We were sitting on a friend’s porch, looking out over the ocean. The fence that holds back the dunes had an American flag affixed to it, held straight by a sea breeze. If asked what that flag meant, a thousand strangers would no doubt list some words in common. My guess is that “Freedom” would rank near the top, joined there by its synonym, Liberty.
Freedom is outright worshipped in the United States. It is craved everywhere, of course, but usually without thinking long on what that worship means. We do not really crave freedom. We only think we do. And this lip-service to a dangerous ideal creates far more problems than it solves. It’s a viral concept that has gotten us sick with unreason. We ought to inoculate ourselves to it.
The truth is that we are constrained at all sides, and this is for the best. Freedom would mean a life free of law and regulation. Freedom would mean drinking and driving if one feels like it, or running down the streets naked, or the ability to blast music at all hours, no matter what our neighbors think.
All civility, morality, law, and ethics lie in the gray area where one’s freedom begins and another’s is encroached. The only true freedom would be a world with a lone occupant, who could never disturb another, could never trespass, steal, even annoy. That is not our world. In our world, we cannot pollute, because all rivers lead to the sea. We cannot disturb the peace, because the peace is not ours alone. We share each other’s spaces, and this means there are far fewer things that we can do than those we cannot.
We are not free. This is a truth that must be accepted and then celebrated.
Let’s begin with acceptance. Sitting there on a friend’s porch, feeling as free as an open beach can make one feel, I pointed out that not one of us could stand up, take off our clothes, and go for a walk. The moment we did, an unspoken mutual compact with our neighbors would be broken and gears would spin into motion that would lead to our arrest and some subsequent fines. The most free thing of all: to take a stroll across the sand in the garb god gave us, would have us thrown in jail. We are free to sit with our clothes on. We are free to keep our music at sensible levels. We are free only to sit on our own property or that to which we’ve been invited. The scope of our freedom is narrow. There are only so many things that we are allowed to do. There are an infinite number which we cannot.
Accepting this is easy. Relishing it is more difficult. But let’s try for a moment.
I had a friend who did not like my view that our wills are not free. This is another illusion that we maintain, the idea that we can choose any action or thought at any time with no restrictions placed upon us. Free will does not exist, which I impressed upon my friend by asking her if she could choose to stop loving her husband. Could she, sitting there with him as we sipped our coffees, strike the love from her heart with zero provocation? Could she do it with the might of her supposedly free mind?
“Why would I want to?” she asked.
“To prove that you’re free,” I said. “You’re welcome to resume loving him immediately. Just try.”
The point was that we are as powerless to stop loving someone as we were powerless to stop ourselves from falling in love in the first place. And who would want such freedom? It would mean that our partner had no influence on how we feel about them, and just as sad, that our behaviors and choices had no influence on them! It would mean that our love for each other was cold choice, rather than an interplay of cause and effect in which our wills had little role to play.
If love is a choice, then it not only can be switched on and off on a whim, but it arrives with either a randomness or a calculation. The truth is that you had no freedom, and that lack of freedom says marvelous things. It means our actions and behaviors matter, especially to those who matter the most to us.
We have a difficult time appreciating the narrowness of our freedoms. We have an even more difficult time understanding just how that narrowness defines us.
On the beach that day, I discussed this with friends, and my partner brought up the freedoms some have that others do not. The disparity of our freedoms are stark in America today, as many cannot even feel safe on our streets because of the color of their skin. None of us are truly free, but some of us are freer than others.
Equality. That’s often what we mean when we cry for freedom. We mean the same rights as others, not the absolute freedom to do whatever we want. Equality means that whatever rules one person sets, the other gets. If congress grants healthcare and raises for themselves, then we the people ought to get healthcare and better wages. If a CEO expects no one to dump trash on his yard or shit in his pool, then we expect their chemicals to stay out of our streams. It’s the Golden Rule, the basis of all rational morality. We don’t wish to be free in our own actions; we want to be free from the ill actions of others. I won’t trespass if you won’t. I won’t steal if you won’t. Let’s both agree not to drink and drive. Treat me as I want to be treated, and I’ll do the same for you.
The outright worship of Freedom with a capital F takes us away from this morality. The same folks who fetishized freedom when they balked at the appearance of seatbelts now balk at the idea of wearing masks. These are the people who abhor regulations in general, when regulations are what allow drinkable water, paint free from lead, ozone holes healing themselves, lungs free from asbestos, and countless lives saved from myriad improvements to our cars and homes. It is not our freedoms that define us; it is the freedoms we gladly relinquish in this social compact with our neighbors.
One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is shaking hands, that warm embrace, the smallest and most benign of bodily hugs. It is said that the handshake was a way of showing our neighbor that we carried no stone nor axe. We come unarmed. The hypothetical freedom we might have to take another life is agreed by almost all to be abhorrent. It is not something that we want, and by shaking empty hands we flaunt our relinquishing of that freedom.
It is the freedoms we forego that define us. It is the choice we make to buckle up our kids, to work those extra hours to better provide for our families, the choice to spend our time on our chores rather than our leisure, or to go out of our way for our loved ones. It is the choice we make to not take advantage of others, to grant every stranger the gift of our compassion. The negative space of freedom is responsibility. Which is why the worship of Freedom with a capital F has made doucebags of so many.
Language is important. Words have heft. We use so many words out of habit without ever having long conversations with ourselves and others on what we mean by them. Where does morality come from? Is it absolute or does it sway? Is it objective or subjective? Who decides what’s right and wrong? And how do we structure society to make it as perfect as humanely possible?
Is freedom a good thing? What does it even mean to be free? There are so few things that we are allowed to do. In this moment, there are only a few living rooms I could walk into right now. There are very few places I could go undressed. At this hour, there would be consequences if I made too much noise. And my girlfriend expects me to be the kind man she knows me to be. My choices are squeezed down into this delicate space of lying in bed with my thoughts and my writing, our feet entangled, this city slumbering, all that I am because of how I’m not free. I would not want it any other way. What I do want is for everyone to have the same opportunity to be as equally unfree as I am.
It begins with an unraveling of stale ideas. Freedom is a word we should learn to abhor. It is a word full of chaos, anarchy, selfishness, nationalism, and trodding on the rights of others. There are better words for what we mean: Equality. Peace. Understanding. Compassion.
I know full well that this suggestion will rile up most readers. We live in a world where many do not have the freedoms the rest of us enjoy, and decrying the word may seem a place of privilege. But we also live in a world where other countries are far freer than the United States. Countries where a medical condition will not bankrupt, and where kids do not have active shooter drills at school. These are differences that require specific language and conversations, not the smothering blanket of Freedom. Because the worship of that word gives license for abuse from those with ill intentions.
It’s hard to argue with someone who claims the right of freedom to be an awful human being. Because we’re the ones who have given that concept undue power. Taking away that power forces the same douchebag to enunciate what they really mean. “I live in a free country” no longer gives cover to awful decisions once we are honest about how very few freedoms we really have and the fact that our ability to give up freedoms is what makes us civil and moral. When we equate freedom with incivility, we hear these people for what they really are.
Consider for a moment the people who are truly free to do what they want, whenever they want, without regard to the consequences of their behaviors. These people are sociopaths, psychopaths, or children who have yet to fully form concepts of civility. They are bullies. They are people with zero conscience. They would be my friend if she were truly able to stop loving her husband simply by the flick of a mental switch.
The worst people among us are the most free. It’s why sociopaths rise to the top of corporate and political ladders, because they are free to make choices that the rest of us cannot. I wonder how many of you agree with these last two paragraphs and have always noticed this? So why haven’t we equated a measure of freedom with a measure of evil before? The two go hand-in-hand.
Once again, because it bears repeating, the freedoms we give up define our morality. Think of the people we most look up to in terms of moral virtue. They are those who sacrifice much to walk a narrow path. Our usual stand-ins for virtue are the Ghandis, Christs, Buddhas, nuns, priests, saints of the world. It’s the things we choose not to do as much as the things we choose to do. It’s a turned cheek. An empty stomach. A vow of silence. An empty hand.
When I hear the word “freedom,” I cringe. I hear someone claiming sin is a virtue. I hear someone justifying their sociopathy. Be specific. Talk about voting rights. Talk about equality. Talk about equal pay. Talk about caring for the homeless. Talk about your ideals. Don’t give fodder to people who want freedom from consequence, freedom from consideration, freedom from the social compact that constrains us in the best bonds possible.
We are not free. And that’s a good thing.