Friday, October 15, 2010

The Consequences of Freedom

Are you sick of the political ads yet? Do you wish that those wretched conservatives/liberals/fill-in-the-blanks would just shut up?

Are you tired of reading Facebook status updates and Tweets from long lost friends who feel compelled to tell you what they are thinking about having for dinner or where they might go grocery shopping?

Do you wish "those people" would keep their foreign religions to themselves?

It should be axiomatic that a nation that protects freedom has to be made up of people who are willing to put up with what their neighbors choose to do with that freedom. It should be beyond discussion that you don't get to celebrate only the liberties that are exercised in the ways that suit you.

We all know that these principles are in fact not givens. We see every day efforts to curtail freedoms, not because the exercise of the freedom is a clear and present danger but because somebody is offended, outraged, angered, or inconvenienced.

My defense of freedom should not be confused with an agreement with a particular point of view that is being expressed, but it often is. If I object to somebody's being shouted down, it should not be interpreted that I agree with that somebody's message, but I am often so misunderstood.

That is OK. I will be misunderstood for one reason or another anyway - the defense of the right to be wrong is more important. In history classes, we celebrate John Adams' defense of the British soldiers from the Boston Massacre and his eloquent "defend to the death their right to say it" argument. When we come out of the history class, we don't remember the message.

Free speech necessarily means we will hear things we do not like. We will see flags burned. We will have offensive movies screened in our neighborhoods. We will have to suffer through interminable bottom-of-the-barrel political ads.

Freedom of religion has two aspects. (1) The establishment clause means we don't get to have our particular point of view receive the imprimatur of Congress, the local police, or the public schools. (2) The free exercise clause means that our public school teachers can still individually practice the religion of their choice. Together, these ideals mean that the Sikhs and the Muslims and the Jews and the atheists and that Hindus and Buddhists get to live and work and worship - or not worship - on the same street with the Baptists and the Methodists and the Catholics.

Freedom of assembly means the Nazis can march through Skokie and the Rainbow Brigade members can have a party wherever they can get a license.

Freedom of the press means Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck get to opine on competing channels, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal get to publish in the same town, and anybody can "report" pretty much anything they think to be a fact if they act without actual malice.

Freedoms are ultimately not likely to be lost because of the rise of a dictator, at least not in this country. Freedoms are likely to be lost because of thoughtless, stupid, offensive exercises of the freedoms. Gun control is unabashedly a movement to restrict the freedom to own guns, arising almost exclusively because of the use of guns in stupid and harmful ways. Similarly, those who choose to exercise their "rights" without caring how others feel about what they are doing or saying ultimately risk placing those rights in jeopardy for everyone.

It should not be so, but it is.

The way to confront the offensive use of freedom is by exercising your own freedom. Engage in debate. Have a conversation with someone with whom you disagree. Go read a book and learn something about those you despise.

The way to protect freedoms is not to abuse your freedoms just because you can. Life on the margins may be theoretically protected, but a realistic understanding of how your actions will be received is necessary. There is a reason our grandparents tried to teach us how to "get along" with other people.

Freedom has a price. Protecting my freedom means putting up with yours. Exercising my freedom means risking having it taken away. We need to decide what we really value.