Sacrificing freedom for selfism

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Against this tide it would seem impossible to make the case for self-restraint and modesty; words so arcane and unfamiliar that they wouldn’t even be reflected on before being dismissed.

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains
upon their own appetites” – Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

There is something uniquely horrible about being in Britain on the first few hot days of the year. People are awakened up and down the length of the country to the whirring irritation of lawnmowers and hedge trimmers, flaying alive every sprouting shoot and weed. Once the shadows shorten enough to justify a drink the pubs and bars fill up with young men and women adorned in their own bare flesh and fashionable trimmings. Even this soon becomes too much and the t-shorts come off en masse among groups of loud lads as they spill out of the beer gardens in search of disposable barbecues and hunks of meat to char in the nearest public green space. Parks, lawns, gardens, river banks and verges soon become hazy beneath the smoke and packs of cheap beer. The evening increases the general loudness, drunkenness and coarseness for which we have become, sadly, all too famous.

Perhaps I’m being too grumpy and spiteful toward my fellow neighbours who, after all, are just looking to relax and enjoy their Easter Bank Holiday weekend. Perhaps I’m just one of those quiet types who wishes for quiet conversation in the corner of some old pub. But is it excessively reflective to consider the changes in public life, even within my short lifetime? My son is not yet a year old, but I would be unable to enforce some of the rules I was brought up with: instructions such as being mindful of where one is walking, how loudly one is speaking, whether the topic of conversation is suitable for a public place and basic charitable acts such as holding doors and waiting to allow others first. These were combined with forbidden actions such as eating in the street, swearing, shouting, dropping litter, spitting and all manner of behaviours which would cause upset and offence. These and more are just part of the daily grind of being in public today. I often wonder what older people must think as they carefully pick their way down some of our worst streets and squares?

Even those who seem more restrained are little better; the peacock like displays of bronzed body parts, facefuls of make-up, armfuls of tattoos and sculpted chests portray our new found love for, and obsession with, ourselves. Every poise and posture a selfie, every thought a message, every hilarity a cause for recording and transmitting. What we see on the street is amplified online and curated for further self-promotion.

Against this tide it would seem impossible to make the case for self-restraint and modesty; words so arcane and unfamiliar that they wouldn’t even be reflected on before being dismissed. They would simply glide off the mind like white noise. Yet the very essence of Burkean thought is contained within his simple but profound point that those who do not restrain themselves will be restrained by someone else, and that someone else will render you less free. Britain used to be a more free society, but paradoxically that freedom was maintained through an austere self-control and mastery of one’s own emotions and desires. To make the point, when I was a teenager, growing up in the rural spaces of Herefordshire, I remember the creeping police control of my public space. To walk in certain parts of the city could become an offence if conducted with several other friends, distressing noise emitters were fitted at bus shelters which targeted young people through selective frequencies, ‘Community Support Officers’ were invented and hassled us on the way to college, warning us not to congregate for too long and ‘alcohol free zones’ were created which permitted a police officer to confiscate legally purchased drinks and pour them away in front of us, or else march us to a cash machine for an instant fine. Our liberties to associate and conduct our business were curtailed. The reason being there had been several violent attacks and a murder of a passer-by in the city centre as well as an increase in ‘boy-racers’ stealing and burning cars. I and my friends were innocent of these crimes and yet, the effect of the callousness and brutality of others had resulted in our losing of our basic freedoms.

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Of course there is a world of difference between unprovoked murder and bad behaviour in the pub, but the effects are similar, other people lose their freedoms and eventually we will all lose our freedoms. The general debasement of our culture from one which cherished our unique and hard-won liberties to one which venerates only the self cannot end happily. A society in which the highest good and aspiration is total self liberation and pleasure cannot thrive and will become ever more controlled from above. Why do we need new and far-reaching restrictions on pornographic sites online? Because people refuse to control their indulgences. Why do we need aggressive hired thugs menacing the doorways of pubs and railway stations? Because we drink to excess and engage in casual violence. The slow death of liberty comes when we decide to abandon modesty and restraint.

There is another subtle way in which this pursuit of pleasure causes harm to our public life – the stupifying of a culture. The simple unthinking impulses which too often govern the rhythm of everyday life make a mockery of the freedoms we have inherited. Over 70% of all age groups in England considered shopping a leisure activity, as a nation we have over £72 billion worth of personal credit card debt, 64% of young people aged between 13-24 watch pornography on a weekly basis; the list can, depressingly, continue. Simple pleasure is simply that, simple. I’m not including here the seeming simplicity of focused and engaged activity, such as gardening, DIY or cooking, but the type of instant gratification that promises nothing beyond the immediate. One cannot ‘get better’ at drinking and shopping as one can at woodwork or practising the piano. These practices enliven and enrich us, and our neighbours and society at large, whereas the pursuit of mindless momentary pleasure debases us all over time. With each broken taboo another one comes along, although its hard to imagine what is not permitted on the midnight streets of our larger cities.

Thus we become ever more simple minded and less willing to defend our freedoms which are chipped away as we lose our collective self-control. The gentleness which was once associated with an afternoon walk down a lazy riverbank is now invaded by topless lads bellowing from speedboats, from near-naked dog walkers blaring their phone conversations and the endless casual offerings of cans and plastic in the undergrowth. I sometimes wonder whether it is just me, that I am too sensitive, but my friends and family remind me that they too dislike this rough lowest denominator that our public life has become. I know many people who refuse to travel on the trains, to avoid the unpleasant drunken rowdiness that rides along, I know of people who won’t go out at certain times of day or night to escape the same. It’s not enough to say that the alcohol is to blame, although it doesn’t help, but the overwhelming feeling one has of a street in a city today is a mass of jostling consumers trying to pretend that they are alone. How else explain the ubiquitous headphones, the brazen rudeness, the uncaring conversations and the snapping away of pictures of every other moment.

To those who consider themselves conservative I would argue that we should not engage in such behaviour. We know that we are not atomic liberated individuals, but part of a collective community with duties and responsibilities. We may take seriously the Christian teaching of individual conscience and self-admonishment before judging others – I for one know my own faults and failings all too well. Self-restraint brings its own rewards, in health, in friendship, in passions. In not squandering our sober capacities and faculties we can strive to improve our lot and that of others.

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