Free . . . but don’t hurt others

It has various names and tag lines. Live and let live. That’s probably the most popular slogan. It’s also called libertarian freedom. I’m referring to Western culture’s prevailing philosophy, the one which governs and underpins Western democracy and most of our political engagement.

Do what you want, but don’t hurt others.

There it is. In all its glory. It dominates the thinking of the vast majority of social commentators, those who write Leaders in our major newspapers, those who represent the arts and culture. In the past, in a nominally Christian country, we affirmed the value of a particular religion: Christianity. No longer. Now we’re multi-cultural; we’re tolerant. We endorse no one philosophy, with the exception . . ahem . . . of evolutionary biology (yes, it is a philosophy), which we embrace with a faith-like grip. More on that another time.

But back to libertarian freedom.

First, the positive. When you think about it, it sounds pretty good. What’s not to like? Freedom to make my own moral choices – I like that. Don’t hurt others – hard to see a problem there. Superficially, there is much to commend this philosophy. Indeed, it provides Christians in the West with the liberty to share the gospel, meet together regularly, heal on the street, if we so choose. Without it, great suffering ensues. Three cheers for libertarian freedom!

So, yes, freedom – which includes both free speech and free association – are goods which should be recognized. And the ‘don’t hurt people’ is simply a no-brainer.

Actually, hold your horses just for a moment. ‘Not hurting people’ sounds good but when you think about it, life just isn’t that simple. The fact is that avoiding hurting people, which seems like a noble goal, also turns out to be unattainable. Not only that, it’s undesirable. In disciplining my children, I certainly do wish them to suffer, to the extent that they must learn the consequences of their poor choices. And I’m fine with criminals paying for their crimes in prison. In addition, I hurt people every time I drive my car. To a limited extent.

Pain, it turns out, isn’t a universal bad to be avoided at all costs; there are nuances to its application.

But there is a deeper problem.

When you look more closely, the philosophy is so empty, it’s almost hardly there at all. Just saying, ‘I want to be free to live as I choose’ is a morally vacuous thing to state. It acknowledges no familial or societal obligations whatsoever. It is, then, entirely focused on the individual with no recognition of communal responsibilities. It might work for a single-handed sailor, but it doesn’t say enough to help us live together and build a better world. We need a lot more than this.

Second, libertarian freedom, I think, is a fig leaf to cover up a form of nihilism which I hear often on the BBC. You see, we’re world class at using our freedom to run people down, at stating what we don’t like and don’t approve of, but we’re wimps when it comes to saying what we actually believe in. In fact, sometimes it seems as though we live by this philosophy: The one thing we believe in and hold to is the belief that there’s nothing to believe in. This is the result of self-confident atheism, which has begun to stretch its wings in our culture. Just listen to 6.30pm comedy on Radio Four, especially the Now Show, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me return to the emptiness of live and let live. Just stating ‘I’m free’ is like a sign outside your house stating, ‘Keep Out!’ It doesn’t tell me anything about what’s going on in the house at all. And therefore, it’s not a philosophy which is fit for purpose in promoting actual values; values, I might add which are essential to the building of healthy families and local communities.

You like serving the poor? Why? Inside your little libertarian vacuum, the only available answer is ‘because I choose to do it.’ Any more and now you’re venturing further than ‘live and let live.’ The moment you say, ‘because I believe it’s a moral duty’ or ‘because my religion teaches that it’s a good and right thing to do’ you’re no longer basing your behaviour on libertarian freedom. Now you’re building real foundations.

The bubble of freedom may give you the oxygen to serve the poor, but it will never ground and justify the behaviour itself. For that, you need more. A lot more.

In the past, religion informed public policy. It provided real, firm, gritty, justification for how to behave individually and communally. No longer. But don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not advocating a return to the bad old days of Victorian heavy-handed state-religion-imposed morality. Not at all. I like freedom of religion. But Freedom – Capital F – by itself isn’t up to the job of telling us how to live. It’s too flimsy.

But don’t we have Natural Law?

So you want to base a whole-life philosophy on Natural Law? Be my guest. Well done, John Locke. Your problem is that our current account of human origins is constantly undermining the project. Why should a society affirm particular values merely because we’ve ‘evolved’ in a particular way. No, I’m afraid Natural Law – as currently proposed – doesn’t do the job.

In my opinion, without God, you’re just flapping about in the air. Yes, you’re free up there to do whatever you want, but you can’t tell me why I should care for others, value life, give to charity, etc. When you do, you’re just trumpeting your own subjectivity. And simply because you happen to ride the current zeitgeist – that, I’m afraid, does not amount to rational justification.

In the end, I’m with Dostoevsky, who wrote, Without God, everything is permitted. You want to know the number one objection that Muslims have to Western culture? (not foreign policy – that’s different) Its permissiveness. On the back of Freedom, we have imported pornography, the sex trade and ever increasing levels of nudity. Be free but don’t hurt others. Who says people aren’t getting hurt? But I’m straying from my subject.

To continue . . .

To build a society, you need foundations. And foundations, to hold up an entire society, well, they need to be immensely strong. They need to be solid.

Christianity may have been misused and misrepresented over the ages, but at its heart, it has always recognized and championed moral virtues. Not to mention promoting compassion for the poor. Under broadly ‘Christian values,’ at least when people misbehaved, they knew they were misbehaving and that makes a huge difference. A sinner who doesn’t call himself a sinner is a scary thing. And we’re pretty close to that now.

So I affirm that Christian belief is substantial and solid.

Faith, hope and love are not empty values, they’re meaty. They provide a positive, ‘planted flag’ way to live. Freedom, for all its virtues (and yes, there are many without which we are doomed), well, it can never tell humanity how to live well.

You’ve got to believe in something solid for that.

And there’s no one with greater solidity than the man, Jesus of Nazareth. He’s the only person who is of sufficient stature to guide my behaviour and inform my moral choices. To quote C.S. Lewis, he may not be safe, but he is good and that’s enough for me.

© Richard Collins 2015


Our vicarious warriors

Four twenty-something men sit on a couch, each one clutching a can of beer; their faces are softly lit by a pale light emanating from a TV screen. Hands periodically dive into a large bowl of potato chips, emerging with a handful which are then transferred to waiting mouths. Edible debris falls lightly down their fronts as they stare fixedly ahead. Simultaneously, all four take a sip from their tinnies. Beer rolls gently down their chins. Suddenly, they cheer uproariously, high-fiving before settling back down onto the couch.

A scantily clad woman walks in front of them across our screen. They ignore her, look through her. They don’t even twitch; their eyes are locked on the TV. Gradually, the volume increases. Commentators can be heard giving play-by-plays on the latest baseball game. Or football. Basketball. (Fill in your sport).

We’re once again reminded of the power of sports. The hold which sports have over young men. Some of you may groan while others cheer but one thing we all share. We recognize subliminally the importance of modern sports in our society. Because make no mistake, sports are critical to societal cohesion and stability. Remove them and you would push society towards a tipping point. Remove them and . . .

Oh for goodness sake, Richard, you’re so melodramatic!

Yup, guilty as charged, but do I have your attention? I hope so. Why are sports so important? Many reasons, but in this post, I will focus on just one. Here we go.

Back in 1975, the movie, Rollerball, was released. Here’s the description from IMDB:

In a futuristic society where corporations have replaced countries, the violent game of Rollerball is used to control the populace by demonstrating the futility of individuality. However, one player, Jonathan E., rises to the top, fights for his personal freedom, and threatens the corporate control.

The movie itself was . . . bleah . . . but the theme has remained with me over the decades, the same way as Animal Farm and 1984 and Lord of the Flies. These are all works of art which offer profound commentary on the human condition. Rollerball – as a movie – is average at best, but its central idea touches on a truth which I’m reminded of every time I watch modern sports.

In this futuristic society – totalitarian of course, that seems to be our greatest fear and therefore dominates ALL future societies – sport is used to control the masses. The corporations know that subjugation will cause anger and frustration and these emotions need channelling in some way. What better way than a sport which allows its viewers to express themselves vicariously through the events in the arena. (In this sport, the players are killed, so the on-field violence is of the highest order.) We’re regularly shown pictures of the Rollerball crowds shouting and screaming and battering away at the chain link fence which separates them from the arena. All that anger spews out and the masses return to their paltry lives sated and unable to challenge the status quo. That’s how totalitarian control is exercised. Through a sport called Rollerball.

Of course, it’s undone by a hero battling authority. Triumphing over oppression. The central character, Jonathan E., played by James Caan – a minimalist acting performance if ever there was one – is an outstanding Rollerball player. A cult of personality arises and well, I won’t tell you what happens at the end.

So, why interrupt your day with a reminder of a 70s movie most people have forgotten?

Because, like 1984 and Lord of the Flies, it communicates something elemental about our human condition. Human beings, especially the male of the species, are filled with hormones (testosterone above all.) These generate enormous energy; we’re energetic and we’re aggressive. Human beings, especially males, are astonishingly aggressive. By aggression, I don’t simply mean destructively aggressive and brutal, I want to include the idea that we’re filled with Drive.

On the basis of our Drive, we have risked our lives to discover new worlds, we have scaled mountains, explored the depths of the ocean, found ways of combating disease, built cities half way to heaven, we have created beauty and yes, we have almost destroyed our species and our planet. We are, if nothing else, infused with a Drive which must . . . it HAS TO find an outlet.

In ancient times, our young men went to war. They killed each other first in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands and in recent times, in their millions. Our commemoration of the start of the First World War this year (2014) reminds us of how extraordinarily aggressive, destructive and foolish our species has been in the past. We have always struggled to control our Drive.

Perhaps the most important factor in helping us do so is Freedom, represented politically as Democracy. Democracy is and always will be a civilizing force, because it channels our Drive into non-destructive behaviour. It is always preferable that our politicians shout at their opponents across the aisle than fire their weapons instead.

But sport is also critical for maintaining harmony in society.

If you don’t believe me, then you need to attend a football (pick your sport) match. I will never forget standing on the terraces (they existed back then) at Chelsea Football club in the 1980s. I have never heard such foul and disgusting language spewing out of men’s mouths for such a prolonged period of time – it went on throughout the entire match, directed especially at the opposition’s goalkeeper. To draw on a well-worn cliché (I think that might be tautological!) a sailor would have blushed.

Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that football was a magnet for violent behaviour. I think the term ‘hooligan’ was coined specifically to describe a football supporter who got into fights outside the ground. Happily, that is largely a thing of the past. Now, sport is doing its job a whole lot better. It is better patrolled.

After attending that Chelsea game, it became abundantly clear to me that a football match is simply Rollerball for our modern era. It’s an outlet for our Drive, for our anger, for our frustration, for excess testosterone, which is sloshing through young men’s veins.

So, if you’re a football fan, verbally abuse the players as much as you like. If that helps you deal with your anger, please, go ahead! If that provides you with an outlet, then that is infinitely preferable to violence. If shouting expletives at a goalie means you won’t beat your wife, then by all means, get it out at the match. Unleash your inner angry child. In the old days, we gave you a weapon and told you to run into battle for King Henry. Now, you’ve got video games, perhaps, but above all, you have Saturday afternoon. As long as sports help you keep a lid on violent behaviour, then please, go to as many games as you need.

And be thankful that your warriors are taking hits so you don’t have to.

Consider either kind of football – soccer or American. Both sports involve tackle after tackle, leading to multiple injuries, but you’re not getting injured. The players are. And so vicariously, you ‘fight’ your battles down there on the field/pitch, not out in front of the stadium. This is especially valuable for young men without a job, who hate their job, who feel that life has treated them badly and whose anger is bubbling away inside.

Thank God. I mean that. Thank God for modern sports. These modern day gladiators help hold our society together. Yes, they do.

This is just ONE benefit of modern sports. There are at least another five major benefits. Yes, five. At least.

Allow me a moment to draw on stereotypes and address my female readers . . . So, when your man switches on the football and puts his feet up, instead of rolling your eyes, give thanks. When the men in your family leave you behind to go to the game, thank God they’re picking up tickets and not swords or guns.

Thank God for modern sports. They are part of the glue which holds our fragile society together.

Now, grab your coat and go to the game!

© Richard Collins 2014