Cry freedom?

How would you define freedom? What does it mean to you? When you think about it what comes to mind? Your rights? Your ability to move around freely? Your lack of restriction? Or freedom from responsibilities? Or freedom from oppression? Freedom to voice your views? Or carry a gun? Freedom to not do what anyone tells you to do? Freedom to live your life the way you want to – your personal sovereignty? Or do you think about people in captivity and their lack of freedom?

Freedom of Expression is protected by Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Amnesty states that we “Have the right to agree or disagree with those in power, and to express these opinions in peaceful protests. Exercising these rights – without fear or unlawful interference – is central to living in an open and fair society; one in which people can access justice and enjoy their human rights.”

There are several countries in the world where freedom of speech is severely restricted, and even forbidden. Many of these countries even imprison its citizens (including journalists) simply for speaking out. What price liberty of movement if you don’t have freedom of speech?

But when you take your right to speak out, are you in danger of impinging on someone else’s rights? Where does my freedom end and yours begin? What actually is freedom? And are we free to choose the kind of freedom we want?

The word freedom is unusual. It actually describes something that it is not; that is not restricted. In other words, everybody and everything is free until it isn’t. Freedom then becomes constrained, controlled, or inhibited. Also, freedom, like so many other things in life, is in the eye of the beholder. People in Britain celebrated Freedom Day, where they were able to socialise and go anywhere they chose, fairly unrestricted. Their freedom was essentially in being able to do what they wanted. A similar freedom is demanded by some people everywhere who want this right – to not have to do something they don’t want to do. In this case, it’s to not wear a mask, socially distance and, worst of all to have to be vaccinated against a virus that could make them, their family, and their friends sick – if not die. Their freedom in this case is the freedom of personal choice. “Don’t tell me what to do. I demand to be free to make my own decisions.”. Fair enough, one might say. Except that their choices impact others. It’s not just about their own freedom! And thinking solely about your freedom and discounting others’ freedom is tantamount to a sense of entitlement, privilege, and selfishness. “I want to be free”, they say. “I demand my freedom”. “Doing what I want regardless of others’ needs is the epitome of freedom”.

Others may disagree, of course. Nelson Mandela, for example, who was imprisoned for 27 years because he fought against White privilege, cared about others’ freedom. He is quoted as saying things like “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” And “Our freedom cannot be complete while others in the world are not free.”

Now, I’m not proposing that anyone sacrifice their own liberty and well-being for the sake of the community. I’m certainly not saying that an individual’s freedom should be curtailed. What I am saying is that individual freedom is paramount, yes, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of others. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves”. If the consequence of my freedom is the destruction of others, then, as Mandela said, “Our freedom cannot be complete”.

“Ah”, you might say, “What about war then? If the only way my country can be free is to destroy our captors or overlords, surely that is justification enough. After all, my freedom (and that of my family) is enough reason. Even Mandela knew that.” Well, firstly, Mandela didn’t destroy apartheid’s supporters. He promoted reconciliation. Secondly, the difference is that his fight was not about a libertarian principle. It was not about petty restrictions (such as having to wear a face mask). It was about fighting for actual survival.

This brings us to the somewhat tricky subject of vaccinations. Even non-conspiracy theorists say that there are risks which might also threaten individual survival. Yes, this is true. Lives have been lost as a direct result of being vaccinated. That particular threat put me off for a while too. And, ultimately, while I did consider that I was “doing my part” by getting vaccinated, on balance I was primarily protecting myself. The fact that I could also protect those around me was a bonus.

And what about the right to have freedom from hunger? Or the right to have essential services such as electricity? Freedom from poverty anyone?

Freedom and Rights! Is my freedom more important than yours? Are my rights more important than yours or hers, or his? No, certainly not if you’re an over-entitled and over-privileged individual. In an egalitarian society everybody’s rights are equal. The French got it right: there needs to be liberté, but there also needs to be égalité and fraternité.

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