NB: In this post, I’m using the words “liberal” and “republican,” both with lower case first letters. I am NOT referring to any political parties which use these terms in their names. I am using them in their original sense, as the names of particular modes of organising political life.
In a standard liberal account of freedom, freedom is construed as non-interference; you are free to the extent that no one interferes with you. At its most extreme, you end up with something like Hobbes’ account of freedom:
Fear and liberty are consistent: as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free:
As long as you can choose to do something else, like say, die, then you are free. It’s a very thin account of freedom, and I find it unsatisfying. Of course, liberal theorists have other, thicker accounts of freedom, but they are still accounts of freedom as non-interference. I’m rather more taken with the account of freedom found in republican political theory, that is, the mode of governance of the Roman republican and the 16th century Italian city states, as well as for example, Australian and New Zealand, which are republics in all but name.
As I have written before, in republican political theory, freedom is freedom from domination.
Think about a slave with a kindly master. The slave gets to live where she likes, eat what she likes, do whatever work she likes, just because the master happens to be kindly. Under the standard liberal accounts of freedom, this slave would be free, because she was not subject to interference.
The master however, can at any time reassert his power. If he so wishes, he can tell the slave where to live, what to eat, what work to do. He is even able to physically assault the slave, and she has no recourse against him. So in order to keep him happy, to avoid incurring his displeasure and losing the chance to direct her own life, she must keep a weather eye out for him, ingratiate herself with him, make sure that she doesn’t offend him, kowtow, and doff her cap. Even though he does not interfere with her choices, he nevertheless dominates her, and she constrains her choices because of that domination. She cannot stand tall, and look him in the eye. Under the republican account of freedom, this slave is not free.
I find this account of freedom compelling, because it taps into a sense of standing. A free person is one with standing, one who can treat with the powerful, can act without fear of unjust retribution, can take her place in the community. It is a highly social sense of freedom – a free person is one who enjoys standing within social setting. It is the freedom of the hearth, not the freedom of the heath (Philip Pettit’s phrase, not mine). And it is an institutional sense of freedom. In the liberal account of freedom, the slave with the kindly master is free, but that is just a contingent state of affairs. It is just because the world happens to be that way, rather than because anything guarantees that the slave is free. However the republican account of freedom looks at the relationships between people, and the institutional structures that guarantee freedom. So a person is not accounted free just because of a happy coincidence; she is only free if the world is organised in such a way that she is necessarily free.
The republican account of freedom is an intensely social account of freedom. It’s not just about one person being free, or being dominated, but about groups of people being free, or being subject to domination. If one person is dominated, and thus is not free, then other people who are sufficiently similar to him or her, can similarly be dominated, and so not be free standing citizens.
For example, think about the case of rape. If a woman is raped, perhaps walking home in the evening, then other women who are walking through the same area, or out walking at the same time, may feel similarly threatened. They may choose not to walk home, or to go by a different route, or to walk at a different time. So their choices are constrained, and they change their behaviour, for fear of rape. Their freedom is reduced, in this area of their life at least. (Freedom is not an all or nothing game: you can be more free in some areas of your life than in others. For example, you may own your own home and have a lovely family, so your personal life is ‘free’, but have a bully boss, so your work life is less ‘free’.)
In technical terms, this can be referred to as a vulnerability group. A vulnerability group is a group where in virtue of the similarities between all the members of the group, each of the members can be dominated qua member of the group.
And that’s why Melissa McEwan’s post resonated with me. When I hear a sexist put-down of a woman, I see that woman being dominated in virtue of being a woman, and I know that as a woman, I am vulnerable to those types of put-downs too. That’s why I get the little sinking feeling in my stomach, the sense of unease, the worry that other put-downs will follow. Each little bit of misogyny reinforces my vulnerability to being dominated, whether the misogyny is directed straight at me, or at another woman. And if it happens to me once, then it can happen again, and again, and again.
As it turns out, I live in a good space, with a loving and thoughtful partner, and for the most part, I don’t have to deal with misogyny in my own life, and what there is has not come my way through my partner’s actions (of course we both make missteps from time to time, but we’re human beings, not saints). But the moment I step out of my house, I am confronted by it, and it seeps into our home via newspapers and TV and the irritating pop-up ads on websites and the like. It’s ever present, even with something as banal as the sausages and strippers banner I saw last year (it’s still there). When the environment I live in so unfailing reminds me that women are of little worth, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable, and hard not to feel a sense of unease.