Nick Barley – Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival – introduces the topic by sharing a story of how he came to commission authors to write essays on what freedom means to them. The essence of this captured in his state that the purpose of this is “to think about not only a word, freedom… and why literary conversations matter”. From here, the three authors on stage with Barley speak in turn about what freedom means to them.
Yaba Badoe spoke first. She spoke about a kind of national freedom drawing on the independence of Ghana as her example. But within this, she discussed the challenges that such national freedom brings. She spoke about how there were all these grand ideas as to what a new Ghana was going to look like and how independence in Ghana would lead to the creation of a “heaven on Earth” free from British colonial rule. However, in this instance, reality did no meet the expectations and she warned about the challenges associated with dreams of freedom and the reality of these desires.
Juno Dawson spoke next. Dawson spoke about freedom of speech. However, she was more interested in the consequences that can result from freedom of speech. Simply put by herself:
“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.”
To her, freedom of speech does not protect people from the fallout or consequences of the “stupid things” that they say, and that people have a right to react. She drew on her own personal experience with transphobic remarks in regards to her transitioning in the public eye. The issue here was with the way people expressed surprise or derision in the way she did not accept such abuse but instead chose to protect herself through various means leading to some people claiming that she, herself, was against free speech. This is of course not the case, simply that people need to be aware that people should expect consequences for the things that they say.
Dawson also talked about how freedoms that have already been acquired should not be taken for granted:
“Freedoms can be rolled back… often hard won, and can be taken away”.
Most notably, the ongoing issues with reproductive rights in the United States is an issue where this can be seen.
Last to speak was New Zealand’s own Lloyd Jones. Jones took a much more skeptical approach to freedom. He talked about how it has become a politically loaded term, often used to justify certain actions that would appear to be in contradiction with freedom as a concept – he spoke here of how ‘freedom’ is used within the context of American politics, most notably American foreign policy – and how the “word has been debased” due to this. He painted a rather graphic image of what he thinks when he hears the word freedom:
“When you say freedom, I just see a pile of bodies with an American flag waving on top”.
Jones used this to launch into a conversation about “the freedom to do the wrong thing” and how we see this freedom practices all to often. An example he used in the New Zealand context is the continued pollution of the waterways that occurs due the ever expanding industrial agriculture we have in New Zealand. He summed up his ideas through this statement:
“The freedom to do the wrong thing is not a freedom worth having”.
Jones provided a timely and skeptical engagement with a concept so often taken for granted as being unequivocally positive.
Following this, there was a brief conversation discussing the way that freedom as a concept is present within the authors’ works.
Barley, Badoe, Dawson, and Jones all had dynamic personalities that bounced off each other in an entertaining manner. Often humorously as the four speakers engaged in conversation with each other. It was an entertaining and informative event with three different and, at times, contradictory ideas pertaining to freedom discussed. All the while, the conversation was very well facilitated by the eloquent Nick Barley.
A pleasure of an event that provided much to think about within literature and more.
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