Does ‘Freedom’ Mean Anything Beyond Selfishness?

Today we hear it used to shout down and bully school boards during their public meetings. Nurses, school teachers, flight attendants, and people just walking down the street have heard it used by people while the shouter assaults them.

It seems to be an excuse for all sorts of uncivil, rude, and even violent behavior. It was shouted again and again on January 6th by people assaulting the nation’s Capitol to violently interfere with an otherwise regular process of American democracy that has peacefully taken place every four years.

It’s used as if it’s an explanation for denying equal rights to people of color and LGBTQ+ people. It’s brandished about as a basis for forcing one’s sectarian religious beliefs and actions on anyone who disagrees with them.

It’s the word “freedom.” And it’s attained a status so undefined, so empty of a definition by those who constantly hide behind their invocation of the term, so lacking in thought about what it could mean, that it seems to be an excuse to do whatever one wants and to hell with those others affected by whatever it is someone wants to do.

Thoughtfulness, empathy, a sense of history, recognition of how the word has been used to justify the enslavement of other human beings and to commit genocide on native peoples, are absent from the minds of those who brandish the word around to get their own way.

Attempts to fit the word into some ideologies are afterthoughts discovered later in order to act as if their cries of “freedom” come from a place of careful consideration. The most widely read economist of the last century, John Kenneth Galbraith, put it this way:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

For so many it’s as if just shouting the word “freedom” is an excuse that justifies whatever they do to others. And the louder and more often it’s shouted, those who do so think it becomes even a better weapon against something or someone, against anything at hand.

This empty sloganish use isn’t new. After the horrific events of 9/11/01, certain politicians knew they could get their way by ignoring history and claiming that the attacks took place because those people “hate our freedoms.” It’s such a mark of American “patriotism” that even those who suffer from American income disparity seemed comforted by the words of that country western song revived after 9/11: “And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free.”

Who’s going to come out against “freedom,” after all? It’s a given in the United States (“the land of the free”) even when it’s used by people thoughtlessly to justify anything they want, even though our courts have said every freedom has its limits.

In an August 22nd rally, the former president used it to try to calm his rebelling followers. Both before and after he was booed by them for recommending COVID vaccinations, he fell back on what he believed would work: “I believe totally in your freedoms.”

The right-wing use of the term “freedom” has thus taken a selfish turn. Like the common phrase used by Republican politicians during the current pandemic to refuse mandates, “personal responsibility,” “freedom” is used as if there’s no community of people around those who mindlessly invoke it.

Just as “personal responsibility” does not include, for them, a personal responsibility for the larger community they actually depend upon regularly, so “freedom” is defined as what someone wants to be at liberty to do even if it’s dangerous to other members of their own community. In fact, its use today is just another symptom of the loss of the sense of a common good.

Historian Stephanie Coontz documented the actual change in the U.S. from a sense that society was central to the elevation of the nuclear family as the primary institution in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. She warned that “the collapse of social interdependence and community obligation in America challenges us to rethink our attitudes…”

This decline of a sense that we’re all in this together was welcomed by economic elites because it’s useful to them. If people can be isolated into their own silos, caring only about themselves, their own pocketbooks, and their immediate family, they won’t challenge the rich and powerful who take advantage of them.

Working people’s very definition of “freedom” selfishly will keep them from powerfully rising up together to make the real change that will improve their status in life. Instead they’ll cannibalize their own.

And religious bigotry leads the way in this selfish definition. The American version of freedom of religion was thereby turned into securing government approval through so-called “religious liberty” laws meant to protect things these religionists are afraid of losing — historical religious privilege, the confidence that their position alone through enforcement is the correct one, majority status for their sectarian claims, faith in their version of their religion, a higher status for their self-definition racially and heterosexually, and the rightness and prestige of the leaders and institutions they’ve bet their souls on.

What we’re seeing daily playing out as right-wingers use the cry “freedom” as a bullying weapon without thoughtful content, is how such a term can divert their attention from their own fears, insecurities, traumas from abusive parenting, and emotional/psychological problems. For those who disagree with them, though, it can also divert one’s own attention to thinking that there’s an easy cure.

Since what amounts to their mantra of “freedom” doesn’t arise out of a desire for rationality and isn’t even arrived at through careful logic, for the rest of us it means that we won’t be able to contradict it through careful reasonable argumentation. We won’t just be able to sit down and rationally educate them.

It won’t even matter to most that they are hurting others by their so-called “freedom.”

Wearing a mask, getting a vaccine, accepting the full humanity of people of color and LGBTQ+ people will likely depend upon what gets their attention because it immediately threatens them. But even if tragedies happen to them as a result of their belligerence, it will awaken them only if they can stop blaming the rest of us and a government they want to believe is threatening their “freedom.”

They won’t think of “freedom” as something beyond their own selfish fantasies if we enable them either. It’s what we model that’s important.

It’s how we stand up forcibly, resolutely, and convincingly for what we believe is important – that freedom must be something that arises out of a sense that we are a community that we all live in together, or it will be merely another word for selfishness.