Words and Civilisation: “Freedom” and “Rights”

All the news headlines in the country, in the past few days, have mentioned what I understand to be the recent publication, by a French magazine – and now, apparently, also an Irish newspaper – of the Duchess of Cambridge seemingly sunbathing topless in a French château.  It now appears that an Italian magazine is also following suit.

Mostly, these headlines mention “topless photos” or “topless pictures”.  I am astounded by the poor grammar.  Are the actual photos, or pictures, topless? Have their tops been snipped off with scissors? Or is the person in them topless? After all, if you said “the black and white photo of so-an-so”, the black and white would refer to the photograph print – and not to the colour of the so-and-so in it.

Still, that is a small, possibly pedantic point.  There is a more serious issue here.

Newspapers and magazines need to sell copies of their publications.  That is a fact.  However, they rely on the public buying them.  What I find nauseating, is that there are so many people who will rush to buy newspapers or magazines because they contain photos of a semi-naked Duchess of Cambridge.  What does that say about these humans? Do they think Catherine Middleton’s breasts will be somehow differently shaped because she is a Duchess and the wife of the second in line to the throne? They are just breasts.  Nature distributes them evenly among all women.  Or is this curiosity driven by a desire somehow to own an intimate part of an individual whose status and fame places her outside the reach of their social circles? Or is it a deep-seated satisfaction to see her embarrassed and humiliated? An urge to see a crack in an even veneer? Whatever the motivation behind this voyeuristic tendency, I find its expression repulsive and disturbing.  I also find it profoundly sad.  I feel deeply uncomfortable that such a large part of humanity, of which I am an indivisible part, should have it in it to act this way.  If, as John Donne put it, “No man is an island” then I, in part, also bear the responsibility and the shame of this.  We all do – even those of us who exercise their freedom not to look at such photos.

Once again, this makes me think of the concept of freedom and right, and of the overuse and abuse these words suffer every day.  The term freedom lost its power to inspire me some time ago.  When I hear it, I am sorry to say, I often equal it in my mind to the word bullying.  As for the term right, all too often, it makes me think of tyranny.

I was on the bus, going to work.  A young woman opposite me was listening to her iPod.  I could hear quite clearly the songs she was listening to, in spite of the rattle of the bus, it was that loud.  I could sense the man sitting next to me growing increasingly irritated.    I, on the other hand, kept trying to distract myself from a Salvador Dali-style mental image, inspired by the dream sequence in the film Spellbound, of a pair of gold manicure scissors floating in through the bus windows, by magic, and snipping through the white cords of her earphones, in two clean cuts.  Finally, the man snapped, “Turn that down, will you!”

Immediately, the young woman told him, in a rather superior tone, that he should ask politely, then – so predictably – said it was her right to listen to her music.  An argument ensued.  I controlled my impulse to butt in.  On London public transport, asserting your rights against the sprawling rights of others has been known to lead to unpleasantness and even violence.  Still, this looked like a potentially reasonable young woman.  Even so, I needed to dispel my frustration, before speaking.  It is true, the man could – and perhaps should – have said, “I’m so sorry but would you mind turning it down just a little?” However, I find it interesting how people push and push your boundaries with their actions but then judge you as the bad guy for reacting to them.  Somehow, it did not cross the young woman’s mind that she could have been responsible for causing the man’s abruptness.  It annoyed me profoundly that she was taking the moral high ground just because she was managing to keep a calm and polite – albeit patronising – tone of voice.  I took a deep breath, and smiled at her (was I proud of myself!) and said, “You’re absolutely right.  It’s within your right to listen to your music.  The problem is, that I don’t actually like your music very much but I have to listen to it because it’s loud.  Do I have a right not to listen to it? You see our problem, here…  That’s the thing about crowded buses.  We’re all thrown on top of one another, so everybody has to compromise a little… What do you think?”

I could not believe it.  The young woman gave me a long, intense look.  “Yes, I guess that’s true,” she said.  She turned down the volume on her iPod; I thanked her and we travelled in the silence.  When I got off, I thanked her again, and I wished her a good day.  She responded with a beaming smile, and wished me the same.  This episode restored my faith in humanity, and cheered me up for the rest of the day.

There is a reason the word right as an adjective – meaning morally good and correct, is the same as the noun.  The OE Dictionary defines it firstly as “that which is morally right”.  Never mind the fact that, legally, we are entitled to do something.  Is it actually right that we do it.  In Terence Rattigan’s play The Winslow Boy, barrister Sir Robert Morton expresses the desire that right, as opposed to justice be done.  Justice provides guidelines on what is acceptable by law but it is up to our conscience to do right.  It may be legal for embarrassing photos of celebrities during their moments of privacy to be printed in the press.  Is it right, though?

It is legal to make noise in your flat until 10 p.m.  You are free to do so.  Does that mean you cannot exercise your freedom to be considerate towards others, and spare a thought for them, by keeping the volume contained within the walls of your flat?

US American lawyer Clarence Darrow said, “You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom.  You can only be free if I am free.”

If we do allow our personal freedom to sprawl and invade a part of another individual’s personal space, then our freedom become tyranny.  If the pursuit of our rights infringes on another person’s rights, then we bully that person.  Your freedom must be limited by the boundary marking the start of my freedom.

Personally, I do not believe we come into this world with rights, but with privileges; and, as such, we should exercise our freedom of personal responsibility to treasure and safeguard them.

Scribe Doll

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24 Responses to Words and Civilisation: “Freedom” and “Rights”

  1. As you say, “Your freedom must be marked by the boundary starting my freedom.” Or, as a history teacher of mine once put it succinctly, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” Either way, the point’s the same.

  2. Enjoyed this narrative. So often requests for lowered volume come through gritted teeth – I shall now use your visualisation of the floating scissors. Too often rights impinge on freedom which as Kristofferson said is ‘just another word for nothing left to lose’. Bring back responsibility!

  3. You might be interested in this article, if you haven’t already read it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/sep/14/sun-page-3-visible-tip-misogynys-iceberg?INTCMP=SRCH. Well done on keeping your patience, I’m not sure I would have! xx

    • scribedoll says:

      Yes, thank you, I read the article (they printed it in yesterday’s Guardian) over breakfast today. An excellent article. As for keeping my patience, I learnt over the years that losing my temper only makes things worse (doesn’t mean I don’t stamp my feet in my mind). Thank you for commenting.

  4. Lyn Rowley says:

    As a commuter I face this on a daily basis. I know I’m showing my age but I was taught to always put the comfort of others before my own. I deliberately sit in the Quiet Zone for my journey home as I want to relax and unwind. Recently there was a man who quite clearly thought he was still in his office and was having a very loud business conversation on his mobile. When I asked him politely if he could lower his voice (not end his conversation) he swore at me for “interfering” and told me that “this is an important call”. Another commuter then intervened in much the way that you did, and said that while we all appreciated his need to make this call could he please refrain from swearing at other passengers and move to a carriage that wasn’t designated as a quiet area. He did move but not without once more abusing me as he walked passed. What was the point of that? It was merely feeding his own bad mood.

    • scribedoll says:

      Well, if he carries on like that, he will turn into a grumpy, lonely, twisted old man with health problems. The thing is (easier said, than done), is that commuters should stick together in such situations. Thank you for commenting :–)

  5. Stress brings out the worst in people. It’s kind of heroic these days to address the behaviour of others. You obviously hit the right tone, creating harmony rather than more strife, an artform 🙂

    • scribedoll says:

      You’re absolutely right there. I become unpleasant when under stress. As a rule, I don’t stand up for myself in such situations. I’m too scared of the other person lashing our disproportionately, and I hate confrontation. Consequently, I sit, stew, simmer, and grow toxic with resentment. However, I have reached an age when I feel enough is enough, and I’m trying to learn to address such situations with faith in the other person. Hard thing to do.

  6. Tim says:

    “Freedom ends where freedom begins.” Who said that? No idea, but it’s very true.
    I think “don’t intrude” is a pretty good behavioural benchmark.

  7. Becky says:

    Very well said. The man may have felt his reaction to her music should have been noticed by her beforehand (any looks, grimaces, or otherwise pained expressions. I know I usually give some visual expression of discomfort before actually speaking to someone, hoping they will notice and I won’t feel compelled to speak to them.
    I also agree with you about the Duchess. I like her and I feel sorry for her. She was in a place she felt she had absolute privacy and someone took advantage of her. I will not be buying any magazines with photos if they come out here. She is a lovely representative of your country and I think she and William are doing very well in their responsibilities. Becky in the US

    • scribedoll says:

      I used to give people looks, also huff, and give them other body language signals. Unfortunately, most people seem remarkably insensitive and obtuse at picking up such polite signals. I’ve also known people (youngsters, in particular) react aggressively with, “Do you have a problem?”
      Thank you for your lovely comment.

  8. beckyfields says:

    Reblogged this on Common Chapters and commented:
    There are times when I say, ‘ah! I wish I’d said that.’ This is one of those times…

  9. marymtf says:

    Gosh I love the Clarence Darrow quote. I’m saving it for myself to inspire me.
    I can relate to that man on the bus. I have the sort of temper. Rather than say something at the beginning, he put up with the irritation and put up with it. Then he yelled. I think your measured actions gave both the woman and the man to save some face. Well done.

  10. Paula Turner says:

    I am very intrigue by the concept of freedoms and rights. I am struggling with it presently in the heated debates around gay marriage and other issues which impact the LGBT community. Many of the ideas you present, along with the comments from your readers, make me wonder how I can apply that to my own views. I have difficulty accepting intolerance but I try to respect people’s rights to their views. It’s a fine and shaky line.
    Your writing is all very thought provoking.

  11. Pingback: You can only be free if I am free « If you would not be forgotten

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