US police militarised riot brutality
US police (Image: Flikr/Kate Sheets)

There is a curious paradox in the crisis ignited by the death of George Floyd and it cuts to the heart of how people view freedom.

This killing was an abuse of individual rights, which — as embodiments of the notion of freedom — are dear to conservative hearts. But when it comes to the individual rights of protesters and black victims of state violence, it depends on which individual.

Freedom is central to our society and culture, but can you have too much of a good thing?

The prominent US moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers deep insights into this question in The Righteous Mind, arguing that moral agreements bind societies. And we belong to moral tribes.

But differences between “right” and “left” mean people fail to comprehend the other side’s values. This divide underpins the tribal conflict of US and Australian politics.

Freedom is contested across this divide. Conservatives ensure we don’t ignore the centrality of freedom to the good life. Progressives may value freedom but are more willing to limit it to bolster fairness.

But freedom love can go too far. Haidt writes: “The psychology of sacredness helps binds individuals into moral communities.” Freedom plays this binding role for conservatives. Within conservative narratives freedom is sacralised, transformed into a totem to worship.

In the law of the jungle, all animals, including humans, are free. But there is no absolute freedom. If you are an antelope and you stray too close to a hungry lion, you get eaten. Freedom exists within constraints.

It’s a question of balance. The right argues individuals should determine those constraints upon themselves. The antelope should not be silly and stray from the herd. This view buttresses the interests of the rich and powerful who seek a world without constraints on them but are happy to constrain those who might take what is “theirs”.

The left argues lions should be constrained. When taken too far, the result is too much constraint. Animals (us) are imprisoned in cages speckled across the savannah.

Our contemporary written laws have supplanted jungle law. They limit our freedom based on our morals; agreements about how we live together, helping us co-operate. They limit the freedom to take selfish action, particularly if it causes harm.

The constraint on freedom during the pandemic is justified by the future benefit. But the risk of harm to livelihoods is also clear. Many conservatives, and all freedom worshippers, argue that individuals should be free to do their own risk assessments.

Why do freedom worshippers not become outraged when the freedom and rights of a black man are so clearly abused by state violence?

The impulses driving this are not simply resistance to systemic and structural change. Haidt identifies conservative core values as respect for authority, group loyalty and a sense of purity. They also value care and fairness, as they define it. The left favours its versions of fairness, while not respecting authority as deeply.

Conservatives are torn between freedom and authority. They are conflicted about police abuse of a black man; their values compete. With their strong respect for authority, they are reluctant to stand against the police. They may also see the black man as the problem. Their sense of purity can promote within them disgust for the other.

So confused conservatives must choose between freedom and authority. US President Donald Trump could have called for calm, change and fairness but chose to promote the tribal divide. He emphasised crime and violence, played down injustice, and pushed tribal loyalties.

These law-and-order and respect-for-authority narratives blind conservatives to the injustices — the many profound, structural and distressing injustices — and the injustice continues.

Fear and threat drive a lot of human behaviour: deep fears of the non-white other; fears of loss of white privilege and power in a changing world; fears about loss of living standards in a globalised economy; fears over​ God’s authority being insulted by atheist progressives; fears that the sacred notion of freedom will be constrained by someone other than themselves.

Freedom is not the freedom to violently clear a public square for a presidential photo opportunity. Freedom is not the freedom to kill civilians in custody. Individual rights belong to all, including black men and women — in the US, Australia and elsewhere — living too often under the repressive knee of the state.

Jock Cheetham is a senior lecturer in journalism at Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, whose research has applied moral psychology to religious persecution in Indonesia.