I do not find Saturday mornings are the best time for me to contemplate the true meaning of words, but I found myself doing so during a defensive driving class in which I recently was enrolled. The instructor, an amiable man named Jim, asked everyone in the class to go around and state the biggest reason why they enjoyed having the privilege of driving. When it was my turn, I stated that I liked not having to rely on anyone else to go places. Several other people in the class said they enjoyed the freedom that being able to drive gave them, and each time I heard it, I bristled. At that moment, I realized I had a problem with the way other people use and define freedom.
I was curious about what the official definition of word actually is but Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary was no help as it gives two sets of definitions: an “essential” version and a full version. And while both definitions have some overlap, neither the shorter essential version nor the longer full version could assist me in explaining what was bothering me about the usage of that word. It wasn’t until a conversation with a group of friends days later that I was finally able to solidify my feelings. While out to dinner, I mentioned how I had recently noticed little ways in which the words people in the media and in real life used bothered me. I gave an example of a reporter reporting on a car crash that occurred on a major highway using the word “makeshift” when describing a small group candles, cards, and stuffed animals that friends and family of the victim had set up on the side of the road as a memorial. I argued that using the word makeshift was dismissive of the victim’s friends and family’s effort to do something that honored their friend.
“Why use that word?” I asked. “Is it because it is not official? Is it because of the quality of the items that made up the memorial? Because it is not a behemoth structure of iron and steel, does that make it makeshift? And if so, do the people who put it together feel that way as well?”
My friends could see my point but when I brought up my issues with the word freedom, our outlooks began to diverge, and I began to see why I felt unsettled about its usage. We agreed that freedom commonly refers to the ability to make one’s own choices and to say and do what one wants free without constraint.
“But what happens if I am purposely hurting someone while exercising my freedom?” I argued. “Don’t I have a responsibility to take that into consideration?”
I don’t think I even realized it until the question came out of my mouth. That’s what I think is missing from the current discourse around how freedom is used. While one cannot control how other people will react to the things people do and say, does a person have a responsibility to weigh the consequences (intended or unintended) that come with exercising their freedom? While I feel that people should consider the consequences of acting on their freedom if it would purposely harm another person, there are other who would argue that my thinking isn’t really freedom. It would be a logistical nightmare if every person was bogged down by the thought of what might happen as a result of making a choice to do what they want.
Upon reflection, I think my concerns have less to do with what freedom actually means and more to do with how that meaning is interpreted by others. To go back to my defensive driving example, the feeling of freedom one might get from being able to drive anywhere at any time comes with certain responsibilities: observing all traffic laws, being alert to road conditions and other drivers, ensuring my vehicle is properly maintained, etc. It’s the responsibility part that is missing from current discourse around freedom. Currently in media and on various social platforms, there is a sense that one person’s right to freedom is more important than anything else, including the freedom and rights of others. While the word freedom refers to one’s ability to do whatever they want without restriction, it is important to understand that freedom comes with a responsibility to ensure that what they are doing isn’t intentionally inflicting harm or violating someone else’s rights.
It is also important to note that we are technically not able to do anything we want to do whenever we want as there are laws and legislation which dictate acceptable ways of behavior. To use a horrific example, one may think they have the freedom to harm or kill someone, even in their own home, but laws specify that the police have a right to come into that person’s home and arrest them if the police suspect or have evidence a crime is being committed. To use a more innocent example, one may want to go to White Castle at 2 a.m. for some sliders but if White Castle is closed, one does not have the freedom to break into the restaurant looking for food.
I guess what my real issue with freedom is that many opinions being expressed in our country seem to be that exercising one’s freedom comes with no responsibility to ensure the safety or well-being of anyone else. But that view forgets that, to some degree, we are forced to rely on others to negotiate and survive the world around us. Some are people we know but others are strangers. Even with the impact of social media highlighting this fact every day, we often forget how much we rely on other people and how interconnected our lives are. For people to co-exist together, we must understand that, intentionally or not, our actions have consequences for others. If I decide to go to work while I am sick, my decision impacts every person with whom I come in contact during that time.
At the end of day, I think it’s important to consider this question — should your right to exercise your freedom absolve you from any responsibility if you intentionally harm another? And if the answer is yes, then shouldn’t it follow that some one else’s right to express their freedom absolve them from any responsibility if they intentionally hurt you?