Freedom or Unity

Some more from The Ethics of Identity. Appiah cites on page 124 a term (via Kymlicka via Margalit and Raz) ‘decayed cultures’:

If what we have is a troubled period of cultural transition, though, it isn’t obvious that such conditions diminish our liberty or autonomy – our ability to choose among a wider range of options. Indeed, as John Tomasi suggests, a greater degree of personal autonomy may be afforded by a less rigid “choosing context,” where there are fewer constraints on what counts as an acceptable life plan than there would be in a more stable cultural community.

That’s pretty much what drives my interest in this whole subject, I think – the idea (and the possibility, the possible fact) that the more stable and rooted and unchanging a culture or identity is, the less liberty and autonomy there is, and the more constraints there are on what counts as an acceptable life plan. Now…I can certainly see that the value of liberty and autonomy and a wider range of options does not automatically or self-evidently trump the value of stability and rootedness, of security and familiarity. But then neither does the value of stability and rootedness self-evidently trump the value of liberty and autonomy. The rhetoric of community and identity too often seems to assume that it does.

And even if the value of liberty doesn’t automatically trump the value of stability, it does seem to be an empirical fact that once people get a taste of freedom and choice and the possibility of a range of options, they tend to like them, and to be upset when they are taken away. Literature and history are full of stories of people escaping from tyrannical parents, masters, owners, bosses, small towns; there are relatively few stories of people escaping from freedom to go back to tyranny. I don’t think that’s just some random fact; I think it reflects human desires and longings.

I think the deeply obscured, masked, disguised fact about the longing for community and stability that communitarians and communalists urge on us is that what is longed for is the confinement and limitation of other people – but not of the self. In other words, it may be that community and tradition and stable cultural communities appeal a great deal more to people who are in a position of power over other people in such communities than they do to the underlings. Brahmins like the old ways better than dalits do. It was slaveowners who were nostalgic for The Old South, it wasn’t slaves. I think that’s worth at least keeping in mind when we muse on community and identity.

Liberals tend to be sympathetic to a Millian notion of experimentation and social progress; the prospect of freezing existing prejudices and inequities and bigotries – the edict that “whatever is, is right” – is hardly a palatable one.

Page 125, we’re on now.

Raz, in a 1994 essay on multiculturalism, seems to be upholding something unexceptionable when he states, “It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group.”…Much depends on how you construe this requirement. Was Rimbaud – scandalizing tout le monde before he went hopscotching through Africa – fully integrated into a cultural group? What about the Sudanese Islamic scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed for heresy in 1985 because of his opposition to traditional sharia? Some people, it appears, actively resist being fully integrated into a group, so that they may gain some measure of distance from its reflexive assumptions; to them, “integration” can sound like regulation, even restraint – especially to liberals who, by tradition, favor Freiheit over Einheit.

Exactly. I’m one of those – I favor Freiheit over Einheit. And the thing about that is, freedom leaves you free to choose unity (though only for yourself, not for your slaves), but unity doesn’t necessarily leave you free to choose freedom. So if there is a forced choice between the two, it seems considerably fairer to go with Huck and Jim than to try to find our way back to Tara.

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