Creativity: the stuff of freedom

January 8, 2014 by
Filed under: Arts and Society, Innovation 

Adam Lent, head of the Action & Research Centre here at the RSA, recently wrote about the crucial role of creativity for the 21st century. Of his four arguments, I want to elaborate on the first—on creativity as the realisation of freedom. Paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, Adam wrote that “taking the great historical gift of freedom in order to remain passive, ineffectual and conventional” is “horribly wasteful.”

Among the values of this focus on creativity is its reminder of the responsibilities that freedom and self-governance place on us. “A deeper happiness has got to come from using our freedom to be creators as well as consumers”, Adam wrote. I contend that this applies not just to economic and cultural activity, but to freedom itself.

This past December, UK audiences were spared one of those cookie-cutter free-speech ‘controversies’ that played out in the US. Someone on a reality TV show made an offensive comment about homosexuality, and the network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—removed him. Then the Republican clown car flew right off the tracks, with the likes of Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal saying things like “this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views… I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment.” The network—doing the right thing, and not wanting to lose audiences—then rescinded the guy’s suspension.

People often seem to mistake ‘the right to free speech’ for ‘the right to have a TV show’.[1]

This episode illustrated a few things. First, politicians say things that don’t make sense. Second, TV networks are feckless. Third, people like to make a sport of saying offensive things.

But that’s the easy critique. The outraged talking heads’ misunderstanding of the First Amendment goes much deeper. The First Amendment isn’t about free speech, although it appears so on the surface. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion are all just foreplay to the main event: the right “peaceably to assemble” and “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
- US Constitution, First Amendment

The First Amendment is not about free speech. It’s about responsible citizenship.

It’s not just that we are free to speak and write and worship in the ways we choose. It’s that we have the responsibility to do all of these things, and to do so in the service of good and legitimately democratic self-governance. And while most other rights do not require action, this is the most demanding of the ten entries on the Bill of Rights, justifiably coming first. The provenance of power it describes was an absolutely radical break from monarchical and authoritarian rule. It mandated that laws reflect the will of the people rather than dictate it. It placed the onus of responsibility onto citizens, not the government, to behave – to speak, to write, to worship – in ways worthy of the dignity of their freedom. The quality of our society was to become only as good as the creativity we exercised.[2]

This is why people who like to ‘test’ their freedom of speech, and thereby beg others not to take them seriously, are not serious citizens. They abdicate their responsibility to take part in sincere dialogue, to behave responsibly and inclusively to create and refine the substance of a free society. Serious citizens produce freedom, rather than consume it. That, in my view, is the democratic essence of the Power to Create. It reminds us that we live in a society that is political to the core, and though there are rules and laws and competing interests, we as citizens are at the centre. Creativity is the realisation and perpetuation of freedom. Creativity is responsible citizenship.

Emerson once asked, “Are you for man and for the good of man; or are you for the hurt and harm of man?” This is not a question that can be left to any higher authority. Citizens must answer this for themselves—and then act.


[1] Madison was to quill this as the Eleventh Amendment, but succumbed to his crippling fear of prime numbers.

[2] Mistakes were made. Tocqueville: “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”

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