The thinking right to roam
Sometime in the 1980s I was on a train journey in the UK and overheard a conversation that had always stayed with me since but has come back to mind very frequently in recent times. (I don’t make a habit of earwigging other people’s talk, by the way, but what I relate here just sort of happened as part of the soundtrack to this particular journey.)
It was a relatively quiet train and the group at the table across the aisle were evidently enjoying precious time together. All three were American by accent, and it gradually emerged that a couple was touring this country as the friends and guests of the third person, who was now based in the UK at a university close to where this train had departed. She seemed to be fulfilling in joyful fashion a promise to her friends to show them the country where she now lived and worked.
As well as a running commentary on the beauty of the scenery outside, the subject of her work came up. I don’t recall what her subject area was, but what arrested me was this question asked of her by her friends: “Do you think people are freer here than in the US?”.
Her response was considered and, to me at the time, very striking. “Yes”, she said.
She explained why she felt this. In the US, there was an unspoken but powerful conformism whose pervasive effect dramatically narrowed people’s freedom of expression and action.
In what sphere of life, personal or professional? “Both.” Rigid expectations of behaviour and community participation on the one hand, and an implicit set of limits in the academic world, a party line that had to be held else tacit exclusion sanctions would apply. Whereas in the UK, she felt naturally able to play the newcomer card without restriction in social circles and her academic department openly encouraged wide and free debate. My overriding impression was that she was contrasting the institutional exercise of power to constrain, balanced with individual rights, both in work and non-work milieus.
Aside from a glowing pride in my country and its welcome to this particular individual, I mentally banked the conversation as an accretion to my own worldview.
Why has it come back to mind recently? Well, I’ve already written about the stark difference I’ve perceived over time in a reduced propensity to discuss current goings on (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/naturally-nothing-off-limits-for-discussion) and an instance of cultural suppression (https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/a-pen-friend-in-another-world) but it is also the active debate currently in progress over proposed Scottish “Hate Crime” legislation that has made that overheard conversation resonate afresh. Recent public debate has included scenarios in which, yes, private conversations in people’s houses would come under the aegis of the new law if reported and thereby become actionable.
At the time of my train journey, the country of origin of my parents, Hungary, was still a socialist country and I would be warned before each visit to check my tongue lest I or relatives and friends I was visiting were compromised. Political dissent was still punished at the time and at my grandmother’s flat in Budapest there was an occasional hushing to a whisper when edgy subjects were being broached, for fear of prying neighbours or bugs. But how would I know what and who not to talk about? You can’t know, was the answer, it is whatever the people in charge decide is off limits, it may change from time to time without notice and you may find out too late. Another reason to be grateful for being British in those days.
All this against a backdrop of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which was one of my set texts at school, with its Big Brother, wrongthink and thoughtcrime. We all know about Winston Smith, but one of the secondary characters, a Party loyalist called Parsons, is eventually arrested for thoughtcrime, denounced by his activist children because in his sleep he is alleged to have said “Down with Big Brother”. In his sleep, the ultimate subconscious state.
Now here are the coincidental twists that bring all these things together in my mind now: the train journey I have been writing about was in Scotland, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and it took place in … 1984.
George Orwell projected 35 years into the future when he completed writing the book in 1949 (but see below) and clearly the UK was not then in such a situation – although manifestly so in various socialist spheres of influence around the world and indeed right wing regimes in South America and elsewhere – but add another 35 or so and you arrive at the here and now.
I am left wondering whether the academic I overheard on that Scottish train would still say that she was able to enjoy greater freedom in the UK than in the US. Of course, it’s a relative question in the terms expressed and may still be technically true comparatively, but freedom of expression has undoubtedly been diminished in absolute terms in almost every institutional setting, however well meaning the drivers behind such changes. Perhaps we’ll get the point that, in Scotland or elsewhere where similar legislative measures are put in place, would-be visitors will need to be reminded to check their tongue, lest someone is listening. Listening for what, exactly? Only Big Brother (or Big Sibling) knows, and he/she will decide.
I’ve referred in general terms to institutional settings. It’s a truism that institutions are made up of people belonging to it even if there is a “meta” level of how its culture comes about (see https://www.baloghblog.uk/post/how-to-challenge-or-defend-a-dominant-culture) and of associations acquiring a quasi-mystical identity and personality of their own. But, to the extent that people influence their institutions, I think it behoves all of us to be aware of whether we as individuals are consciously or subconsciously adding to or subtracting from freedom of thinking and expression, especially when there is legitimate room for alternative perspectives. Which I think is the case for most subjects almost all of the time. There is a lot of talk about inclusivity, rightly, but inclusivity of thinking can sometime feel like a discardable optional extra and I don’t think that’s a good thing.
To end, back to 1984. Apparently, George Orwell wanted to call the novel 1948, the year it was substantively written, but his publishers objected and the final two numbers were inverted instead. It is of course an allegorical story that can be abstracted from time and place but, as written, one of the things I was irrationally proud about is that, of the small handful of places Orwell cites, it includes Berkhamsted, my home town.
But in terms of the message of the book, is it Back to 1948, Back to 1984, or is it instead perhaps Back to the Future, or even Back to the Present Day?