Tuesday, January 02, 2007

wise restraints

Right before my Christmas break, I saw this post by Zyberzitizen on "free expression", and got me started thinking about the concept of Freedom. Just yesterday (yes I have not been very up-to-date), my attention was drawn to a post on Singapore Election Watch, and in my mind similar issues surfaced. This post will not attempt to provide any definite answers on the nature of Freedom. It is but a call for contemplation, perhaps.

For both Zyberzitizen and SEW, it is assumed that Freedom is a good thing, and that we ought to strive for more freedom. It is also implied that any attempts to encroach on our freedom will always be bad. Yet, do we have a clear idea of what Freedom is? Are our conceptions of freedom the same as everybody else's?

Here are three articles from Wikipedia, but personally, I found them to be perhaps too technical. Let's take a preliminary definition of Freedom to be "have no constraints of restraints". So someone who is free is someone who is not constrained or restrained. That sounds intuitive. But does it work? If I free does that mean that I can do anything I want? Am I free to rob a bank? If I am free to rob a bank, is the bank free to not get robbed by me? Am I free to shoot somebody dead? If I am free to kill somebody, is that person free to not be killed by me? Is he free to live? How about defy the law of gravitation? Am I free to fly? Or am I free to defy the laws of mathematics? Am I free to make one plus one equals to three?

These are extreme examples no doubt. But let us consider the issues at hand (for Zyberzitizen and SEW). If I am free to express anything I want to express, am I free to express something offensive? And if so, are readers free to not get offended by your own expressions? If you claim your freedom to express out-trumps the freedom of your audience not to get offended, why is that so? Who decides which freedoms (or which rights) out-trumps which freedoms (or which rights)?

So there cannot be complete freedom from restraints. Try as we might, we can never be free from some things such as the laws of physics, or the laws of logic (and some are inclined to believe, the laws of morality). If some restraints are necessary, then what should these restraints look like?

Once, my professor told me about the phrase, "the wise restraints that set us free", which was often spoken of in the past, but almost never in current times. [I googled this phrase and found the hit count to be extremely low.] What does this phrase mean? My professor shared with me two anecdotes:

The first anecdote was about when he was PhD student in Harvard. He was working on his thesis and had a writer's block, and he was very concerned. He worried more and more about his thesis each day until one day he realized that this thesis has taken over all other aspects of his life. In his own words: "Harvard has become my god". He was shackled by Harvard and the PhD, and he decided, enough was enough. He wasn't going to allow Harvard rule his life. So he just took off and went vacationing. After about two weeks, he realized, Harvard was still his God. It was just that instead of being under servitude and submission to Harvard and getting the PhD, he was now preoccupied with running away from Harvard. Either way, servitude or running away, he was shackled by Harvard. Upon realizing that "freedom from Harvard" meant neither of the two, he returned to Harvard and completed his PhD.

The second anecdote is about two couples who are dating. For the first couple, the girl asks the boy "Why do you love me?". The boy replied "Because you are beautiful, gentle and kind." Instead of feeling happy, the girl felt burdened. She felt that she had to make herself up until she was very pretty, always show her kindest and gentlest side, or else she would forsake the love of her boyfriend and he would leave her for someone prettier, gentler and kinder. She felt insecure. For the second couple, the girl asks the boy the same question. He replied "I love you because of you. I love all of you, including your faults." The girl was very happy, because she knew that she can be bratty, angry, indulgent and other aspects of her natural self to the boyfriend, and yet he will not stop loving her. She felt secure.

What are the wise restraints? In the first anecdote, the unwise restraint was making Harvard the most venerated or most hated ideal in his life. The wise restraint was choosing to be still under the restraint of Harvard (and hence having to complete the PhD), but not letting it become the most important thing in his life. By choosing to be under this restraint, he is as a result, "free" from Harvard (from being the God of his life).

In the second anecdote, the wise restraint was the boy choosing to love the girl in her entirety, including the more undesirable aspects of her. The resultant freedom is the girl's. She is free to behave naturally, and free from insecurity, because she knows that she does not need to earn his love. Perhaps, love is, by nature, selfless. Loving someone involves constraining yourself, but allowing the one you love to be free instead.

Due to limitations of the universe we live in, there is no such thing as freedom without restraints. The question is therefore not, whether or not we have restraints, but instead, which restraints we choose to have (assuming we have a choice). Different restraints will result in different consequences. Some consequences are more desirable than others. Which is then the wisest restraint to choose?

"The question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremist we will be" - Martin Luther King, Jr. From Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

[Addendum (04/01/2007): During a conversation with Cognitive Dissonance, she correctly pointed out that I have been conflating the meaning of the words "constraints" and "restraints", which have slightly different meanings. The idea that I want to present is that freedom is necessarily restricted, and these restrictions may either be internal or external.]


kwayteowman said...

Two points for your consideration:

One, freedom requires choice. When one has choice, but does not exercise it, he gives up his freedom. :-P

Two, the exercise of a choice involves an action. An action may (or may not) have an effect on others. When we perform an action that affects others, there CANNOT be complete freedom or there will be chaos (c.f. your example on robbing a bank).

Fearfully Opinionated said...


how was your holidays?

On both your points, I think you are absolutely correct. No argument from me here.

Perhaps for the sake of completeness, it might also be worth noting that NOT performing an action is also a choice. And inaction, just like action, may or may not have an effect on others. (Such as not doing anything when a man is drowning).

kwayteowman said...

Fearfully Opinionated,

Holidays have been a good break. :-P Thanks for asking.

You point that to not make a choice is in itself a choice is good. Problem is that some (many?) do not even realize that by not making a choice, they already have. Such are the mysteries of life. :-P

Fearfully Opinionated said...

I think it's understandable why people like to deny that they have a choice. By saying "no choice lah", they deny responsibility of the action (or inaction). So, if the consequences turned out to be less than desirable, they can say "not my fault. the situation dictated my action/inaction."

Perhaps, such people do not realize that this is perhaps so for ALL decisions we make in life. Very few decisions we make in life is based on pure whim, all other decisions take into account circumstances. The question is therefore, what criterion do we use to classify certain circumstances to be "dictative of action"? We are now bordering on talking about the problem of free will, an argument which is notoriously known for having no agreement.

That said, you are right that in some sense, there is always a choice. Even if circumstances seem to dictate a certain action, it is still your choice to choose to do the action which circumstances seem to "dictate" you to do.

~[z][x]~ said...

Hey FO, here are my opinions to some of your questions:

If I am free to express anything I want to express, am I free to express something offensive?
--> As long as it isn't direct slander or VERY obvious personal attack, yes.

And if so, are readers free to not get offended by your own expressions?
--> Definitely. They could like, err, go offline/stop reading. No one is forcing them to read!

If you claim your freedom to express out-trumps the freedom of your audience not to get offended, why is that so?
--> Because the freedom to not get offended is definitely more obscure than the freedom to express. Who, for one, determines the word "offend"? What would you say if I visit your blog and say that I'm offended by your blue and purple words and I demand you to remove it? How is that less unreasonable than to say "I am offended by your criticism of my (Yours? Really?) religion; take it down or I'll call the police"?

Who decides which freedoms (or which rights) out-trumps which freedoms (or which rights)?
--> Perhaps naively, I just hold to this quote when I encounter this problem: "If liberty means anything, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear" - George Orwell.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi ~[z][x]~,

Thanks for dropping by. As I have indicated so in my post, I ask these questions as a prompt for deeper contemplation of issues related to freedom. I did not intend to directly question or advocate any specific views, and you are certainly free and entitled to have your own answers to the questions I raised.

Now another question: do you think other people agree with your answers? If not, why not? Do you think you can engage in meaningful conversations with them if they do not?

cognitivedissonance said...

Hi F.O. :)

Nice conversation we had.

Having taken some time to think over your post in its entirety, I identify far more with your first anecdote than the second, but this is probably my personal and perhaps professional distaste for the second's "external empowerment" situation.

This past week's blogosphere events struck a chord in relation to the "wise restraints" mentioned in your post.

~[z][x]~: "the freedom to not get offended is definitely more obscure than the freedom to express"? F.O. did not mention another law that affects us all, besides the laws of physics: - it is the laws of the State. To what extent do State laws restrain individual freedoms to express in favour of the freedom of others to not get offended, and how is it that at some point or another the State laws were or are considered "wise restraints", wise enough restrictions to be put into place as law?

~[z][x]~ said...

Hi FO,

I apologize for digressing from the original topic. I am writing particularly on religion, since it is what causes the most hysteria and uproar whenever an "offending" remark is being made. If a Muslim who drives and adores Toyota cars makes a complaint to the police about a blogger who criticizes Toyota cars, the Muslim will be sent to a psychiatric. Yet the opposite is true if he complains about a blogger who criticizes his religion. Why is that so?

I think most people would not agree with me that the freedom to offend trumps the freedom to not get offended in religious discourse because they do not see, as I do, that there is really nothing to be offended about. If one makes an unjustified attack on your faith, ignore him! Why should you be offended by a moron who has no knowledge of your religion? But if one makes a justified attack on your faith, then listen to him. Reason with him. Agree with him. Disagree with him. There is no need to be "offended" at all, let alone riot/petition/burn/kill.

I agree that no meaningful conversation can take place if I prize the freedom to offend while the other party prize the freedom to not be offended. Yet I would contend that if 2 parties prize the freedom to not be offended, no meaningful conversation can take place either. When you start to burden yourself by what you think the other party might find offensive or what you think a 3rd party might find offensive to the other party, you might as well not have a dialogue. An alternative is to conduct one that has a conclusion already even before any talk begins - "Our religions have so many similarities!" - is this meaningful?

Allow me to stress that the freedom to offend does not mean that one will/should seek to offend. The same, however, cannot be said of the opposite. The freedom to offend simply means that one is allowed to express his honest views and shall be held responsible of them based not on what another party chooses to feel/interpret them, but on the consistency and honesty of his sharing.

CD, I do not understand why the Gahmen has protected Religion to this degree. Probably because of the bloodshed it has caused. But are there other reasons? Can you help? :)

"Race and religion are fundamentally different concepts, even if for
many individuals, the two are inextricably linked. To criticise a
person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous but to
criticise their religion, that is a right. That is a freedom. The
freedom to criticise ideas – any ideas – even if they are sincerely
held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society and a law
which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as
they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.

All this points to the promotion of the idea that there should be a
right not to be offended when in my view, the right to offend is far
more important than any right not to be offended. The right to
ridicule is far more important to society than any right not to be
ridiculed simply because one represents openness, the other represents oppression."

-- Rowan Atkinson

cognitivedissonance said...

Hi ~[z][x]~,

My apologies. I didn't quite catch on that you were talking about religion in your initial comment, nor that the "right to offend" that you referred to was in the context of this Rowan Atkinson quote (which I have seen before. but where? hmm). In that light, I hope you will not be offended if I say I found your second comment much more enlightening and enjoyable to read :)

As to why "Religion" is especially protected, I suspect that F.O. has some ideas.... do take a look around over the next few days.

We will meet again (I hope), and take care in the meantime.

Fearfully Opinionated said...

Hi ~[z][x]~,

I actually left you a reply, but I didn't realize that it failed to publish.

I think that it is not really fair to compare piety (or fervour) toward one's religion to affinity one has towards a certain brand of car. How EXACTLY are the two different? I think the answer is not that clear. Academics always had difficulty defining what religion is.

Although I agree that we do not do enough reasoning when it comes to differences in religion, I think perhaps you are over-simplifying how people get offended generally. Consider this:

Supposing one day some ah beng said something rude about your mother (or sister). By the same reasoning, if one makes an unjustified attack on your mother, ignore him! Why should you be offended by a moron who knows nothing about your mother? So is everybody free to go around saying rude things about other people's mother or sister?

I think part of the confusion is also due to the fact that different people have different thresholds of what is considered offensive or not. (Different sensitivity to offensiveness?)


~[z][x]~ said...

Hi FO,

Sorry to read about your dad. I understand your analogy of comparing one's religion to one's parent, and it is a thought-provoking point. However, a big difference between the two is that one's religion is (should be) what one has chosen, while the same cannot be said of one's parents. It is for this reason why Rowan Atkinson expressed that "to criticize a person for their race is manifestly irrational and ridiculous". You did not choose your race, you did not choose your parents, and therefore it is unfair and purely malicious for someone to burden you with criticisms about them. On that aspect, these issues are rightfully, "sensitive".

But religion is different. It is(should be) something one chooses consciously to believe in. The question therefore, is, should one be protected, irrationally, over what one chooses to believe in/pursue? Why should his 'self-chosen' views of his religion not be susceptible to comments and criticism as much as his 'self-chosen' views of cars, money or food are?

On your last comment, yes I do agree that different people have different thresholds of what is considered offensive. That is why I asked previously, if I find the colours on your blog offensive, do I have the right to ask you to change them? If the answer is no, then why is it 'yes' when I substitute "colours" with "views of my religion"? Why is someone's preference and thershold of sensitivity to religion more important than my preference and threshold of sensitivity to colour?

Haha take care, both of you. And I thoroughly enjoy this :)


Fearfully Opinionated said...


Firstly, can I draw your attention to an article I submitted to Singapore Angle? I believe it will interest you:


I wasn't really trying to compare religion to one's parent. I was trying to show that people get offended when things they care strongly about (such as their parents or their religion) has been criticized in an insensitive way. Whether or not they actually had a choice in such things is not an issue, in my opinion. How about your girlfriend, or your wife? You had a choice in choosing your girlfriend or wife right? Does that make it more permissible to say something rude about your girlfriend/wife more compared to your parents?

Also, I am not against criticisms or comments regarding religion. In fact, I am sort of trying to encourage it in my article to Singapore Angle. The key point I would like to make here is that, because religion is something people care strongly about, such criticisms and comments need to be done in a sensitive and matured manner.

~[z][x]~ said...

wow i love your essay! haha. Do update us if your suggestion comes true.

On our ongoing discussion, I might seem to be grasping at straws here, thus I beg your pardon, but I would argue that if someone says something "rude" about my girlfriend/wife, I should be discerning enough to pause and ask myself if it is a logical accusation or a illogical one. For example, if you criticize my girlfriend for having a mole on her nose, then obviously, you're in the wrong. She did not choose to have a mole on her nose! But what if you criticize my girlfriend for torturing cats to death? Shouldn't I, who willingly chose to be her closest friend, hold some responsibility too for closing a blind eye to her wrong acts? Or should the "freedom to not be offended" factor come into play and you remain silent for you know that I will be hurt/offended/angered by your criticism? On top of facing the criticism of my girlfriend, I would deserve to be criticised too for choosing such a gf. If it's my parents commmiting such a crime, only the former should be allowed. One should be permitted to think 'Aiyoh his gf like that, we need to becareful of him coz most probably he might be like that too' but not if you substitute 'gf' with 'parent'. I think that's where and how I draw the line. Sorry if I have seriously digressed.

Well I totally and sincerely agree with your concluding statement, that "criticisms and comments need to be done in a sensitive and matured manner". Like I've qualified earlier, the freedom to offend does not mean that we should seek to offend. It simply means that if Party A has a fervent desire to make a comment/criticism while Party B has the same fervent desire to prevent it because he feels that it is "offensive", we should at that instance, favour Party A and allow him the right to express, which very importantly (and Party A must know), comes with the responsibility of accepting criticism.

Fearfully Opinionated said...


Thanks for your kind words.

I'm starting to think we actually agree about the main issues at hand, but we only appear to disagree because we're talking about slightly different things. So I hope you don't mind we end the conversation thread here. I'm actually going to take a break from this blog. You're free to join in the comments thread on the SA article though.