I’ve been having an interesting discussion with Ellen Hawley, over at Notes from the UK (you can pick it up, if so inclined, down in the comments after this post). I thought we’d both wandered away from the conversation, but it turns out that she’s been mulling over it, as have I. So instead of responding at length on her blog, I thought I’d bring the conversation here and invite you all to join in.
The question is: What do we do when protecting your rights limits my freedom?
We all love to yatter on about freedom. America is the self-proclaimed “land of the free”. Every day we read bumper stickers proclaiming that “freedom isn’t free”. We admire the heck out of Patrick Henry and his “give me liberty, or give me death” proclamation. Lovers of freedom rejoiced when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Soviet Union broke up, and when Black South Africans went to the polls.
But we’re also big on rights – the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The right to property. The right to vote, worship, marry as our conscience dictates. And, inevitably, rights and freedoms collide.
The right of the historically dispossessed to own land, versus a landowner’s right to keep what they and/or their parents have worked hard to acquire and improve. An unborn child’s right to live versus a woman’s right to evict an unwanted fetus from her body. An employee’s right to choose what services they receive through their healthcare plan, versus a business owner’s right to decide what employee benefits they will offer. A believer’s right to worship who and where and how they please, versus a citizen’s right to limit what may be done on property paid for by taxes. A cartoonist’s right to be an asshole, versus a fundamentalist’s right to defend what they consider holy.
Do some of these choices seem obvious to you? Probably – but that’s not the point. My question is, what core values define how you will choose one right or freedom over another? If, in order to be true to your core values, you have to give up one of your rights or freedoms to protect someone else’s rights or freedoms, will you do it? Have you ever sat down and thought seriously about your core values, defined them, defended them, followed them to the furthest extreme that your imagination will take you?
Have you discovered that every moral argument leads down a rabbit hole to a place where you must practice believing “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”?
It seems to me that we are too often and too easily satisfied to react to individual situations as led by our preferred media, politician or celebrity. We’re lazy. We bypass serious discussion about the morality of certain choices in favor of an eye-roll and a smh*. The message we receive, and that we pass on to the world, is “Come on, it’s obvious – and if you don’t see it the way I do you’re stupid / bad / part of the problem.”
This troubles me because every day, as we decide what we think about events and trends and the choices made by our elected leaders,we’re making decisions that have complex, far-reaching implications and feature countless shades of grey. And this is potentially a dangerous way to live. When we go with glib groupthink, when we allow our chosen tribe to define what we do and don’t believe, we become vulnerable. Most of us just want to get on with our lives as best we can, but there are individuals out there, powerful, savvy individuals, who really, really want to tell us what to do. And when we surrender our responsibility to think seriously about our moral values and let those values guide our decisions and opinions, we become sheep … and then we are powerless to choose whether we’re guarded by dogs under the control of a benevolent shepherd, or harried by wolves.
I don’t care whether it’s a politician, a self-made billionaire, a televangelist, a scientific genius or a really hot sex symbol – I don’t want someone else doing my thinking for me. I’m also not terribly interested in doing your thinking for you. I really don’t care if you don’t share my core values … but I care passionately that you should have them, and that you should know what they are.
So let’s talk. What do you think is more important – freedom or rights? Are you willing to sacrifice any of your rights or freedoms so that others can enjoy different rights and freedoms? What do you think society should do about people who don’t share your core values about rights and freedoms? Do you think decisions based on core values are more likely to ensure, over time, that all is right with the world?
- It’s okay if you didn’t understand “smh”. It stands for “shaking my head”. (This note is for my mother, but I should mention that I had to google it too after seeing it 157 times and not being able to guess.)