Liberty, Self-Esteem and Self-Governance


model.JPGOur inalienable right to happiness and the rhetoric of self-esteem experts notwithstanding, we do not have a right to feel good about ourselves; instead, thanks to the First Amendment, other people have a right to make us feel bad.  While we may be subject to legal restrictions on public smoking or taxes on foods that make us fat, we should be spared legal efforts to regulate photo-shopping.  Europeans are not so lucky. The New York Times reported this week that lawmakers in Britain and France have proposed requiring disclaimers and warning labels on photo-shopped images of models. 

Given increased consumer awareness of photo-shopping and the emergence of blogs devoted to debunking it, government action seems especially unnecessary, as well as intrusive; but advocates of regulation are undeterred:  "When teenagers and women look at these pictures in magazines, they end up feeling unhappy with themselves," a British MP explained, as if government power to secure the happiness of women and girls was simply self-evident.
ASBO.JPGThis is not harmless official maternalism: a government that concerns itself with the happiness or psychological well-being of its citizens is a government that will prohibit conduct or speech deemed psychologically harmful, or simply not conducive to happiness. Also known as a government actively hostile to liberty.  In Britain, as Reason magazine reported two years ago, you can be served with an "Antisocial Behavior Order (ASBO) for engaging in conduct considered likely to cause others alarm or distress. This past year a woman subject to an ASBO was arrested for indulging in noisy, consensual sex in what is apparently no longer the privacy of her own home. I suppose you could call ASBO's a form of democratization: what was once the prerogative of kings--the power to secure the arrest of people who irritated or "distressed" them--is now extended to peevish citizens who can invoke it against each other.
American nannyism isn't quite as advanced as this (except perhaps on college campuses, where policing of presumptively anti-social or offensive speech is common).  But while Congress has yet to attack the scourge of photo-shopping, it is considering restricting the right to "distress" other people substantially.  Today, September 30, the House is holding a hearing on a cyber-bullying bill, the Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act, introduced by California Democrat Loretta Sanchez.  The Act would effectively criminalize speech that results in people "feeling unhappy with themselves" (You can find a quick analysis of its broad application to internet speech here.)

Like so many crime bills named after deceased children, the Megan Meier Act was prompted by a horrific case involving the suicide of a teenage girl who'd been taunted on MySpace.  Her suicide was tragic; the sheer meanness that apparently provoked it was unforgivable, but it wasn't and probably shouldn't be criminal.  Human malevolence is a problem the law can't solve and often can't even punish, without grievous infringements on liberty. The cost of a right to feel good about yourself is everyone's right to be free.

Photo Credits: Flickr Users Tammy Manet and LoopZilla

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

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