[This article is an attempt to convey an appreciation and support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles against systemic racism and oppression, within the context of the ongoing global struggle for freedom, justice and sanity we all are facing as our civilization sinks deeper and deeper into social and ecological collapse. It’s a difficult balancing act, and perhaps requires two articles rather than one, to avoid conflating two different but epic contemporary struggles and avoid minimizing the importance of either. But I’ve been trying to draw together the battle against oppression and the battle against ecological destruction, to see their common cause and commonalities, so I’m trying it as one article. I may not have succeeded, and if not perhaps there is no way I could have.]
One of the issues at root, I think, in the push-back against the restrictions of CoVid-19, is the question of “freedom”. It’s a remarkably ambiguous word, and an emotionally powerful one. Arguably it’s the thing humans and other creatures value more than anything else, perhaps more even than love. But what exactly do we mean by it?
There are, I think, two distinct senses of the word: the libertarian sense of “freedom to” do something, anything, whatever one wants, and the humanitarian and existential sense of “freedom from” things that oppress and constrain us and make us miserable — some much more than others.
I deliberately use the word “freedom” rather than “right”, because I don’t really think there is such a thing as “rights”. Wild creatures have no rights. Courts and lawyers spend billions of dollars fighting over where one person’s rights end and another’s begin, when really all it comes down to is who has more power (wealth, connections, propaganda, resources etc) — it is just a charade. Without power, we have no rights. With power, we have unlimited “rights” — to destroy people’s lives, to wage wars to gain more power, to lie and cheat and kill with impunity. So I don’t talk about rights.
But I do talk about freedoms. Not “freedom to” — that’s often just a euphemism for rights. Instead, “freedom from” — oppression, fear, confinement, corruption, tyranny, hunger, deprivation, pain and suffering, theft, injustice, violence and the threat of violence, and the absence and loss of those things* essential to our dignity and integrity. These are some of the freedoms that the Black Lives Matter movement is fighting for, as Kimberly Jones and Trevor Noah explain in the videos linked above.
But it is foolish and futile to argue that we have a human “right” to “freedom from“, because then that freedom ends where the powerful’s “freedom to” begins, and we all know where that argument leads**.
No, “freedom from“, isn’t a right, though it is certainly an outrage when any living being is deprived of it. “Freedom from” is something that we humans, in this ghastly “civilized” culture we have unintentionally created, must constantly fight for — not defend, because it is not a right, but fight for, because without it we are less than human, and less than alive. And we need to fight for it not only for ourselves and those we love, but for every person and every creature that our civilization indifferently tramples on and tramples under in the unquenchable and brutal expression of its power, and its “freedom to“.
And this is not a “fight against”, because it is just too easy to label oppressors and thieves as evil and as enemies, and to forget in the process what we are fighting for. The “fight against” is a zero sum game, at best, and at worst, as endless wars have shown, a fight that produces only losers.
So we are fighting for freedom from oppression, fear, confinement, corruption, tyranny, hunger, deprivation, pain and suffering, theft, injustice, violence and the threat of violence, and the loss of the things essential to dignity and integrity. If your fight is against, or if it is for freedom to, or if it is about your rights, then it is IMO likely a hopeless and ill-conceived fight. But if it’s a fight for freedom from, then count me in.
When I watch the so-called “counter-protests” to BLM, or the armed militias occupying state houses in opposition to social distancing, masks and lockdowns, or the gun rights lobby, what I see is anger masking fear — the fear of loss of everything they value. They say they are fighting for their “rights” and their “freedom to” (buy and show off truckloads of military weapons, endanger their neighbours, and express their hatred of other cultures, among other things, apparently). That’s how they’ve been conditioned to say what they believe, or want to believe, to be true. But I think they are really fighting for “freedom from” loss, and from the despair-engendering fear and wrenching shame of losing ever more. And they are justifiably terrified. Most of them, like most of their fellow citizens, have a median net worth of less than zero, and suffocating, ever-increasing, impossible-to-pay-off debts, few useful skills, a stunted and damaging education, and no hope for a better future for their children, even in the absence of economic and climate collapse. No surprise their fear and despair and shame expresses itself, in our patriarchal culture, as mindless rage.
That’s absolutely not in any way to equate their fear or level of oppression with that of Blacks and other systemically oppressed and mistreated people. It’s just an attempt to understand what they are really fighting for, which is, I think, regardless of how it is voiced, ultimately for freedom from.
And this is not in any way an attempt to minimize or to discount the multiple layers of privilege, acquired at birth or bought, that comfortably enable our culture’s outrages and atrocities to continue unabated, and which blind the privileged to the horrific oppression of those without privilege.
As I have argued before, this culture of scarcity and inequality and pursuit of perpetual growth and endless acquisition has rendered us all physically and mentally ill, and has alienated us from each other and from all life on our planet. It is a culture of frenzied liquidation of our planet’s resources, profligate waste, obscene hoarding, and violence over a largely self-manufactured scarcity. It is an insane culture. If we think making it healthier is a “simple” matter of redistributing wealth and power from the privileged to the oppressed (as much as that is necessary), we greatly underestimate, I think, the severity of the disease.
It has been argued that the fight for “social justice” is inseparable from the fight for a healthy and livable planet — the fight “against” climate change and ecological collapse. To some extent that’s right — they are both expressions of the struggle for “freedom from” the suffocation, inhumanity and destructiveness of our global civilization culture — a culture of oppression, fear and frenzy. And of course the level of suffocation, oppression, suffering and loss is wildly unevenly distributed — BIPOC, immigrants, refugees, women, the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the disadvantaged and the uneducated suffer the most, and have the least opportunity to achieve any level of “freedom from” anything.
I’m not going to proffer some humanist “let’s all look at how this culture oppresses us all and see how we can all work together to improve it for everyone” crap. This culture is going down hard, and no one will be spared, and those already suffering the most will suffer indescribably more from its collapse, far more than the privileged will (though the privileged are going to suffer greatly as well). There is no solution to this overextended, resource-exhausted, unsustainable, climate- and ecological-collapse-inducing culture, this horrific failed Human Dominance Experiment on our fragile planet. The sixth great extinction is well-advanced and accelerating, and it is proving to be a doozy, more than a match for the first five.
But what we can do, as best as each of us can given what we know, what we’ve experienced, how we’ve been conditioned, how much we’ve suffered and how much privilege we’ve been blessed with, is to continue the fight — the endless fight for “freedom from” oppression, fear, confinement, corruption, tyranny, hunger, deprivation, pain and suffering, theft, violence and the threat of violence, and the loss of things essential to our dignity and integrity, for every person and every creature on this planet, beginning with the most oppressed. It is to some extent a hopeless fight while our civilization culture is in the throes of collapse, and that situation is likely to endure for decades, perhaps centuries. But that fight is essential to who we are, and we are destined, conditioned, and impelled by our innate biophilia to continue that fight.
How we carry on that fight is, inevitably, deeply personal. We fight with the weapons we have available to us and which we have (through no fault or credit of our own) the capacity to use — persuasive skill, the written word, organizational skill, activism, facilitation, conversation, mentoring, demonstration, exemplification, circumvention and workarounds, synthesis and analysis, enthusiasm, courage, imagination and creativity, conflict resolution, truthful information, confrontation and debate, deliberation, dialectic and dialogue, dismantling, education, breaking, occupying, obstruction, acknowledgement, reconciliation, creating alternative models — whatever will, on the balance of probabilities, provide more “freedom from” for as many as possible, including those with no power, no voice and no capacity to participate, and particularly those most relentlessly and severely oppressed, and those not yet born who will inherit the broken planet we leave to them.
Kimberly Jones and Trevor Noah in the above videos talk about the implicit “contract” that is essential for any society to function, and about how whites in particular have systemically and repeatedly broken that contract, usually with complete impunity. Why, they ask, should Blacks and other systemically oppressed people honour any aspect of that contract when it is so flagrantly violated, flouted, every day, and has been for centuries, to their detriment and disadvantage? They’re completely correct, and I think there is a dawning realization by many people that this has been so, for a long time, and that whites have been oblivious to this fact, and that this must end.
So when we, all of us, fight for “freedom from“, what has come to be called “moral clarity” in that fight has to begin with an acknowledgement of that violation and a pledge to create a new contract that is not racist or exclusionary — a contract that engages us all in the collective struggle for “freedom from“, starting with the struggle to assist and support those who historically have never been really free, and who have little or no “freedom from” anything. The word “abolition”, and not “reform” to describe what is needed to be done to the systems of oppression is entirely appropriate in this context.
And this work must be done in as generous and self-aware a way as we possibly can. Always taking care to ensure we are fighting for freedom from, in whatever small or large ways we can, both now and as we seek a way through the predicaments we face going forward, and contemplate those our successors will face when our fight ends. Caught in this cosmic human tragedy, we are freedom fighters, all.
* Mostly, things that are essential to our dignity and integrity are those things, mostly immaterial, that meet our basic animal needs: our need for community, attachment, meaning and purpose, to be valued, to be authentically ourselves, to be optimistic about the future, and the need for autonomy, beauty, joy, creativity and wonder in our lives, access to the natural world, a home where we belong, and freedom from chronic stress. When we are deprived of these things, we cease, I think, to be fully alive.
** The distinction isn’t sophistry. It’s an acknowledgement that we live in a world of constant constraints, and as we exhaust more and more of the planet and live more and more (unequally) beyond our means, those constraints are getting more severe, and will soon become much more so. For example, my sense is that no one, regardless of wealth, will have the “freedom to” fly in an airplane except in a certified emergency much beyond the end of this decade, once the extravagant ecological cost of doing so becomes impossible to ignore. As we find ourselves having to cede more and more of our “freedoms” to fend off imminent climate collapse and other existential crises, I think we will acknowledge that it’s in our best interest to give up some of our “freedoms to” and hold on to, and strengthen, and make available to all, our (often less-expensive) “freedoms from“. As for “freedoms of” (like freedom of speech), the process of parsing to what extent they are “freedoms to” (eg to say whatever we want completely without censorship or repression), and to what extent they are in support of “freedoms from” (eg speeches calling out oppression, censorship and corruption by the powerful and the propagandists, and demanding an end to them) might shed some light on which freedoms are really important, especially when such “freedoms” may seem mutually exclusive.