts of ones identity undefined until you choose to do so. From either angle, both sides seem to be asking to that.

It seems the response to the very modern problem  of an ambiguous life has its solution in an old fashioned answer. Manners