Responsible Freedom

Responsible Freedom

I’m a great believer in freedom of speech, and not just in the sense of vocalization: I include all forms of self expression. It is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This right, like all other rights, comes with an unspoken duty: the duty to ensure to the best of my ability that anything I do express does not harm others. That it does not curtail the right of those others to live free from fear, oppression and abuse.

That is where my own sense of morality comes into play. I must judge for myself whether my words and actions are appropriate and in alignment with what I believe to be right. I must put myself in the position of those people affected by what I say and do, using my sense of empathy to imagine how they might feel.

I have a very strong aversion to conflict and confrontation, and I’m sure this plays a role in shaping my behavior towards others. But there is also compassion which causes me to feel hurt by others’ pain and anguish. This suggests there might well be a degree of self-interest involved in what I refer to as my morality, but I’d argue that this is no bad thing. It gives me an honesty of purpose to understand my own motivations rather than simply label my behavior as intangible belief.

Freedom as a concept is both shockingly simple and overwhelmingly complex. Simple in that it may be expressed in very few words and applies equally to all. Complex in the effects and ramifications of that simplicity. Freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It is a contract between an individual and the society she lives in, a tacit acceptance of a framework of rights and responsibilities.

I believe any society, any situation involving two or more people living together, requires some set of rules governing behavior. I’m not necessarily referring to formal laws and such like. But complete, unfettered individual freedom inevitably conflicts with the well-being of the group as a whole. If one member of a group hoards all the food then it hurts all the rest, so a rule gets developed for fair distribution of resources. Those who don’t conform, who don’t live within the societal restrictions on their individual freedoms, are cast out of the group. What in former times were called “outlaws”: those who are outside the the set of rules and protections offered by the group.

Some use the idea of individual freedom to justify bullying and oppression: if I’m stronger than you and physically able to take from you then I’m free to do so. I want your land so I’ll force you out and take it. Freedom becomes associated with strength and aggression, with a lack of restraint.

Human rights are not the same as freedom. Accepting universal rights requires accepting restrictions on individual freedom, accepting that some actions are not acceptable behavior since they deny those same rights to others. It’s not about strength but empathy, compassion and respect.

My Favorite Doctor

My Favorite Doctor

The Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler in front of the Tardis

Every Whovian has a favorite Doctor and I’m no exception. I first watched Doctor Who in the late 70’s when the incumbent was Jon Pertwee, but unlike many my first Doctor did not become my life-long number one. Instead it was my second Doctor, Tom Baker, who earned that special place in my feelings.

There’s no one thing that sealed his place in my affections. He had that wonderful scarf, was always ready with a bag of jelly babies in his pocket, and — like every other Doctor incarnation — emerged triumphant from his many perilous adventures. But it was his mellifluous voice that did it for me more than anything else. To this day I will make time to catch a show that features him (although none have lived up to Doctor Who, even the remake of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)).

Your favorite Doctor is somebody who makes you feel that the vast universe is being watched over by somebody you can trust to keep the monsters in check. He might be a bit of a rebel, out of favor with the powers that be, but that all adds to his appeal: he’s one of us at heart. Making his way through life with his bag of jelly babies in one hand while flipping the bird at eternity with the other.

I really ought to come clean at this point: even though I watched all the Peter Davison episodes (Tegan was wonderful, and I was upset when Adric died) I never got into the Sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, and gradually stopped watching. Until that lovely man Russell Davies got the series restarted in 2005. Fantastic!

That was when I acquired another favorite Doctor (although he in no way diminished my love for the Fourth Doctor) in the person of Christopher Eccleston. I remembered watching him in Cracker acting opposite Robbie Coltrane and there was just something about his character that engaged me in a way that Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and not forgetting the brief Paul McGann) had failed to.

I recently watched his episodes again on Netflix (regrettably he only starred in one season) and was every bit as enthralled by his performance as I had been the first time I saw it. He brought a refreshing directness to the character with an understated approach that ignored costume quirks in favor of a simple T-shirt, jeans and leather jacket. The depth of the Doctor’s character was enhanced by this low-key approach: the emphasis was on the performance which I felt was nothing short of awesome.

Assisted most ably by Billie Piper’s Rose Tyler, the Ninth Doctor faced Daleks and living mannequins alike with a dry humor and a strong compassion that served to hint at the pain of being the sole survivor of a war between two entire races.

It is ironic that a powerful, near-immortal alien should be one of the most human characters to appear in the entire series, but for me Christopher Eccleston achieved this to a remarkable degree. Much more than previous incarnations he displayed a complexity in the combination of hardness and vulnerability: he showed compassion while avoiding sentimentality.

It is difficult to take on such a well-established role and make it your own. Especially with a character as long-running as the Doctor there must be a degree of continuity with what previous actors have brought to the part as well as enough individuality to set your performance apart from the rest. I believe Christopher Eccleston achieved this most successfully and deserves a lot of credit for the success of the relaunch of the series.

He made the character much more dark and threatening:  here was somebody who could destroy whole worlds — and had. And yet he displayed a sense of fun and playfulness at times that contrasted sharply with the guilt of his instrumental role in the destruction of his race and their world. For me that is such strongly human behavior — to hold the pain inside and carry on fighting to survive even against impossible odds.

And the number one thing I take from Doctor Who? That one person can take a stand for what is right in the face of apparently insurmountable opposition and make a meaningful difference. It’s not about being a hero and receiving the grateful adulation of the saved, it’s not about being recognized as the savior. Watching from the sidelines while everything goes to hell in a hand-basket is not an option: allowing evil to continue without challenging it is the same as being a willing accomplice. And the Doctor has never been one to step aside from a righteous fight.