Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Liberty vs. Freedom (1)

Time for insufferable pedantry or, if you prefer, boring attention to detail. Because clarity of communication depends on clarity and precision of the meanings of words.

In these writings I try to never use the word ‘freedom’ except when quoting another. Instead, I use ‘liberty’. The reason is that ‘liberty’ is more precise as it has fewer meanings and is not derived (in English, anyway) from an adjective with even more meanings.

Multiplicity of Meanings Can Eliminate Clarity
Any word that has multiple meanings has correspondingly many ways of being used in communication or thought; thus if context is not exactly clear, ambiguity results. Ambiguity is the enemy of precise thought and the darling of rhetorical legerdemain. (George Orwell discussed this at length in his essay “Politics and the English Language”.)

‘Freedom’ has 9 meanings and ‘free’ has 17. ‘Liberty’ has 5 meanings, one of which is the nautical term for a short leave of absence. Scientific terms, in contrast, typically have only one meaning as science depends on precise, exact communication.

‘Freedom’ is a derived word: a noun based on the adjective ‘free’. The first definition of ‘freedom’ is “1. The condition of being free of restraints.” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, as found at The first definition of ‘free’ is “1. Not imprisoned or enslaved; being at liberty” (Ibid). I find myself thinking, in a vague way, that ‘freedom’ is simply the condition of being free; this vagueness seems common. This is the basis of the rhetorical legerdemain, the trickery.

This rhetorical trick consists of extolling the virtues of a concept, building enthusiasm for the concept, transferring the enthusiasm to a term for the concept, and finally transferring the enthusiasm to a different concept that uses the same term. This trick is easier with ‘freedom’ than with ‘liberty’.

An Example
“Americans love freedom!” (applause) “America is ABOUT freedom!” (cheers) “All Americans want to be free!” (more cheers) “You want to be free!” (of course, wild enthusiasm) “You want all Americans and all people to be free!” (prolonged cheers) [So far, everything conforms to the first definitions of ‘freedom’ and ‘free’. The audience has ceased thinking and is reacting to the wonderful word ‘free’.] “Freedom, liberty, not subject to the whims of tyrants, free to think, speak, and worship as you please, free from the controls of a police state, free from censorship, free from domination, free from anxiety that our children will lack the freedoms we so enjoy” (crowd goes wild). “Free from the oppression of others, free from the oppression of fear, free from the disabilities of ignorance and the chains of poverty…” [Here the speaker has performed his trick, his slight-of-hand: the speaker has subtly shifted to a different meaning of the word ‘free’: “4a. Not affected or restricted by a given condition or circumstance b. Not subject to a given condition” (Ibid)] “No American can be free if he or she is chained by poverty; no American is free if imprisoned by illness; no American is free if tyrannized by worry about losing a job or starving during retirement.” [The speech has now frankly shifted to definition 4, not definition 1] “That is why I am proposing that all Americans have a guaranteed income throughout their lives, unlimited access to medical care, and lots of other goodies: because these are necessary for the freedom that all Americans cherish” (more cheers) “To have these freedoms we must, of course, ask all Americans to contribute their incomes to guarantee the common freedom of all!” (Prolonged demonstration of enthusiastic support for what the speaker has just said)

Note how the speech subtly shifts a paean to liberty – absence of government coercion – into a call for complete state control of all income and wealth. Utter lack of liberty in the name of freedom.

If you pay attention, you will notice this is pretty common - from all points of the political spectrum - though not always in the same speech. Sometimes the trick is divided up into several different performances.

This one justifies tyranny as a way to make people free. Easy to do because of the many meanings of ‘free’.

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