Fear of Freedom: On the Left and the Right

Edward Said

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El miedo a la libertad, Sobre izquierdas y derechas (Spanish)


Fear of Freedom: On the Left and the Right


Jorge Majfud


Generally, an historical phenomenon is naturalized thanks to an absence of memory (hence the political value of neutrality and forgetting). Obviously not always for political reasons: it was once assumed that a nerve originating from the heart ended in one of the fingers of the left hand, which is why the wedding ring is worn there today. A man takes his bride to the altar with the left arm because centuries ago other grooms had to keep the right arm free in order to grasp the sword aimed at skewering the enemy. Carriages drove down the left side of the road: the driver’s right hand took up the weapon needed to defend himself against other drivers. For political reasons, revolutionary France and North America chose to drive on the other side and Napoleon confirmed it, not because he was revolutionary but because he was left-handed. Greeting with the right-handed handshake or handwave was able to signify the same thing: it was a friendly way of verifying that one was not armed.

Despite the fact that the right hand signified violence, symbolically it was associated with all of the virtues. The knight who alone or with other nobles crossed the countryside of Europe and the Middle East valued his right hand for many reasons, among which was its identification with defense. In a violent world, the right served for self-defense, and therefore possessed a value superior to the left hand and to reason. There was no argument about the fact that the right served to defend against other right hands in a culture of violence. In the same way, armies are justified even today for the defense of the homeland and of honor and not for assaults on other homelands and other honors. Right, righteous, rights, rightwing, righthand man, have come to be synonyous with virtue while the left is identified with the sinister (from the Latin sinister, meaning “on the left” or “unlucky”).  Culture nourished the superstition that a left-handed man was a partner of Evil and school children’s left hand was tied down and they were forced to write with their right hand.

At the same time, as Saussure would observe, there is no reason for a sign to have any necessary relationship with its signified. The fact that the Jacobins and Girondins would sit on one side or the other of the National Assembly of revolutionary France was merely circumstantial.

What is not accidental is the creation of semantic fields (the establishment of ideolexicons) in the struggle for social power.

Twenty or thirty years ago in the Southern Cone declaring oneself a leftist was enough to send you to prison or lose your life in a torture session. Nearly the majority of citizens and almost all the media took pains – in different ways – to identify themselves with the right. Being on the right was not only politically correct but, also, a requirement for survival.

The valorization of this ideolexicon has changed dramatically. This is demonstrated by a recent trial taking place in Uruguay. Búsqueda, a well-known weekly magazine, has taken to court a senator of the republic, José Korzeniak, because he characterized the publication as “on the right.” If this attitude were generalized, we would have to say that censorship no longer extends from political power toward the communication media, as before, but from the media toward the politicians in power. Which would be an interesting historical rarity.

The trial represents another rarity. The judge in the case had to call different witnesses to define what is on the right and what is on the left. It is assumed that the judicial process must resolve a philosophical problem that has never been closed or resolved. Dialectical exercise is completely healthy, but the form and place are proving to be surrealist at the very least.

I suppose that if it is demonstrated that Búsqueda is not on the right the senator will lose the trial, but if the opposite is demonstrated, he would be absolved of his crime. Nonetheless, another problem arises here. Is freedom of expression a crime now? What does it matter if Búsqueda is on the right or on the left as far as the law is concerned? Why should it be considered an insult or a civil crime to be on the right? Is not all opposition to the government on the right, and who knows if the government itself as well from some more radical point of view?

We will dispense with pretensions of independence, of neutrality or of objectivity, because those superstitions have already been demolished by thinkers like Edward Said. Nothing in culture is neutral, even though the will to objectivity might be a utopian virtue which we should not renounce. Part of intellectual honesty consists of recognizing that our own point of view is human and not necessarily the point of view of God. Historically political neutrality is prescribed only when it works in favor of a status quo, since every social order implies a network of political values imposed through the violence of their alleged neutrality.

Whether the senator is on the left or on the right, whether this or that daily paper is on the left or the right, that is up to each citizen to judge. The only thing that every citizen should demand of the law, of justice, is that it respect and protect their right to whatever opinion they like and their right to do so in any medium. In an open society, censorship should only result from reason or the strength of arguments. If a social consensus were possible about theme X, this should be derived from the most complete freedom of expression and not from any authority’s imposition of force or from the fear of “crime of opinion.”

Is it that we Uruguayans, who are so proud of our democratic tradition, are still not able to overcome the mental parameters of the dictatorship? Why such fear of freedom?

In many of our countries, trials for reasons of “honor” are still common. The stamp of the duel to the death – heritage of the violent knights of the Middle Ages – projects its image onto an anachronistic mentality. Like the famous “honor of weapons,” a paradoxical ideolexicon, if such a thing exists, since there is nothing less appropriate to a demonstration of honor than instruments of death.

Someone might argue that if Juan insults me that stains my honor. Nonetheless, even in that extreme, in an open society I would have the same right to respond to the hypothetical offense using the same means. But the very idea that someone can offend another person by recourse to insult is a flawed construction: anyone who insults gratuitously insults his own intelligence. If we knew how to develop a culture of freedom and uproot the implicit fear of debate and dissidence, the insult would be an undesired option just as it is today to assault each other in a ridiculous weapons duel. For the same reason, we would stop confusing criticisms with personal affront.

I can understand that defense of the crime might be considered a crime in itself, but we still have not been able to demonstrate clearly that naming someone or an organ of the press with the title “on the right” is a defense for the crime. First, because being on the right does not lead necessarily (directly or deliberately) to theft or criminality. Second, because we know people who honestly believe that being on the right is a virtue and not an insulting defect. Third, because nobody is safe from acts and opinions on the right.


Translated by Bruce Campbell




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