Freedom Defined

I live in Belgium.

Belgium is a small country in continental Europe, internationally known for its beer, chocolate, waffles, currently world class soccer team, Brussels (the capital and “the capital of Europe”) and, well… French fries.

gueuze girardin

A lot of Belgians also pride themselves on having one of the most liberal legislations concerning moral issues like abortion, euthanasia, and LGBTI-rights (Belgium was the second country in the world to allow for gay marriage, for instance).

Some legislations definitely emancipated people from oppression by what was often perceived as “Catholic morality”. For years certain clerics indeed claimed the moral high ground in Belgium. Nowadays, especially since the child abuse scandal broke out in the Catholic Church, the tables have turned. So-called liberals have the strongest voice in traditional media like newspapers, magazines, radio and television, and they define what is morally preferable.

male dominated cultures cartoonIn short, secular liberals took the place of Catholic clerics on moral issues. The problem with this is that morality often is not constructed in a positive way, but that it is, in practice, merely defined by a “being against” everything religious. Of course Islam is also targeted. Rather strangely perhaps, secularists on the left and the right sometimes become divided over the treatment and rights of Muslims, for instance over the right for women to wear a headscarf in public. Some (mostly socialists, on the left) claim to protect the rights of a threatened and suppressed minority as they are in favor of the right for Muslim women to wear the scarf. Others (mostly nationalists, on the right), by questioning the right to wear a headscarf, also claim to protect potential victims, namely women who might be discriminated against by certain cultural obligations and habits. So there is a rivalry going on here on the question of victimhood.

who's the real victim

The most extreme secularists, both on the left and the right, forget the ideological differences between them when they find themselves united against “the evil of religion”. They pursue their ideological battle against religion with religious fervor, actually imitating their religious counterparts (who are mostly fundamentalist extremists). Unwittingly and unwillingly (and therefore tragically), both parties resemble each other more and more. Extreme secularists do not dismiss a religious rationality regarding moral issues on rational grounds, but simply because it is labeled as “religious”. Likewise, fundamentalist extremists refuse to listen to “secular voices” simply because of the term “secular”, not considering the possibility that “a rationality of what’s good” (ethics) could reveal itself independently of one’s own (religious) cultural tradition.

Fundamentally, the mimetic (imitative) rivalry between extreme secularists and fundamentalist extremists is about the question how to define human nature. Paradoxically connected to this question is the question of human freedom. In both instances, “freedom” of individual human beings is understood as the result of having received the opportunity to realize one’s so-called “true nature”. Freedom, understood in these terms, thus indeed is paradoxical, since it is about obtaining the ability (the “freedom”) to fulfill the deepest desires (and urges?) one was born with (and did not freely choose). Apart from pedophiles and serial killers, the so-called individual true “nature” of human beings often seems allowed to have its way in our society…

Readers should please note that the idea of a so-called true identity one was born with, “from the beginning”, does not represent my own views on identity formation.

An example of the conviction that we have some hidden, “true nature” (from birth?):


Both the extreme secularists and the fundamentalist extremists consider the other party as representing a decadent perversion or suppression of our “true” nature. Hence the different attitude regarding homosexuality by, for instance, certain Muslim fundamentalists who try to prohibit it and secular liberals who defend gay rights. Both groups claim to protect human nature and human freedom (those Muslims might argue that prohibiting homosexuality is like prohibiting alcohol – a drug that could turn people into addicts).

And so you get weird situations like the following (especially if you’re an alien visiting earth, more particularly a country like Belgium), to name but two…


The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics regards ritual circumcision of boys on religious grounds as a custom that should be abandoned. It leaves open the possibility for this type of circumcision for grown-ups. The financial burden of such a circumcision should, according to the Committee, also not be carried by society.


On the other hand, transgender surgery is partially paid back by the Belgian healthcare system. Moreover, treatment preparing possible transgender surgery is allowed for minors when puberty begins.  The Belgian Advisory Committee on Bioethics recommended the Belgian legislation concerning transsexuality.

In short, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “mutilating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of male circumcision. Even when adult (Jewish or Muslim) men would decide to have themselves circumcised, it is believed that the financial burden for this operation should not be carried by society. Moreover, an identity issue on religious grounds is often perceived as the result of a kind of “psychological illness” (people having been “brainwashed” and what not).

On the other hand, surgery as the result of the craving to establish a certain identity is considered “liberating” by official standards in Belgium in the case of sex reassignment surgery. It is believed that parts of the financial burden for this operation should be carried by society, and already minors can start a therapy with puberty blockers. Moreover, all kinds of action groups try to “stop trans pathologization”, and the influence of these groups is already visible in documents like the Ferrara Report on the Situation of Fundamental Rights in the European Union.

Again a little note to readers as to where I stand personally: I do not think that the financial burden for surgery as a result of mere “identity formation” (on religious grounds or otherwise) should be carried by society. I am also not in favor of non-medical circumcision of young boys, as I would question hormone therapy for non-medical reasons on a young age. The debate is open. If adults ask for tattoos, piercings, circumcision and the like, then they are themselves responsible to pay for it. Sex reassignment surgery as a consequence of a medical condition like “gender dysphoria” is something else, of course, although it is only one way of dealing with this condition. Other ways of dealing with it should also be considered. Belgium has an elaborate health care system that supports the treatment of any kind of medical condition. To the extent that a trans person does not suffer from a medical condition (I indeed agree to “stop trans pathologization”), it should be examined whether or not the health care system should intervene (and, to be consistent, it should not intervene).

We should at least acknowledge some inconsistencies in our assesment of the children depicted below (a Jewish Kid and a Trans Kid):

Jew Child

Trans Child


Nuns and monks of enclosed religious orders are often mocked for living a so-called alienated mad life (sober and in community), and are also accused of “not contributing anything useful to human society”.

Brother Michelangelo Best (Franciscan Friars of the Renewal)

Hipsters, who try to live ecologically responsible, often by embracing vegetarianism and by experimenting with new types of community housing, are hailed as “the dynamic, enlightened young future of human society”.

Hipster Travel Beard

However, the ecological footprint of the average hipster is presumably bigger than that of the enclosed nun or monk, as the hipster often feels the need to “travel the world” in order to “find him- or herself”. And yet the lifestyle of those nuns and monks is never praised as “an example to the world”…

Maybe it is time to ask ourselves the question what our ethics and legislations regarding certain moral issues are actually based upon, as well as our assessment of “religious life” in general. It should be something more than the “being against” as the result of the ever changing game of mimetic rivalry, no? Yes, often the protection of vulnerable life is a valid motivation, but are we sufficiently consistent in what does or does not protect that life?

Anyway, we do not escape the mimetic aspects of our nature, so we best learn to recognize and understand them…


Mimetic World Wars

MAY 20th, 1910 – The royal and political heads of Europe are (still peacefully) gathered for the funeral of Edward VII, king of Great Britain and Ireland, of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, and Emperor of India. Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany, is also present at the funeral of his uncle. Once again, Wilhelm is confronted with the grandeur of his British relatives.

George V and members of WAFFIt is no secret that Wilhelm II was extremely jealous of his British uncle first and then of his cousin, king George V, because of the many colonies they owned (picture on the left, king George and members of the WAFF). This kind of envy can only exist towards people one feels closely related to. It’s easier to keep on admiring those who do not belong to our own social environment than those who are close to us. The great William Shakespeare constantly shows the paradoxical nature of human relationships, where contagious conflicts precisely arise between people who often admire each other first. Already in the prologue of Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare sets the stage for an escalation of a conflict between families “both alike in dignity” – a conflict that only comes to an end when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;

Whose misadventured piteous overthrows

Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”

So it’s not the difference or inequality as such that potentially creates enmity but our tendency to imitate those we somehow identify with. It’s – as René Girard would have it – a mimetic (i.e. imitative) law of human conflict, which Plato already refers to in his dialogue Lysis (215d) when Socrates says:

“By a universal and infallible law the nearer any two things resemble each other, the fuller do they become of envy, strife and hatred…”

These universal truths are repeated throughout history, time and again, as in a never ending circle. If we would ever experience a global war because of a lack of natural resources, then the origins of such a war would lie in the mimetic nature of human desire. We are not simply happy with the things we physically need. We want what others have, we imitate the desires of our fellow men, even if we don’t necessarily need what they have. That’s why our ecological footprint is too big. And that’s why we could create scarcities of natural resources. We’re not just happy with the satisfaction of our hunger. We want the grape instead of the cucumber if our neighbor is eating grapes, and this tendency is already present in our ape cousins (for more on this click here to see one of Frans de Waal’s experiments).

Both the origins of World War I and World War II have to do with people wanting grapes although they already had cucumber. The death of millions of Europe’s children eventually ended the first orgy of violence, but – to quote Shakespeare on this – “the parents’ strife” only momentarily came to a halt. World War II indeed meant that “from ancient grudge came new mutiny”, violence spreading itself like a contagious disease…

SPRING 1914 – Germany is one of the wealthiest and most dynamic countries in the world, having the highest material prosperity in the world. In 40 years time the population has increased by 65 % to 68 million inhabitants. Germany is also an industrial giant. Essen has the biggest steel and weapon factory in the world with 81,000 people working there. Daimler-Benz, Siemens, AEG, BASF and Bayer are leading companies.

Hamburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II. im Tierpark HagenbeckDuring that time Kaiser Wilhelm II had the biggest land army in the world and he invested some of his private money to buy and develop cannons.  Growing up he had seen the richness of the British Empire and he tried to emulate this for his own country. Therefore he supported Germany’s naval expansion and eventually did obtain an empire in Africa and the western Pacific, although not as large as he wanted (on the right, Wilhelm II visiting the African Colonies). The so-called Great Naval Race of the early 1900’s was an extension of his need to do better than his relatives by trying to build more battleships than the British Royal Navy had.

JUNE 28th, 1914 – Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by nationalists in Sarajevo. Kaiser Wilhelm II encourages the Austrians to adopt an uncompromising line against Serbia, effectively promising them German support in the event of war.

alliance_ententeThis move of Wilhelm II caused a chain reaction he did not foresee. Russia and her allies France and Britain entered the war against Germany and Austria. At first, Wilhelm did try to scale back the mobilization of Germany’s armed forces, but he was overruled by the grandiose war aims of certain generals and politicians. Germany went into war, not because of a lack of resources or poverty, but because of an excess of (mimetically enhanced) pride. The rest of Europe and the world would follow. The war and its aftermath would mean the end of German royalty.

NOVEMBER 11th, 1918 – Armistice is signed between an exhausted Germany and the Allies in the French Forêt de Compiègne. The event takes place in the railway car of French commander-in-chief Marshal Foch. The Germans feel humiliated.

Armistice (the Germans surrender at the end of World War I)

JUNE 22nd, 1940 – Adolf Hitler meticulously imitates what Marshal Ferdinand Foch had done 22 years earlier. Hitler orders to get Foch’s railway car out of Compiègne’s museum and forces the French to surrender in the same way and on the same spot as the Germans in 1918. This vengeance – a mimetic mechanism – announces a second wave of global war, terror and horrific sacrifice, ending in 1945.


Commemorating the wars and their victims, we can only hope for a European Union that deserves its Nobel Peace Prize.

European Union Nobel Peace Prize