To what extent we live in a free society?

Groups of ideas and practices shape people’s behaviour and culture, which influence our perception of a free society. So, perhaps we have never been free.

“Hong Kong as we knew it is finally dead,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo. A few days ago, China officially broaden its power over Hong Kong by approving a controversial law on security practices [1]. Protests criticising the Chinese government can become a violation and some activists could be punished for wanting to live in a free society. It’s easy to see new legislation imposing more restrictions to free speech overseas, but how do we know whether we are really living in a free society?

Discourses are influential sets of ideas and practices that exist only in particular conditions which may differ between societies and can be one explanation for people’s freedom [2]. For example, political freedom described as the absence of oppression and coercion takes different forms in the UK and China. In 2010, the government created the “Great Firewall of China” by removing Google from mainland China [3]. Compared to Britons, Chinese have far less freedom. Some Chinese citizens would feel freer with a democratic election, which some Britons growing up in the UK, might take for granted. Although the UK allows access to Google, there are other types of restrictions: the country has quietly relaxed a thirty-year ban on satirising footage from parliament sessions [4]. Depending on where you live, some limitations might create different views of a “free society.”

The French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that each discourse has its potential to produce power relations centred around knowledge [5]. Simply put, who owns the information, can influence who don’t—for example, the government & people or parents & child. Power establishes in a society when individuals accept the information that has been given to them, without question. May it come from the media, scientific findings, or even religious beliefs. As a result, each person creates his or her interpretation of true freedom. In other words, power relations shape the discourse of freedom in each society. 

Discourse and lockdown rules.

In March, the UK government imposed a lockdown and social distancing norms to minimise the impact of the COVID-19. It was a reasonable decision, but a few people questioned the government’s rationale for each measure. For example, how did officials decided that each person could exercise outside for up to thirty minutes a day? Why not forty-five minutes or ten minutes? Still, thirty minutes outside was the new concept of freedom for people living in the UK during the COVID-19 crisis. This example shows how government officials, possessing information that was unavailable to the mass, created a power-knowledge relation.

Living in a free society is in itself a discourse, which suggests that our interpretation to what extent we live in one lies on the knowledge available to us. Otherwise, Britons could have argued for more or less time outside. Even the person’s interest and ability to understand any discourse is a discourse in itself. This is interesting because it might explain partly why some individuals usually do not question authority. Some discourses may influence us to think and feel we are free. Thus, our perception of living in a free society is subject to a set of political and ethical practices.

However, individual interpretations of a free society may only be partly understood by those living under specific constraints, like a communist country. Recently, the Chinese government has expelled correspondents from well-known news outlets, including The Times and the Washington Post, and demanded detailed information about their work reporting the COVID-19 crisis in China [6]. Given the online restrictions, most Chinese will not read international news before forming an opinion on government measures. Constraints are relevant because they drive human behaviour and activities, shaping culture in coherent but unexpected ways [7]. Both Chinese and Britons may show diverging opinions on how free they feel about their governments, especially during a pandemic.

The solution for creating a free society it’s not an easy one. Closing down power-knowledge gaps and holding accountable some individuals or organisations for lack of freedom is not enough. Also, in doing so, it might release others from their responsibilities and actions. Foucault’s discourse analysis is a valuable tool to critically develop a free society. However, changing people’s perception of freedom might take a long time, in which the government plays a critical role.

The extent we live in a free society is shaped by discourses and our ability to interpret each one. The difference between the media, governments and even parents affect how each person act and think towards a free society. It seems that, despite the limitations to Foucault’s ideas, we are not entirely free. Current discourses will always shape thoughts, opinions and behaviours. Human agency is limited, and the concept of living in a free society makes sense only in a political and social system that produces knowledge and meaning.

References:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/28/china-vote-npc-national-security-laws-hong-kong-us-protest

[2] Gill, S. (1995). Globalisation, market civilisation, and disciplinary neoliberalism. Millennium, 24(3), 399-423.

[3] Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_China

[4] Chortle: https://www.chortle.co.uk/news/2019/11/08/44723/commons_footage_can_now_be_used_in_satire

[5] Foucault M. (2002). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Routledge.

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/china-journalists-coronavirus.html

[7] Hewer, C. J., & Lyons, E. (Eds.). (2018). Political psychology: A social psychological approach. John Wiley & Sons.

Banner photo by Simon Shim on Unsplash

Google image is a screengrab; date 2nd of June 2020 from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/opinion/china-journalists-coronavirus.html

You May Also Like