Friday, January 11, 2013

Edges of our Freedom

Freedom is so basic to our culture we tend to take it for granted. When asked “Should we be free?”, citizens of western societies will consistently answer “Yes”. When you ask about the specifics, the answers vary widely and the reality of freedom becomes less certain. To understand this, lets take a journey around Ireland and see what we can sea.

Borders of Ireland
 Ireland is a island bordered by only sea. At some point, it appears, Ireland ends and the sea begins.

How long is the border of Ireland? Where is that border between land and sea? If we draw a simple triangle around Ireland we can get a rough estimate of just how long that border is.

Closer borders
are longer
Even at a glance, this border is not quite right. So lets break up the sides of our triangle and add some more triangles make our calculation more accurate. Notice how the length is now longer?

Clearly we are still guessing at the length of the Irish border. Farther and farther we can bring in the detail by adding more and more triangles. At some point we start to outline every bay and inlet, every bump and cranny visible to the human eye all along the coast. We could stop there, at what the eye can see, and call ourselves done. The border of Ireland has been found on a practical level.

Borders are hard
to define
If accuracy is our claim and desire, then 'being practical' isn't good enough. If we want to be as good as we can be, we must continue the mapping of triangle even further. Each pebble, each grain of sand, each molecule, each atom, and even to the level of each quark needs be measured.

The closer we look at the border between Ireland and the sea, the longer Ireland's coast becomes. This process can go on into infinity, or surely beyond the ability of our minds to understand and value.

Finding the edges of freedom is similar to finding the edges of the land. We can say “Here is land.” and be sure of it. We think we know what freedom is and sometimes it seems very clear. We can say “Here is water” and know that it is not land. Such too is lack of freedom known to us.

But when we try to say where freedom begins and ends, the closer we look the harder it is to tell. If we want to be accurate, if we want to be more than practical, we must consider more carefully the boundary of freedoms.

Women desiring votes were scandalous
 Freedom of speech is such beast where the borders are long and winding.

It is clear that 'freedom-land' should allow us to express our opinions, unmolested by government or citizens. The idea that we should be able to freely exchange ideas allows all of us to learn more and find a more perfect union between us.

We do not however allow all speech. The "freedom-less ocean" does not allow individuals to cause others clear and present danger. Inciting violence, fighting words, is likewise not permitted. Lying under oath is not considered just in the land of freedom.

Freedom's border in focus
The closer you look at the border between freedom of speech and immoral behavior the longer the line becomes to understanding the limits of our freedoms.

This is true for all our freedoms. Freedom of religion does not include those that practice cannibalism. Freedom to bear arms does not include nuclear weapons. Protections for assemblies of people do not grant the right for lynch mobs to form.

In each moment, we change the boundaries of our freedoms, much as the coast of Ireland is not fixed. In little ways, here and there, the coastline grows and shrinks.

Freedoms can get extended or be taken away. Examples of this are numerous; the extension of voting rights to un-propertied men, women and to lower age groups has increased our coast lines of freedom.

The sea of not free
Freedoms can be retracted or limited to protect us. Speed limits inhibit our freedom of movement. Pharmaceuticals are controlled in order to save lives. Copyrights limit the freedom to copy others speech for profit. Weights and measures are standardized to keep us fair and honest with each other.

We should cherish our freedoms and protect them. We should also not forget that all freedoms have boundaries that are not definable, that get longer and longer as you look at them. The simple answers may be easy but are frequently not the accurate ones.

Our government exists to help us define the edges of our freedoms in our time.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written. It got me thinking and I appreciate the perspective.