Ever since I wrote the post about supporting Stephen Gough, I’ve had this feeling that somehow I haven’t adequately explained how I think public nudity is about freedom. Recently, I read about Matt Taylor, a scientist at ESA, being criticized by the public for wearing what they considered an inappropriate shirt on the day ESA landed a man-made machine (Philae) on a comet going by the designation 67P. I wrote about this on my other blog. That day, a more concrete thought began to form in my mind.
The fact is, nudity as such is not about freedom. Instead, nudity is the practice of the freedom we (ought to) already have. Since we do not have that freedom (as is clear from the case of Stephen Gough), nudity becomes about freedom. (It is much in the same way that sitting at the front of the bus – a triviality in virtually every other context – becomes about freedom when a segregated minority is required to give way to a priviledged majority, to use an example from my post about Stephen Gough.) You could say nudity is also an expression of freedom and for many nudists – myself included – being naked is the closest we could ever get to an actual manifestation of the abstract concept of freedom. In other words, you could take your clothes off and feel the sun and the breeze on your skin and think “This is freedom,” even though there are many other aspects of that same freedom – from the most everyday and mundane things like eating a meal you’ve earned through your own hard work, to landing a spacecraft onto a comet while wearing whatever clothes you feel like wearing.
The judges who convicted Stephen Gough violated the same principle as the public which criticized Matt Taylor’s choice of clothes and demanded an apology from Matt and ESA. They both violated the freedoms of those individuals to live their life as they saw fit, to pursue their own happiness in the way they saw fit. But what connects these two cases? In case of Stephen Gough the judges said he behaved in an anti-social manner; in case of Matt Taylor, the public cried that the shirt he wore was sexist and ostracizing (yes, the shirt can, in fact, discriminate and devalue based on a person’s sex, as well as exclude others from society, friendship, etc. according to The Verge) and as such it
[…] stops women from entering certain scientific fields. They see a guy like that on TV and they don’t feel welcome. They see a poster of greased up women in a colleague’s office and they know they aren’t respected. They hear comments about “bitches” while out at a bar with fellow science students, and they decide to change majors.
You can see where this goes – they would have you ostracized because your choice of the clothes you wear makes them feel worth less, because the way you decorate your office makes them judge you as disrespecting them, because your lack of manners is enough for them to buckle in the pursuit of their own dreams – all their words, not mine. Basically, they seek to punish you because their will is so fragile.
In both cases an individual is being punished, not for the damage he caused to others, but for the feelings their actions invoked in others. What we’re basically led to believe by these two cases is that other people’s emotions are the ever-changing standard by which we tailor individual freedoms. But do we really need that kind of freedom? Do we really need the law and the broadest philosophical principles bent out of shape to tell us that we may only behave in the way the society will let us behave?
Stephen Gough asked “We consider ourselves a democratic and free society, but how far does that go?” And indeed, if it goes only as far as the whims of others will allow, then it doesn’t go very far and each day it can only go as far as the day before, and no further. Such a system can only become more and more repressive. The truth is there already is a system in place which condemns anti-social behavior, even in cases where there are no laws against it. Public shaming and ridicule are two such legitimate mechanisms.
Freedom – that is, being free – entails both ends of this spectrum. You are (or should be) free to violate social norms, and others are free to ridicule you for it; and you are (or should be) free to ridicule others for any behavior which strikes you as weird or unusual, but others are free to engage in such behavior. This is all – as it always is with freedom – provided that other people’s freedoms are not violated. But what is it you are supposed to be free from? If anyone can do anything regardless of what is generally accepted or not, we are seemingly free from all restraints. But we really aren’t. If we were to define personal freedom that way, then nobody would really be free because at all times everyone would be in danger of everyone else taking away their freedom. The only way to take away someone’s freedom, leaving them no possibility of regaining it, is by the use of physical force, or threat of the use of physical force, which if credible, basically comes down to the same thing.
The only way to define freedom in a consistent and non-contradictory manner in the context of a society (any society) is that one is free to do anything except initiate the use of physical force against others.
Stephen Gough, the naked rambler, violated many social norms, but never by the use of physical force. However, instead of being ridiculed (or, better said, in addition to being ridiculed), he was incarcerated. The justice system, which ought to protect people from the initiation of physical force, initiated physical force against Stephen Gough.
Matt Taylor, while he wasn’t incarcerated, wasn’t ridiculed either. He was bullied into submission by the general public which jumped to its feet, screaming and demanding in its self-righteous fury that Matt submit to its will.
Both of these issues – nudity and choice of clothes – are not worth breaking bones over, yet both of these issues demonstrate that our society is not truly free. That this is indeed the case is further confirmed by things on the other end of the spectrum, which many societies consider OK, yet are a clear violation of other people’s freedoms. Consider circumcision as an example of an invasion of one’s physical integrity, heavy taxation as a form of expropriation, arranged marriage (particularly when no choice and possibility of refusal is allowed) as a form of slavery, etc. Also lately, any action which doesn’t involve physical force, but causes many people voice their offense and outrage (Remember the Danish cartoons? Microsoft being “found guilty” for bundling its products by EU courts?) is frowned upon, or even severely punished, thus forcing submission to the deified collective whim.
A meme was recently quite popular as it circulated my social networks. It said:
I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns.
We could make a similar statement for Stephen Gough:
I want naked people to be able to attend parent-teacher conferences and get dental care.
Or Matt Taylor:
I want inappropriately dressed people to be able to give interviews after landing spacecrafts on comets.
Or children who are to be circumcized at the behest of their parents (or a judge):
I want intact infants to be left alone until they can have a say in their genital mutilation.
These are all concretized forms of a single abstract thought:
I want people to be free.
And that’s why nudity, among other forbidden things, is about freedom.