The splitting up of campaigns to fight for the interests of different communities was useful. It provided focus, drive and benefited from the determination and understanding of affected people working together. But that time is nearly over. We have emigrated, educated and pioneered our way into a melting pot of intersecting multiple identities and oppressions. Soon, few people will fall into a single category of ‘gay’ or ‘elderly’ or ‘female’ or ‘disabled’. As medical science improves lifespans and life chances and violence continues its downward trend, more people will identify as queer, disabled, elderly and suffering from mental illness. This doesn’t mean that these things weren’t there before, just that people are being open about it, or in the case of people with life-threatening conditions, that science is giving them the chance to live. With such a vast amount of intersectionality (oppression based on the effects of intersecting discriminations, for example a young black man may be discriminated in a different way to a trans black woman despite them both being the same race), distinct categories will become less useful. And separating rights into categories has already proved to be harmful. I’ll go through how labelling has nearly reached its limit of usefulness in regard to feminism, LGBTQ rights, race and appearance-based discrimination. Then we’ll look at how freedom is the basis of law and personal success as well as societal success.
Let’s start with feminism. I’m a feminist, but it’s easy to see where feminism’s success has actually limited choices for women. We only have to look at teenage mothers, stay-at-home mothers as female sex workers. If we consider first our teenage mothers- actually, categorising entire families on the English “-teen” suffix for certain numbers is ludicrous in itself, and implies ubiquity or legal status where there is none. A thirteen year old is not the same as a nineteen year old. The nineteen year old is lumped together with thirteen year olds, though she’s more similar to a 21 year old mother, while twelve year old mothers (and there have been nine and ten year olds who have given birth) are left out altogether. Young parents do not share any kind of legal status; it is also confusing that legal adults (16 or over in Scotland) are still called teen parents. Even in jurisdictions where the age of majority is older, it is confusing why parents over the age of consent are still referred to as teen parents. This is where categorising gets us. More importantly, the reason many young and teen female parents face stigma is because of feminist ideals. It’s seen as wrong to start a family young because girls and young women are supposed to be focused on their education and career over family. Some people worry that taking care of a child will affect a girl’s education, though this has been debunked (it’s just that middle-class teenagers are more likely to have abortions, not that having children makes you drop out of education). In fact, it is unfortunate that this myth makes career-oriented girls discontinue pregnancies out of fear that it will affect their education rather than out of well-informed choice. And that just perpetuates the myth that getting pregnant young will ruin your life. So those who are younger and find themselves pregnant will have an abortion, thus reinforcing society’s belief that abortion is necessary to ensure girls’ success. Related to this is the belief that only uneducated girls are teenage parents, creating a class stereotype which girls and young women may try to avoid by putting off trying for a baby or by having abortions. So myths and stereotypes frighten adolescent girls and young women into postponing motherhood and that ‘proves’ to their friends and community that teen motherhood is wrong or must be avoided to ensure a successful life. And on and on it goes, in an endless cycle. This wouldn’t be an issue if it was their choice to postpone childbirth. They may not feel like having a baby right now; that’s a great reason not to. If they sincerely believe- rightly or wrongly- that having children at this stage will affect their education, then why take even the smallest chance? But if girls (possibly influenced by their parents) are making choices out of fear, misinformation and class snobbery, this is not true freedom.
Of course the ones who suffer most are the young women who brave the odds and decide to start a family. They’re pitied, looked down on, or deemed to be promiscuous or benefits scroungers. (There’s that class stereotype again). Rewind a few decades and young motherhood was the norm. They wouldn’t be given a second glance. Rewind back further, or imagine a different society, one in which there are almost no rights for women. We are there to be bred, to serve as some hybrid of milk cow and exceptionally polite waitress. The teenage mothers would be envied at having achieved the pinnacle of Womanhood before the rest of us. In countries with a low birth rate such as Estonia in the 2000s, having children was encouraged and teen motherhood was not seen as a problem or differentiated from older motherhood. The idea of ‘teen pregnancy’ is a social construct. In our society, it arose because of greater access to education making people delay childbearing, equal rights to education for women, and because of feminism telling us women should prioritise career and only have a family once steady career progression is underway.
That doesn’t mean feminism is a bad thing; it’s given us a lot, including the freedom not to marry or have children. Back in the old days I’d be a spinster for remaining unmarried with no children. Now, it’s the other way around; I’m doing it the right way round and the young mothers are doing family wrong. Feminism’s working for me. Yay.
All of this is a product of feminism’s amazing successes. We have access to higher education for all, including women. We have birth control which allows us to maximise our finances by having fewer children or not starting a family if we believe that would affect our education or career. But these options are no longer options if we’re judged for not choosing them. Birth control doesn’t feel like a choice for those women and girls who have the intellectual capacity to go to university regardless of- or perhaps even encouraged by- having a baby at 14, or those who want nine kids and, since this is their wish, would benefit emotionally from doing so. They chose not to use birth control at those times. And they’re judged for it. No matter how much birth control they used before or after having each child.
Stay-at-home mothers are another, closely related, example. Way back when, the phrase ‘stay at home mother’ would no more have existed than the phrase ‘teenage mother’. That’s because all mothers were stay-at-home, and if you weren’t, you were weird. Now, women can be looked down on for throwing their opportunities away or letting their education go to waste by choosing to be a housewife. Stay at home mothers who are also young mothers or single mothers get even more stigma for supposedly ‘scrounging benefits’, being lazy, or it’s seen as further proof that single mothers are poor good-for-nothings or that teenage pregnancy ruins your life.
And onto sex working women. Well. Many feminists believe that women can choose their career and what they do with their own body. Some…er, don’t. Really don’t. Sex workers of all genders have faced stigmatisation for decades and feminism has actually eased some of that. But many radical feminists express venom toward sex workers far more than the general population, certainly more than the average man. They see sex working women as traitors to feminism and as perpetuating male power. These arguments could fill a book, and I’m not going to go into it all here. My point is that female sex workers have not been best served by feminism. Unlike the plight of young or unemployed women with children, feminism’s effect on sex workers is deliberate.
Obviously the LGBTQ movement has achieved enormous progression. Not just with same sex marriage, but general safety- there are laws in place to protect people from violence or dismissal due to sexuality and gender identity (well, at least in theory). I’m going to focus on people who are still in the closet, people who engage in activities across gender lines but don’t identify as queer.
Those who are comfortable with their gender- or sexual identity have benefited a lot from the LGBTQ rights movement, though as with everything, there’s a long way still to go. For those still in the closet or experimenting- or even the general population- perhaps a freedom-oriented approach could be beneficial. Back in the 1950’s, homosexuality was a crime. By which I mean that everyone was believed to potentially be capable of engaging in same-sex sexual activity. It wasn’t gay, because no-one was gay or straight, we were all just human. Apparently, men found it easier to find partners back then because there was no ‘gay’ label- it was just two guys committing a crime and having fun. Now, a bisexual or pansexual person would have to get past the mental baggage of the label first before applying it to themselves, or their first experience would prompt an existential crisis about their sexual identity. Would we perhaps all be more likely to find joy in different experiences with different people, without even considering gender presentation, if we didn’t have all these labels? Uncategorised sexuality might be freeing for those of us who aren’t obviously queer or don’t feel ourselves to be most of the time.
As for gender presentation, taking away all the ‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’ from clothing, kids’ toys, and, well, everything, might give us more freedom in our self-expression. We might be more likely just to dress however we like if we weren’t afraid of flouting gender norms or wanted to present as our gender. For example, as I identify as female, I would be unlikely to wear mens’ clothing as I wish to present as my gender. Ironically, trans people have exactly the same issue and then some; their safety often depends on ‘passing’ as the gender they’ve transitioned to. It is precisely because gender is so important in Western culture that transgender people are targeted with violence for a failure to conform to the gender they were assigned at birth. In fact, if nothing in our culture was gendered, I wonder if anyone would even have to transition, or perhaps gender would cease to exist or be so different from the rigid social laws it is now, that we simply can’t imagine what that society would be like. These gender assignments of colour and clothing are culturally specific. Viking men wore makeup, for example. If high heels, make up and ties weren’t assigned a gender presentation, we might happily mix it up.
While race relations still have a way to go (looking at you, USA) the time will come when we’re all, in the words of Cleveland Brown, crazy mixed-up future people. Race will then cease to exist. Even now, racially-based judgements within black communities cause problems, not just racism from outside. Colourism and featurism are present among African Americans and I have seen it among Africans whom I’ve met. This is where more European features such as lighter skin, looser curls and European-like facial features are valued over deeper skin tones and more coily or kinky hair textures. People who experience judgement from their own community may not see a complete improvement if racism were eradicated. Obviously there’d be some relief as it is racism and specifically anti-blackness driving colourism and featurism. But it’s possible that both could remain even if all ethnic groups were truly treated equally across the globe. The same goes for skin lightening fads even among populations who aren’t dark, such as Koreans.
Meanwhile, some feel pressured to tan. I’m not saying this is the same pressure or comes from as deep a root as people bleaching their skin (which is also far more harmful than tanning). This is just to say that people feel they need to look a certain way and be skinny, trendy, have a Kardashian booty or whatever to fit in and avoid being fat-shamed or bullied for their appearance. While campaigns for natural beauty and the cessation of fatphobia have met with success, I wonder if, in the future, a more general call not to judge on any appearance-based characteristics will happen. This could also include disability and mental health, especially discrimination against those with visible disabilities. (For those with invisible disabilities, the problem can be the opposite, with people disbelieving their needs such as not offering a seat on public transport or querying their use of disabled parking or welfare eligibility).
Freedom is the only Law
All laws around the world protect freedoms. Freedom to own property without interference, to be free from violence, and free to conduct business. This is more obvious in democratic countries. However, murder, rape and kidnapping are illegal across countries and cultures, including tribal law. They are almost ubiquitously the most serious offences, incurring the most severe forms of punishment. Why is that? Because murder ends the victim’s will, future choices and right to life. Rape is a very obvious violation of freedom to choose and kidnapping denies a victim freedom of movement. This is the social contract: we give up our own rights (freedom to murder our enemies or not pay tax) to the government and it protects our rights and freedoms (our enemies can’t murder us, we get welfare, education and healthcare). All law is the protection of freedom. Trials weigh not just the facts and justice, but also one person’s rights and freedom against another’s.
Freedom is the basis of personal and societal success
Even capitalism isn’t just the pursuit of money, it’s chasing choice. The reason we all want to get as much education and as much career success as we can- even to the point of letting that worry tangent to stigma against teen mothers, as mentioned above- is to get as much choice as we can. The more money you have, the wider the range of holidays you can afford, choices of car you can make, partners you can choose from and even the type of work you do. With more income, you may not have to work full time and your job is more likely to offer greater freedom in terms of flexitime, maternity/paternity leave, and sabbatical leave.
And it’s not just about materialism. Learning new skills, practising one’s spirituality, helping others and developing compassion are only possible in a relatively secure society in which one’s basic needs are provided for. You couldn’t go volunteer at your local animal shelter or find time to meditate if you had to work a 90 hour week of hard labour while barely eating enough to sustain life. You would be legally free to pursue your passions if they aren’t illegal, but you wouldn’t be truly free because you’d lack time and energy. You also wouldn’t be free to pursue your education. You could be the most brilliant mind in the land but live and die unable to write your name. The knowledge you could’ve provided to the world would be lost.
Welfare, education and healthcare services provide citizens with true freedom. And those free citizens then go on to contribute to the economy by purchasing goods and services to keep others in work so they buy stuff and keep yet more people in work (we’re seeing right now what happens when this fails). Free citizens also use their education to get good jobs and contribute to human knowledge, thereby improving healthcare and education in their turn, or creating new products to be consumed. Therefore freedom is the essence not only of personal success, but community and national success. Also global success, especially in regard to science and other knowledge.
Freedom is above corruption
All political movements and belief systems are vulnerable to corruption, misuse and misinterpretation. Even Buddhism, a practice so without dogma that some don’t classify it as a religion. has been corrupted to serve the whims of the brutal regime in Myanmar and transformed into an ideology of murder and rape. Another obvious example is the deliberate misinterpretation of Islam to serve the interests of terrorists. However, Freedom is difficult to corrupt because it doesn’t rely on a basis such as a god or goodness, but on the basis of our lived realities. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to corrupt- there are examples aplenty of governments cracking down on freedoms in the name of protecting freedoms from foreign enemies or terrorist threats. Some groups could prioritise their freedoms over others’, such as hate groups arguing that their hate speech should be permitted on the grounds of freedom of expression. But at least it can withstand some misinterpretation. You can always argue back, ‘Yes, you’re not free to call for the extermination of people you don’t like. But, those people deserve to be free from fear caused by your speech. Our society functions best when free of the violence your speech inspires.’ There’s always room for argument. You don’t get that when everything is based on gods, law (because laws can be antiquated or not recognise ethics) or equality.
When you get right down to it, freedom is the basis of fulfilling individual potential as well as humanity’s potential. Labels and categories may still hold their use for some time, especialy as they’re believed in by many. However, in the end, we’ll all be one force lobbying for freedom.