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Prabuddha BharataLatest Issue
Editorial : Liberty vs Civility
All of us are free.Or want to be. Our entire lives are spent in struggling to express ourselves despite the external pressures trying to muffle us. The history of humanity is the history of the struggle for freedom at all levels—physical, intellectual, emotional, political, social, and religious—anything that the human mind could conceive of. We want to be free to live, dress, and express ourselves through speech, signs, or creative arts, as we want. The hallmark of civilisation is individual liberty. We want to keep it that way.
The question is: Is there no limit to this liberty? Will liberty remain if we impose limits on it? Can liberty be a licence to injure others physically, emotionally, or intellectually? More important, if liberty be without any reins, what is the utility of legal systems? Would they not become redundant? What would then be the meaning of civilised behaviour if anyone could do anything one pleased without any thought for others? These are pivotal questions, answers to which would help draw the thin line between liberty and civility. These questions have various dimensions and applications in almost all spheres of our lives, both private and public.
Here we focus on the personal dimension of these questions. In a free society, everyone is supposed to have a personal space, close to the body and mind, where one can act according to one’s wish. How we dress, present ourselves, what we read, think, express, create, what or whom we love, our ambitions, life-goals—all these and more comprise this personal space.
But how personal is our personal space? Can one’s personal space or personal preferences cause injury to others or encroach upon others’ personal spaces? Everyone should be allowed to walk freely in a free society. Then why do we have ‘No Admission’ signs? Why can’t someone walk into another’s private quarters uninvited? Why can’t someone enter into the sanctum sanctorum of a place of worship, which is supposed to be sacred and not trespassed by all? Do these practices amount to restriction of the private spaces of people? Military establishments are out of bounds to civilians.
The laity cannot enter into monastic quarters. The clubs and associations of the privileged or affluent are not open to commoners. Does this mean the curbing of personal freedom? The answer is no. We should take a closer look at the concept of personal freedom.
Personal freedom regarding basic food, shelter, clothing, thought, and expression is generally accepted as the right of an individual. But to get more than that, one has to earn or deserve it. To get into a military establishment you have to be a soldier and to enter into a monastery you have to be a monastic. You need to earn a lot of money to enter into the company of the privileged. So, personal freedom is not always unqualified or unconditional.
Now, we come to the pertinent question of expression of individual choices, some of which are too personal to be made public. The choice of clothing is a case in point. A minimum amount of clothing and with at least some decorum is necessary to avoid offending others’ feelings. The whole concept of ‘table manners’ arises out of this necessity to maintain a minimum code of conduct while eating so as to not hurt others. These are the fine details of human etiquette and also civilised behaviour. Similarly, choices related to the private space of an individual need not be made public, much less exercised in the open. While no free society would curb an individual’s choice regarding marriage or courtship, doing in public, things which are best done indoors, though by consenting adults, would only create a society where there would be no meaning of the words ‘civility’ and ‘obscenity’. Even those championing the display of such acts in public, do not approve of these things being done in front of children. Public display of affection makes a mockery of both affection and the public. Things which are dear to one’s heart are better kept there, in the heart, and given access only to the people who are involved.
This is not a question of only a particular culture or religion but it concerns the very concept of culture. We always need to maintain a balance between liberty and civility. A person has no right to disfigure another’s face simply because she or he does not like it. Permissiveness is one of the causes of the increasing stress on liberty even to the extent of becoming uncivil. Permissiveness has never caused growth. No horse without reins has ever won any race. Unbridled energy leads only to chaos. It is directed energy that produces results. The availability of too many choices and the freedom to protest have made the presentday society fight for anything and everything, without any thought of the greater good.
If anything and everything became permissible, there would be no evolution in language, literature, the creative arts, relationships, religion, philosophy, science, or any other such discipline that has made humanity distinct. There would be no effective difference between human beings and animals. Animals eat, defecate, and copulate in the open. If human beings decide to do the same, what distinction would remain? The history of humankind of the last century is witness to the increasing crassness in almost all forms of human expression. Earlier human communication was slow and had finesse. Today it is fast and gross.
The popular media has fed on this tendency to bring into open things that are best kept private. There has been an alarming rise in television and other media programmes that telecast and provoke to reveal the secrets of personal relationships and have caused many broken families. This has created a bad tendency among the audience to expect such things in the future leading to more and more of such media content and consequent disrupted relationships.
The saddest part of this trespassing of liberty on civility is that people have become more aggressive to protect their individual, cultural, social, and national identities. This happens because they feel threatened when someone imposes individual or cultural preferences on all others in the name of freedom. The result is increased polarisation and segregation. The only way out is to have the same level of freedom for all, the aggressive and the docile alike. It is only a common ground of civility that ensures that the aggressive does not take more than the docile. Let us become civil. Let us be free but also remember that with freedom comes responsibility. Let us cherish all that is personal and keep the confidences of our loved ones a secret with us. Let us not wash our dirty linen in public. Let us be human beings.