A greater form of freedom

Talk of ‘rights’ has peaked. It’s time to embrace ‘freedom from harm’ as a principle that can drive cohesion, says Suzanne Stein.

Last century, action for change was mostly led by the notion of individual freedom, supported by western ideologies of agency; now, that perspective may be changing. We are witnessing the pernicious effects of taking these liberties on our social commons. Paradoxically, we limit our collective freedom when we each exercise it alone.

Rather than ‘freedom to’, it may be the principle of ‘freedom from harm’ that can ensure a cohesive society, and enable us to handle and mitigate inter-related economic and environmental challenges. A Freedom From may include `polluted water’. Polluted water may arise from business practices that solely look at economic profit. The effects are not only environmental but may displace communities and cultures. By taking ‘Freedom From’ principles into account, organizations may strive for the quadruple bottom-lines of: economic, social, cultural and environmental. This will lead to innovation and future prosperity and vibrancy.

The still-cherished ‘right’ to individual autonomy and action, is what Isaiah Berlin would call a positive liberty. Our insistence on it undermines our ability to question the diseased practices and structures that threaten to severely limit our future choices and freedoms. Turning the tide means looking at the ways in which we, as both individuals and collectives, cause harm — with intent or through neglect.

Recently 35 change-makers (story tellers and activists) gathered in the Super Ordinary Lab at OCAD University to identify the important issues that face the ‘unheard’ or marginalized voices within Canada today. We mapped the causal relationships from pre- 1400 to today, and explored the knock-on effects into the future 2050 — which does not look good.

The problems were “wicked” — to use Horst Rittel’s term: their dimensions and parameters are hard to determine and there is no stopping point as to their relational arenas of impact and effects. It is also difficult to intervene, without causing unintended, negative outcomes.

But the possibilities for change were also apparent. As all the issues are inter-connected, an active intervention in one area may have important remedial effects in another. A systems view is needed to work out how to intervene — and to make that intervention lasting, a paradigm shift is required.

The group concluded that acting as a cohesive and supportive social collective may be the only way forward. For instance, by addressing mental health and alcoholism, we may bring communities and individuals — including war veterans suffering from PTSD and women surviving domestic abuse — into a movement of positive social change and public address. By coming together to galvanize change, we can find ways beyond the polarizing views and solipsistic information filters that reinforce the dichotomies of self and other.

Our technologies of expression can enable dominant and abusive voices to silence others. But they also have the promise of connecting individuals and communities into multi-cited actions, empathic exchange and radical change.

Safe and open spaces for diverse expression and exchange are needed to support a holistic view, so we can work together to expand our collective freedom — now and in the long run. Organizations need to tap into their knowledge resources, embodied by the different individuals and view points of coworkers. They would benefit from extending this collective wisdom to others within the sectors, communities and systems within which they work.

Author: Professor Suzanne Stein is the Director of Super Ordinary Laboratory, OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) University in Canada.

Image credit: See-ming Lee / Flickr

Originally published at thefuturescentre.org on May 10, 2016.