The idea of an absolute freedom is a wonderful concept. It’s the kind of ideal we all instinctively strive for in every aspect of our lives. We want the freedom to eat the foods we prefer, pursue careers we enjoy, spend time with people we like, make it through our days free of physical or emotional pain or threat of harm, to form more intensely personal connections with those we are drawn to, to worship or not as we prefer, to think our own thoughts, to speak our own minds. All healthy, natural, and reasonable desires we can all agree on. Trouble is we don’t live in our own isolated little bubbles with access to unlimited resources. Our freedoms will always have to balance and compromise with our circumstances.
Pick any of the above examples to explore from concept to application and it won’t be long before you start running into potential barriers and limitations to pursuing a particular freedom. At some point either our personal circumstances or those of society at large will start presenting obstacles to unfettered pursuit of a particular freedom.
Just because we desire something does not mean we are entitled to it. Our desire alone does not guarantee there will be limitless supplies available to us nor that we will have an unlimited capacity for acquiring it. Supplies of any resource will always be limited in some fashion which means at some point our pursuit of our goal will come into conflict with those limitations as well as the competing interests of others.
Not every applicant can get the job, not everyone who tries out can get the role or a spot on the team, not everyone can have their own plot of land, we can’t just snap our fingers and instantly have enough doses of COVID vaccine for every person on the planet.
Debates about freedoms can sometimes get bogged down in the misconception they are guarantees of particular results but the essence of a freedom is the unfettered ability to pursue our goals. We may not all be able to get the job but genuine freedom means being able to apply and be fairly considered for it.
Discussions about freedoms often involve offered evidence of results lacking representational diversity, such as the lack of women in corporate spaces or people of color in mainstream movies and TV. Pointing these things out as part of campaigning for greater freedoms, and representation, is not an expectation the positions be guaranteed but an attempt to highlight how the opportunities of the underrepresented groups are far more limited (or non-existent) than for others.
Markets are not ‘free’ if only certain groups or individuals have access to them and we are only truly free to apply and pursue if we are going to be genuinely and fairly considered.
One of the major freedoms which is constantly debated and struggled with is the freedom of speech and expression. On the surface it seems like a pretty straight forward concept. We should all be allowed to freely speak our own thoughts and it is easy to see why any infringement on this can feel oppressive and condemning. Another major issue which often goes hand-in-hand with freedom of expression is freedom of religion, the freedom to follow whatever religious faith you choose. And in the US conflicts about freedom frequently become a trifecta with the addition of the freedom to own firearms.
Wherever you come down on any of the particular issues at the core of all of them is a genuine debate about the societal viability of full freedom. There may not be any simple answers, and there aren’t, but there are some pretty simple and basic truths at the core these issues.
There is no one answer which will make everyone happy
There can definitely be some overlap and consensus within groups but when you pair it right down to the core each person’s definition of what they want for themselves is somewhat different and unique. This doesn’t mean the concept of shared freedoms is irrevocably doomed. It simply means those inescapable variances will need to be acknowledged and accounted for. We all have to accept that any freedom we enjoy will never be a perfect fit to our personal desires and will always come with some degree of limitations to allow for the maximized amount of societal access.
There is no such thing as a freedom without potential consequence
Any action we take as an individual has the potential to impact others. Some minor, some major, some positive, some negative. We do not exist in a personal vacuum, our actions affect those around us and potentially beyond. Those impacts occur and they matter whether we choose to care about them or not. All freedoms need to have limitations in order to ensure the greatest amount of freedom for the greatest amount of people while avoiding as much impact and infringement on others as possible.
It is not a freedom unless it is genuinely accessible to all
All freedoms need to have limitations but if access to a ‘freedom’ is restricted to only a select group of people or specific circumstances it is not a freedom but a privilege of power. This does not automatically make it evil or an abuse but is not a freedom. It is vitally important to recognize the difference as they are very different concepts seeking very different results. No one answer will ever make everyone happy but when a freedom becomes warped into a privilege of power, whether people continue to brand it as a freedom or not, it renders all attempts to find an answer pointless as the parties involved are no longer asking even remotely the same kinds of questions.
The conflicts are not really about whether or not something should be a freedom
Even in the most hotly contested issues the true source of the conflict is not the merit of the conceptual freedom but rather the definition of the potential harms and impacts it may have and thus the limitations which need to accompany it. Just as we all have slightly different definitions of what we want we also have differing definitions of harm. Something completely inconsequential to one person can be absolutely devastating to another. That vulnerability is not the fault of the freedom but for something to be a true freedom it has to acknowledge and account for that potential vulnerability.
If you look at the conflicts, rhetoric, and zealotry around the big three issues mentioned above it becomes rather quickly apparent a depressingly large percentage of the common arguing is not in fact about the freedom itself but rather about the power to decide what constitutes legitimate harm and therefore what limits, if any, should be imposed. Or at a more bluntly motivational level, they are seeking exemption from having to care about the consequences of their own desired actions while simultaneously wanting absolute protection from any unwanted consequences from the actions of anyone else.
There is no freedom of speech and expression without the virtual certainty of encountering expressions of ideas and opinions we don’t agree with, do not like, or which upset us. Freedom of speech should not be entirely without limits but neither should it be constrained to try and guarantee zero potential for discomfort. The extremely difficult and complicated question is that of trying to delineate what constitutes disagreement and discomfort versus what constitutes harm. Any freedom of expression must also entail the freedom to disagree with what is expressed and to choose not to engage with it.
It is import to be clear, discomfort may be unpleasant but it is not harm. Experiences of discomfort are intrinsic to learning, being challenged and empowered by new information, and are thus essential for our growth and development. There is no growth or improvement without discomfort.
Having the freedom to follow whichever religious practice you choose is a relatively young concept compared to many other freedoms given that religious doctrine has played such a strong role in the rule of monarchies throughout history. And that is the kryptonite which lies at the heart of the conflicts around freedom of religion.
The contentions aren’t about people having the ability to follow whichever faith they choose but are about the relationship of those religious practices to power and control which is an unavoidable quagmire when one of the primary tenants of particular faith is the demand it be the dominant and only permitted faith for everyone. It can’t be a true freedom if part of its practice is the condemnation and subjugation of others.
The freedom to own firearms in the US can be a puzzling and heartbreaking issue. As a country the US suffers exponentially more gun related violence and deaths than any other country in earth. The number of civilian owned firearms is also exponentially higher in the US due to their constitution’s second amendment declaring the right to bear arms. There is a great deal of debate over the sustainability and original intention of the amendment but any serious attempts at making it a genuine freedom cognisant and respecting of consequences needs to start with clarifying what is defined by ‘firearms’. An amendment proposed in 1789, and aimed at preventing the US from forming a standing professional army, could not have conceived of automatic and hyper-military weapons capable of unspeakable harm. All freedoms must come with limitations, the 1996 assault rifle ban in Australia and subsequent vanishing of mass shootings and gun violence is clear evidence of this.
A freedom is only truly a freedom if it is accessible to all members of a society and causes the least amount of harm possible. If something is only accessible to select groups or individuals who are then exempt from the consequences of their own actions while being shielded from the actions of others actions it is not a freedom but a privilege of power. Unless we are prepared to extend the freedom we are advocating to those we most strongly disagree with it is not a freedom we are seeking but a privilege of power. Pursue privileges of power if you choose, just call them by their true names instead of camouflaging them in more noble concepts. If it can only be free if it is a lie it is not a freedom.