Has the internet afforded humans more freedom, or less?
That’s a question I’m pondering anew thanks to the University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson, who provoked the thought while being interviewed by Nathan Heller for a recent profile in The New Yorker.
After Europe’s religious wars, Anderson mused, as centuries of conflicts between Catholics and Protestants gave way to a liberal, live-and-let-live order that tolerated freedom of religion, something remarkable happened:
People now have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. At church, I’m one thing. At work, I’m something else. I’m something else at home or with my friends. The ability not to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere but, rather, to be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains? That is what it is to be free.
That’s a bold claim! Yet one needn’t accept Anderson’s definition of freedom to appreciate her insight. Here’s a more modest version: The ability to slip into a domain and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining identities in other domains is something most Americans value, both to live in peace amid difference and for personal reasons.
A 28-year-old woman might attend a march of radical feminists on Saturday, be a deferential caregiver to her ailing conservative grandfather on Sunday, teach high-school sophomores virtue ethics on Monday, perform open-mic comedy that no 15-year-old should hear on Tuesday, indulge a guilty pleasure for Disney musical numbers in the privacy of her car on the way to work on Wednesday morning, and meet up on Thursday night with the pierced, tattooed punk rocker she is dating. And if she interviews on Friday for a new job in a typical field of employment? Most of that will be none of the interviewer’s business.