Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.

Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.

Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.

Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.

Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.

I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?

Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.


2 thoughts on “Freedom

  1. In America it seems everyone can say whatever they want to. It bothers me very much that so many people can spew out hateful and cruel words and even instill an air of malice toward another group withing the group they are speaking to: like certain "Christian" preachers who go on a verbal rampage against homosexuality and condone the ideas that their deaths are in some way funny and they are expendable or even deserve to die. And when some of those people who have listened to the hype and are full of raging hate go and commit those crimes they feel they have been led by their "god" to do so. People don't think. They will say things that are cruel and discriminatory and think they have the right. There is a great deal of lack of respect for another person, culture, even the mere feelings of hurt something could cause someone seems to be tossed out the window when it comes to freedom of speech. I am not sure why some people feel the need to harm others (some like it, I'm sure) with words or actions. Sometimes I wonder about the Hindu Kali Yuga and wonder if it is actually happening now. We seem to be at our worst in so many ways.Freedom is an illusion and it is different for different people, individuals and groups. What you define as freedom I may not define the same way. It is all relative.

  2. Yes, freedom of speech is one of our society's "sacred cows" – sacrosanct even when it causes harm through the promulgation of hatred. I believe it is viewed by many in the same way as religious beliefs, affording it an almost mystical protection from critical and rational analysis.I think it all boils down to two positions: either you say whatever you want and abrogate responsibility for any consequences, or you restrict yourself to statements the consequences of which you are willing to accept.Your comment about Kali Yuga was most intriguing – this does indeed appear to be a dark age for humanity.

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