On Freedom

On Freedom

November 22, 2019

I must confess that this week’s message is a difficult one to write. In the past week, the Hong Kong Education Bureau was compelled by circumstances to suspend classes in schools and kindergartens on the grounds of clear and present threats to the safety of children commuting to and from school. Accordingly, classes were suspended at the end of last week. As a further consequence, we took the difficult, but necessary decision to postpone our annual celebration – the Jam 2019 – to February 22,  2020, and hopefully safer, date that would permit all members of our community to gather in a spirit of celebration and congratulation. The Fashion Jam was to mark a significant shift on focus, with students from our Secondary School planning and performing a fashion parade for the school community featuring student designs.

The circumstances that necessitated the closure of schools across the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region are complex, yet visibly simple. Road closures and disruption to public transport services interrupted the freedom of movement in and around Hong Kong for a large number of people. Some supported these acts, some opposed, and others merely found themselves caught in circumstances beyond their control. Children struggled to attend school; workers were prevented from attending their places of employment. Mainstream media and private social media have been overwhelmed with a constant barrage of visual and literary narratives and counter-narratives about the issues under debate. There is stark polarization of attitudes and aspirations in the wider community. For many, it is hard to discern fact from fiction.

This week’s reflection cannot avoid a fundamental question being contested at this time in Hong Kong: freedom. We are facing the age-old question concerning an individual’s right to exercise freedom and the extent to which such freedom may encroach on the rights of others to exercise their own freedom. One of the most influential works in western liberal political thought, On Liberty, was published 160 years ago by the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. It has remained in print since the date of its first publication, mainly because even in the 21st century it offers a clear and useful discussion on the nature and limits of personal freedom. In On Liberty, Mill wrestles with some fundamental principles, such as the limitations of freedom, that remain relevant today. Should my freedom be restricted because my actions may interfere with right of others to exercise their own freedom? Mill was careful to categorize freedoms into ‘self-regarding’ (freedoms that only affect me) and ‘other-regarding’ (freedoms that affect others). His view on the limits of freedom and the power to curtail freedom is best expressed as follows:

 

        The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (Mill 2011 [1859])

 

The debate on what constitutes ‘harm’ has raged across the ages. The demarcation between what is harmful to one, but beneficial to another is deeply concerned with the legitimate exercise of power in a ‘civilised community’. The social contract that we all enter into when we become part of a community dictates that we do not enjoy infinite freedom, as some things we do may harm others. There are many dimensions to this issue of harm. Civilised communities set rules to determine the limits of freedom and to reduce or eliminate the harm we might inflict on others. In the same spirit, the freedoms experienced in one community may not necessarily be imposed on another.

The right to express dissenting views is a particularly sensitive issue, especially because its suppression denies the community an opportunity to see things from alternative perspectives. When an individual or group seeks to impose a view, to the exclusion of others, through coercion, bullying, fear, or violence, harm is the end result.

I believe the most effective defence against this human tendency to inflict harm through the suppression of other views in society is a rich and comprehensive education. Through learning, our children learn to engage with ideas, assess their relative merits, judge their virtue against moral and legal principles, and make informed decisions. This process develops agility of mind, openness to alternatives, and factual conviction. It inoculates against a form of acquired blindness that asserts a prejudice that my own views are the only ones that matter. Aristotle, often misquoted, offered the following thought about education:

 

        …for it is the mark of an educated person to search for…clarity in each topic (Aristotle 1908 [350BC]).

 

As learners, we search for clarity and understanding; we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to gain enlightenment; we don’t suppress or neglect uncomfortable or inconvenient perspectives. It is a lifelong search. This is all the more reason for us, as a learning community, to lament the closure of schools in the past week.

 

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard

Head of School

 

 

 

References

Aristotle (1908 [350BC]). "The Nicomachean Ethics." Retrieved 17 November, 2015, from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/metaphysics.html.

Mill, J. S. (2011 [1859]). On Liberty. London, Project Gutenberg EBook.

 

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