I was born in 1960. I had an enjoyable childhood, my friends and I doing all the sorts of things young boys did then – playing games, climbing trees, exploring, building hideouts, making dams, vandalizing derelict houses, making crop circles, playing with knives and matches and so on. I was free, and I enjoyed life to the full. I never did anyone any significant harm at all, and had a ball of a time until I discovered girls. Even then, it was only a slow and partial decline into the complexity and mixed emotions of adulthood.
In some ways I envy the kids of today with their access to the net and computers and high-tech, but I don’t envy them at all in terms of liberty. I don’t think the world is anything like as free as it was. Oppression lurks everywhere. Playgrounds are censored of anything remotely dangerous. Games are rapidly being censored of hard contact, and of competition. School lunch boxes are being checked to make sure they don’t contain sugary snacks. Salt, fat, and sugar levels in foods are all being reduced, entire food groups oppressed, everything in an increasing range of national restaurant or sandwich chains has to be Halal. Soon we’ll all have to live on lettuce.
It is almost impossible to buy a wide range of chemicals that used to be freely available, and even though I can understand why, it is still a reduction of freedom. Ditto sharp knives.
Lots of places are blocked off in case a determined kid could hurt themselves, lots of activities cancelled because of insurance and licensing issues, an indirect form of oppression perhaps but a loss of freedom certainly.
Everything online is monitored all the time, by numerous governments and large companies. Most physical activities are likely to be monitored by some CCTV or other. We’d never have dared to do much of what we did if CCTV had been everywhere back then. More importantly, even if a few things we did were technically outlawed, the worst the police would ever have done would be to threaten to tell our parents if we didn’t stop – we never did anything that bad.
Today, kids need to worry about getting a criminal record if they so much as make a nasty comment at another kid, in the playground or online or by text. They don’t have to burn the school down or beat other kids up to get in trouble now. Making a negative comment about someone else’s appearance or gender or sexuality or race or religion is quite enough, and that all adds up to quite a lot of rules for a young kid to keep in mind 24-7. I don’t think there is any exaggeration in saying that a 5-year-old today has to worry far more about their behavior at school than I did until I’d graduated from university.
As a director of my own company, I can write my blogs without any pressure from company brand-enforcers or personnel, and I don’t have to worry about appraisals. Theoretically, nobody tells me what to write. But I still have to self-censor just like everyone else. I have to be very careful how I phrase things if I am writing about any minority, I often have to avoid mentioning unfortunate facts or statistics that might later be considered by someone to put them in a negative light, and I steer well away from some topics altogether. I don’t need to list sensitive topics, you have to be careful around them just as much as I do.
As a kid, I was marginally aware of the existence of the police and the theoretical possibility of being caught if we did something too naughty. For me, it’s only occasionally irritating having to obey the law – I don’t actually want to commit crime anyway, so until recently it was only things like too low speed limits where the law itself was the real constraint to my freedom. Now the potential for overenthusiastic police to investigate any comment that might be deemed by anyone to be slightly offensive to anyone else means an oppression field exists around every keyboard. Orwell was right on all but dates.
It often seems that the official police are the least of our worries though. The real police are the social networks and the web. If you tweet something and it annoys some people, you will soon feel the wrath, even if it is a simple statement of fact or an innocent opinion. Even if it is entirely legal, if it falls into any of dozens of sensitive areas it might well jeopardize your next job, or the one after that, and it will likely stay there for ever. Or it might result in some busybody making a complaint to the police who do seem rather too politically correct and in spite of ‘the cuts’ seem to manage to find resources to police a wide range of things that were considered well outside the domain of the law until recently.
I’ve said it many times, but as people stopped believing in God, they didn’t stop being religious. Political correctness is simply one of the traits of 21st century piety. The very same people are politically correct today as were the holier-than-thou types looking down at everyone else in church a few decades ago. Now, the platform for gossip or petitions or many other means to undermine you is the net, but the potential audience is far bigger. The problem isn’t the religious nuts in a local church any more, it is a global church with multiple religions and a wide variety of religious nuts. If you tweet something, you may get retaliation from people anywhere in the world.
For me, the thought police are the biggest threat to liberty, and they threaten it globally. Government everywhere wants to close down any discussion that might cause tension between communities. Some even want to close down scientific debates such as on climate change. The UK, the USA, even Australia are all badly infected with the same libertyphobia, the same preference of oppression over liberty. Much of the media is highly complicit in wave after wave of censorship, even as they fight against other areas of censorship. Freedom of speech no longer exists, however much our leaders try to pretend they are protecting it.
Universities are following enthusiastically too. Several times recently speakers have been barred from universities because their message didn’t align with the political correctness there. It is shameful that institutions that sprung up to educate and debate and further knowledge are complicit in restricting and perverting it. It is even more worrying that it is often the student unions leading the closing down of freedom of speech. If you are only free to say one thing, you are not free at all.
Technology today is infinitely better than when I was a kid. In so many ways, the world is a far better place. On liberty, we have gone backwards.
I can draw only one conclusion: the future of liberty is a gilded cage.