In the post-9/11 world that we now inhabit, the word ‘Freedom’ is one we hear thrown around all of the time. More often than not the word is wielded like a weapon, parrying criticism and deflecting blame. It is a word that can mean a lot of things, but it can mean very different things to different people. In this post I want to talk about three different freedoms: Freedom of Expression, of Speech and of Choice.
Now if these look a little familiar, it’s because they are enshrined in the United States Constitution (and others that came before and after no doubt, but you’ll have to forgive my frame of cultural reference). I wanted to talk about each of these in turn in context of what’s currently going on in the US specifically, but also elsewhere in the world. This post is quite political, somewhat emotionally charged and a little longer than usual. That’s all good, right?
Freedom of Expression
Race relations in the US are currently at one of their lowest ebbs since the Civil Rights Movement. At the same time, anti-immigration sentiment drove the people of the UK to vote to leave the European Union. Now before anyone gets carried away arguing that Brexit (I really hate that word) wasn’t about racism and immigration, let me just stop you. It totally was. People were voting to stop people coming here from other countries. The majority of ordinary people who voted to Take Back Control* (read: ruin the country financially and give more power to the heartless Conservative Party) did it because they didn’t like people speaking different languages in the queue at Tesco, regardless of what the official line said at the time.
But I digress.
What do people do when things around them are going to hell and they feel like no one is supporting their plight? They protest and the best of them protest peacefully and in a way that makes maximum impact without putting others at risk. Now we have people gathering in protest with their hands raised, assembling in public places and outside embassies and (somehow the most newsworthy of all) celebrities and sports personalities protesting in the US by not standing for the Star Spangled Banner, America’s national anthem. People are losing their minds over this. They’re losing it both publicly (in tirades on YouTube and Facebook) and in private (in places where I assume the sales of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Schlitz are skyrocketing). These people are saying that it is disrespectful to not stand for the flag and that it is disgusting to not sing along to the anthem. They say that soldiers who gave their lives fighting for freedom, as well as the ones who came home with and without war wounds from the same conflicts, are being insulted by this behaviour.
Let me stop you there for just a second.
The people who fought and died for your freedom should be upset because you are exercising that freedom? Is that really the argument people are using? I mean, is the irony not clear enough for these people, or do I need to hire a billboard with a dictionary definition on it? Freedom of Expression is just that; the freedom to express yourself in a way that is not harmful to others. Quietly kneeling whilst a song plays seems to be a pretty respectful way to express your point (whilst also shining a huge spotlight on the issue) and I can imagine that there must be a whole lot of soldiers out there who agree. At least I hope I’m right on that one.
Freedom of Speech
The second freedom that I want to talk about is this one: Freedom of Speech. Again, this one is in effect in a lot of places too and it basically means that you can say what you want to say as long as it doesn’t slander somebody. It’s a pretty free pass other than that. The important part here though is although you can say what you want, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to deal with the consequences of what you said or what you meant by saying it. People often gloss over that part when bleating on about their rights (to insult people). Now look, I know I said some things up above about the Brexit vote but I’m not immune to the consequences. Also, I’m not singling out any individuals either, but still… Sorry about the hypocrisy.
The problem with something as basic and fundamental as freedom of speech is that people use it incorrectly. You can’t just say stuff. You can’t just make things up. You can’t just threaten people. These are kind of unwritten rules that the Founding Fathers left out of the Constitution because they thought people who were smart enough to read the words would be smart enough to interpret the true meaning of them (see also the Second Amendment for more evidence of that). Little did they realise that they should have included a copy of Constitution for Dummies along with the original document.
Nowhere is this problem clearer right now than in the US Presidential Election. Donald Trump (a short-fingered, ridiculously coiffured, living embodiment of the worst parts of the American Capitalist system) is allowed free reign to lie, embellish and bully and no one seems capable of properly holding him to account for it. He’s denied facts, made up his own brand of truth, lied about and threatened opponents, verbally harrased and assaulted countless people… The list goes on and on. Yet a core group of voters (I’m calling them voters because I want to save my name-calling for Trump alone) will follow him no matter what he says. What he says should be important. Why are his lies and boasts and threats not more important? We’re now at a stage where this lumbering reality TV host has a shot (a long one, thankfully, but still one) at becoming President of the United States. Whether or not you like Obama, or Bush (either one), or Clinton (either one) is irrelevant. At least they were actually politicians who knew how governments work (I know that’s debateable with George W, but you get the idea). This is just one of the many things that’s kind of important when you’re the President of a world superpower. At least us normal, non-wigged, non-billionaires seem to think so.
Words are important and their meanings, doubly so.
Freedom of Choice
There are choices all around us. Some are not important, like what I’m having for breakfast on Tuesday or what colour socks to wear. Others are far more profound, like the UK’s recent EU Referendum (I think I made my thoughts on that trainwreck fairly obvious above) or the upcoming US Presidential Election (I made my feelings on that pretty clear too).
Some things you don’t have to choose between, like Black and Blue Lives and how much they matter. Both can be important without diminishing the other, it’s just about knowing which battles to fight. Once everyone respects the lives that are so often taken, then the protests become unnecessary. I can support Black Lives Matter (because that’s the cause that needs the support) whilst also having friends who work in the police and respecting those in the uniform. I don’t choose between them, I simply lend the support I can wherever it is needed.
Other choices you do make. Like whether to share that Facebook post from a far-right group disguised as something fluffier or who to vote for when you don’t like either candidate in the biggest presidential contest in a generation. I’m not saying that you have to like Hillary (I was a Bernie fan myself) but you do have to respect that she is infinitely more qualified than the bottle-tanned barbarian we have desperately forcing his way onto the national stage.
The point is that when you have a choice to make, make the right one. If you’re not sure which choice is the right one, pick the one that you won’t be ashamed of in years to come. Pick the one that you’d be happy explaining to your kids, or friends, or family. Pick the one that lets you sleep at night.
And if you have a choice, don’t waste it.
Freedom is not something to be taken lightly. It is something that needs to be respected. It is something that should be rightly treasured. Most importantly, freedom is a shield to protect not a sword to harm. The next time you encounter someone’s expression or choice or words, think about that. Is it personal to them? Does it harm others? Does it need to be challenged? Think about those questions and make the right choice.
Freedom is ours to protect but, like anything powerful, we must be responsible with it. Otherwise what is the point of having it at all?