Q: When is Freedom not Freedom?

Q: When is Freedom not Freedom?
'Freedom' by katykash (Creative Commons)

‘Freedom’ by katykash (Creative Commons)

A: When it’s in the public square, of course.

Yeah, ok, so it doesn’t work as a joke, but it is one of the pressing conundrums of our time, and one which reared its head in a couple of stories last week.

The big one, which has caught everyone’s eye, is the publication – finally – of the report from Lord Leveson’s inquiry into the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the Press’.

We as a culture place a high value on the idea of having a free press. State control would be a Bad Thing – the sort of thing evil dictatorships have, the very antithesis of freedom. Yet it has become abundantly clear that in a fallen world, the freedom to say anything you like – and to do anything you want to get your story – is something that humans simply aren’t equipped to handle responsibly. Journalists aren’t a special, mutant breed of humans who will quickly sink to deeper moral depths in order to succeed; they’re just the ones we’re focussing on at the moment. In recent months it has been bankers, or people who run care homes, any day now it could be estate agents or farmers or people with unrestricted access to the office supply of biros.

Given freedom, we all tend to push and push and push at its culturally accepted limits, in the quest to milk it for all we can get. Which would be fine if you didn’t have to live in a society with Other People – people who value their privacy, who want their relatives to be well-cared for, or who just need a biro in the normal course of their work. Our free actions have consequences for others, and when we prove time and time again that we can’t be trusted to self-regulate, the only solution seems to be greater restrictions on our freedom.

The other ‘freedom’ story in the press last week caused a smaller splash, but still raised concerns in some quarters – it was the news that the Government is considering changing the law to mean that Free Schools are not allowed to teach creationism as science.

Let’s put to one side, for now, the fact that this move seems to have sprung from an entirely disproportionate sense of panic in some quarters that a significant number of schools are itching to teach that a literal six-day, young earth creationist understanding of the origins of the world trumps any apparently-contradictory scientific data. The question remains whether a school can truly be said to be free if it has restrictions placed on its curriculum. Free schools do not have to teach the national curriculum – they could omit all geography, or teach history with an overtly communistic bias. They could restrict sewing classes to boys and metalwork to girls (or vice versa). They could teach no foreign languages at all, or give 90% of the curriculum over to the study of Latin. But try to teach creationism in science (which none of them are) and the weight of the law will descend and close them down.

Doesn’t sound much like freedom to me.

When you look more closely, however, there is a flip side. Free schools are free to throw off the bounds of the National Curriculum, but they are still required to teach English, Maths and Science AND to provide for a daily act of collective worship.. What’s more, they are even required to teach religious education, and in schools with no religious designation, the guidelines actually specify that the daily worship should be ‘of a broadly Christian nature’.

When we live in a society, we recognise that limits need to be placed on our freedom to do and say exactly what we like, when we like, to whomever we like. Rules and regulations in and of themselves are not bad things – when used rightly they provide for, rather than restrict, freedom.

Wisdom consists in knowing which battles to fight, which restrictions to accept in the interests of a flourishing society and which to resist in the same interests.

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This article first appeared on thinktheology.co.uk (the new name for whatyouthinkmatters.org)

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