This month we are going to use the current (2011) Reith Lectures as our starting point for a discussion on the question of freedom.
The title of the lectures is 'Securing Freedom' with Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi giving the first two entitled 'Liberty' and 'Dissent' respectively. The third, so far, is by former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, on issues of the role of the intelligence and security services in protecting those liberties that Aung San Suu Kyi and her like are fighting for.
If you don't get a chance to read or listen to anything else just take a look/listen at the first lecture as this is the one we will mainly be focusing on.
There are a lot of issues thrown up by the talks. Amongst them we will be will be discussing the nature of freedom and the so-called 'universal aspiration for liberty' as Aung San Suu Kyi refers to it. Why does liberty matter so much to us and has it always mattered to people throughout all periods of history? Are we willing to trade-off our liberty for other goods in some circumstances?
The individual psychology of the dissident is interesting too. What gives someone the resilience to carry on a struggle, for what is often many years, without breaking down? And what is the relationship between that inner, spiritual freedom, dissidents often talk about as the thing that gets them through, and the civil freedoms they are fighting for? Aung San Suu Kyi points out that her own Buddhist faith involves the belief that 'true' freedom is an inner state or attitude that is not in any way dependent on social or physical conditions. But if this true why should we bother with civil freedoms at all? Why not just cultivate one's own mind. This was the position of the classical Greek and Roman Stoics and indeed at some points in Asian history social passivity has been the norm.
Aung San Suu Kyi refers to the marches led by Buddhist monks in Burma in 2007 against rises in fuel prices to show that Buddhism does not necessarily lead to social passivity. However, I don't think she satisfactorily answers the question that she raises although she offers a relevant quote from Isaiah Berlin who warned against the dangers of the internalisation of freedom:
Spiritual freedom, like moral victory, must be distinguished from a more fundamental sense of freedom and a more ordinary sense of victory. Otherwise there will be a danger of confusion in theory and justification of oppression in practice in the name of liberty itself.
The dissident, being a very strong individualist and concerned so passionately with individual rights, is often someone who will 'dissent' from the policies of his own organisation. This can then lead to fragmentation, and consequent weakening, of the organisation. On the other hand, focusing on a strong, charismatic leader like Aung San Suu Kyi in order to provide solidarity in the organisation can also have undesirable consequences if that leader is removed by the opposition.
As well as considering the psychology of dissent we will look at the psychology of dictatorial regimes and the role of fear. In one of her most famous speeches, the "Freedom From Fear" speech, Aung San Suu Kyi begins:
It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.
And of dissidents she says:
They pretend to be unafraid as they go about their duties and pretend not to see that their comrades are also pretending.
Finally, we will look at the ethics of violence in fighting dictatorial regimes. Interestingly Aung San Suu Kyi says she has not chosen a non-violent policy for ethical reasons, but for purely pragmatic, political purposes. The Burmese regime have shown no compunction about shooting their own citizens and so she believes violent struggle in Burma would be self-defeating.
Eliza Manningham-Buller talks about the role of the intelligence services in fighting terrorism and says that it must always be done within the rule of law. But only this week we have revelations coming out of Tripoli that the British secret service were complicit in torturing terrorist suspects. How much violence is justified in fighting terror regimes on the one hand and terrorists on the other, and is torture ever justified?