For a long time now I have ruminated on the concept of ‘Freedom’. It carries such positive connotations and is used so liberally by people from all walks of life, from all points on the political spectrum and yet I wonder if we truly understand its implications. For Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, the pursuit of it became his all consuming passion. For Brooks Hatlen, the old librarian, it proved too much. Or did ending his own life signify a final release into freedom? Is my freedom conditional on the freedom of others? Do I have a human right to freedom? What does ‘Freedom’ really mean in the context of community and human interaction? If it was just me, if I was the only inhabitant of my own desert island, would the concept even be that important? There would be no need to legislate for or against my freedom. But in our multi-cultural melting pot of a world, Freedom is not an absolute but a relative value defined not only by our own personal preferences, but by the community within which we live.
The US Declaration of Independence specifically entitles us a ‘Right’ to ‘Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’. It is an inconvenient truth that Thomas Jefferson, one of the main authors of the Declaration was a slave owner. One presumes that the pursuit of liberty was thus reserved for those who did not originate from Africa. It also highlights the uncomfortable reality that those with influence and power tend to possess a rather more concrete stake in this concept we call ‘Freedom’. As I have pondered this subject over the years, I have come to the conclusion that ‘Freedom’ is relative. It is both relative to the individual and also to the community within which that individual seeks to operate. What do I mean by this? You deserve an explanation, particularly if you cling tightly to your own definition of what it means to have an ‘inalienable right’ to ‘liberty’. Does it mean that I have the right to carry and AK47 or drive while under the influence of drugs. Is my freedom limited by my resources or am I free to plunder the earth’s resources without impunity to further my own ability to do what I choose? Does the unborn child really have absolutely no say in their freedom to live, and does the government have the right to curtail my freedom to further the interests of those with more influence than myself? Unfortunately, this is not an easy subject and there are no easy answers.
The problem is that we all live in a world that survives in delicate balance. Our actions for freedom have an impact on those around us and the world in which we live. As was once famously said, ‘No man is an island’. I do not pretend to understand the ‘Butterfly Effect’ but few of us are ignorant of the potential a seemingly insignificant action can have on the lives of others. In this way, Freedom rapidly becomes something that has connections with our environment, our fellow humans and our descendants’ futures. So how does this outwork itself in the real world? To keep things simple, Freedom must be defined in relative terms as I mentioned above. The freedom to live and breathe is surely at the top of most of our lists. A few may argue that this freedom should also extend to choosing when we stop living, ie the freedom to choose to end our lives. Those who support the right to abortion argue that women should have the freedom to choose whether they remain pregnant. Those who support the life of the unborn child argue that no one has the ‘right’ to end another’s life even when still in the womb. Even this most basic human right, to live or die is fraught with dilemmas.
It is quite clear that these ‘freedoms’ are shifting with the weight of public opinion. And so as the years roll by, abortion becomes more acceptable, assisted suicide is allowed in more and more countries and yet we really don’t understand whether this represents more or less freedom. Cascading down through other contentious areas of debate revolve not around whether I have the freedom to live my life or end it, but of whether the ‘freedoms’ of others should have the potential to take away these basic freedoms. One of my favorite examples of this and one where I feel more at liberty to express my own opinion is the right to bear arms. I accept that the majority of citizens who own guns are responsible and unlikely to use their weapons to harm others. Unfortunately, statistics tell a different story. With over 30,000 people each year losing their lives due to the use of firearms in the US, it seems the freedom to live is being compromised by the right to bear arms. Does responsible community make a decision to curtail the most deadly firearms for the sake of the thousands under threat? Australia made such a decision in the late 90s and reduced its death by firearms by over 70%. As most people have no desire to own AK47s or oversize ammunition cartridges, why is their such political opposition to this undeniably sensible measure?
Aside from the profiteering lobby of the National Rifle Association, it seems the real problem resides in fear that any removal of personal freedoms is the slippery slope to a totalitarian future. Until we address this fear and abandon the ‘me’ in favor of the ‘we’, there will be an imbalance that does not allow for true freedom to exist in both a personal and communal sense. This balance could be decried as a compromise, but learning to compromise is at the heart of creating liberated community. I hope these thoughts might provoke us all to elevate our communal freedoms to the conversation of inalienable rights such that we enjoy our ‘Freedom’ with as many of our fellow human beings as possible.