We use the word "freedom" so often, we probably think we know exactly what it means. We have freedom of speech, and presumably therefore freedom of thought; we have freedom of religion, and some would add freedom from religion; we have freedom of the press, to assemble, to come and go as we please, to eat what we want, and so many more freedoms.
Sometimes we acknowledge that each freedom brings responsibility, thus freedom is not simple license to do anything we damn well please. As the old saying goes, my freedom to swing my arm ends at the end of your nose, and I suggest it ends even sooner, if only ethically and not legally, with the threat to hit your nose before I swing.
Some people recognize that what we are free to say and do, and in some places even to think, depends on the culture and laws of the place you live, including the institutions and political structures in place. What I am free to think and do in New York is not the same as that in Iraq, Iran, Ireland, China, Pakistan, North Korea and many other places. So does that mean we must talk of a true, ideal freedom? And whose ideal freedom should that be?
Many Muslim women appear to believe they are free because they are subservient to the Koran, their husbands and Imams. Some Christian women feel they are free because they are subservient to the Bible, priests and ministers, and their husbands.
Philosophers and other thoughtful people have written about freedom for years, and there seems to be no single accepted definition.
One thing that does have consensus is the notion that there is an internal freedom and an external freedom. The former is illustrated, and witnessed, by those who survived the holocaust, the Inquisition, prison, and so on, where even torture and deprivation could not destroy their thoughts and beliefs.
This also illustrates the notion of freedom "of."
External freedom is illustrated by the ability to do what you wish, as opposed to places like Ireland, which has an anti-blasphemy law, making blasphemy (as defined by the government) not just impolite, or unethical, but criminally illegal. In the U.S., Yale University Press decided not to publish the recent Danish cartoons that offended Islam in printing an interview about the cartoons, and when Index for Censorship, a magazine committed to free expression wrote about the controversy Yale's decision birthed, they also chose not to print the cartoons.
The latter's given reason was because of security worries. All this in a land without an anti-blasphemy law, the land of freedom of speech. In Hitler's world, even thinking in opposition to him was enough to be killed.
This also illustrates the notion of freedom "from."
Our basic freedoms are given in the Constitution and Bill of Rights and defined and upheld by our legal systems. Freedom may be a taken as a right, as in our Bill of Rights, but it is a thing that must be guarded, with responsibility and vigilance. The major responsibility is to live such that your freedoms do not injure those of others.
Again, an old example: your freedom of speech does not allow you to yell 'fire' in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Your freedom of religion does not allow you to impose your religious mores on those of other faiths.
Freedoms often conflict; as with the freedom to produce genetically modified crops with the freedom to eat free of such things, or in the case of gun control, fox hunting, or abortion. A basic thing to keep in mind is that when one participates in legal battles, or even battles for the public mind and vote, those who "win" put additional restrictions on those who "lose."
Is the battle over gay marriages a battle over religious beliefs or treating gays who cannot legally marry as second-class citizens, bereft of the benefits of marriage?
The need for vigilance is shown almost daily. Does the much-expanded snooping into one's personal and business records by the state Department of Taxation, for purpose of raising more tax dollars, impinge on your right to privacy? Does one's reporting a neighbor for violation of Cazenovia's proposed "Social Host Law" mean Big Brother is watching you overzealously? What about the United Nation's non-binding, but precedent-setting resolution against "defamation of religion," followed by Ireland's law criminalizing it?
These things may seem far off and hardly catch our notice, but freedom is lost more often by creeping infringements than by sudden changes.
So what is freedom?
It's a concept, a mental construct that you can't hold in your hands. It has boundaries, its hard to define, it carries responsibilities, and in action it is absolutely necessary for a full human life.
What must we be vigilant of? Valuing security more than freedom, corporate globalization, excessive nationalism, unelected organizations (UN, EU, etc.), plans for theocracy, media conglomerates, censorship in many forms, corruption that leads to power (money and status mean power), superpower states, the fear of challenging authority, and believing you can't make a difference.
Freedom is for all, but it comes in degrees, and it is the raison d'etre for government. It is not given by anyone; it is earned.
Vive la freedom!Jim Coufal of Cazenovia is contributing writer to the Madison County Courier. He can be reached at email@example.com.