Powers of Freedom…


Freedom to speak his mind freely wasn’t a thing of this world that Cotton Mather could acquire after defeating his stutters.  Soon he realised that in order to set his speech truly free he had to tame it. In order to use speech to produce the desired effects on his audience, it had to be sharpened, polished, refined, and confined. To call freedom a removal of external forces was too simplistic. If the freedom of speech of a Godly man was not the same as that of a mad man.

So free speech always has to accommodate the discomforting presence of an audience. In this sense some people are always less free than the others. Indeed we do speak about the ‘vocal’ segments of our society, which imply the presence of less vocal segments of our society. Some have tamed their speech just enough to be able to use it effectively. This also reminds me of Sen’s privileging of capability over liberty.  Cotton Mather also aspired not for free speech but the tamed speech that could give him the necessary freedom needed to be a great orator.

Wouldn’t a certain freedom of speech exist in all societies without being called as such? But it becomes possible only after submitting to one thing or the other. Cotton Mather’s free speech was completely circumscribed by the limits set by the Puritans. But this is the case for all free speech. When we object to freedom to of the government to limit the freedom of speech, we do that from within a liberal normative framework to which we, in a way, submit and which we subsequently defend against the excesses of the governmetn.In fact, you can always look for and find the ways in which you limit yourself in order to be free in one way or the other.

So what is this thing that we call freedom then? It is quite interesting to me that freedom of speech has its defenders, and those who are against it.  Nikolas Rose speaks of freedom as that in whose name we are governed under liberalism:

We can historicize that which we take for freedom today, and in the name of which we are governed. We can trace the relations between the history of this ethic of freedom and the history of government. We can analyse the practices that gave birth to freedom. And we can begin to understand freedom not simply as an abstract ideal but as material, technical,practical, governmental. (Powers of Freedom, p. 63)

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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