Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Freedom Defined

The word “Freedom” is tossed about in contemporary political rhetoric quite often and yet it is poorly understood. It is heavily loaded with both partisan and sentimental value for those who use the word, and it cannot be easily defined for it not only represents the foundation of what the United States was ostensibly founded upon, but it is the watchword for all “democratic” nations. “Freedom” is our aspiration; in its absence we are enslaved, in its presence we are jubilant ... but what does “freedom” really mean?

Understanding the concept of “freedom” is easier when you can comprehend what it means to live without freedom: to appreciate the lack of something permits us to better appreciate what it is like when it is made manifest in our presence. A perfect example of this can be found in 20th century history in the nation of South Africa and the tumultuous times of the Apartheid regime that imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years. Nelson Mandela was only one of the political prisoners who lost his personal freedom in the battle for freedom for his people; that was the sacrifice that he made in order to see the hateful Apartheid system end, and for a nonracial system of government to come into being. The fruits of his freedom were manifested through the first “one-person-one-vote” elections in 1994, which marked the true end of apartheid. The subsequent establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was emblematic of this freedom as well. It was convened for the sake of creating a public record about what took place under the apartheid regime, to rehabilitate the nation after living through the ravages of the racist apartheid regime and, more importantly, to compensate those who had been abused under the old apartheid system rather than meting out revenge against those who had perpetrated the offences.

According to Nelson Mandela, freedom can only exist when everyone is free. In other words, freedom in not a personal issue, it pertains to the collective state of the people. Inequality is a great hindrance to true freedom as it creates distinct divisions (or classes) amongst the population that transcends traditional class structures. Having any class system in society, either according to job classification or based on religious belief, you will find that the issue of freedom is stunted by the idea that there is anything that differentiates one individual, or group of individuals, from others. One of the things that you discover by studying the situation that took place in South Africa, and the story of Nelson Mandela, is that freedom and racism are integrally related. When a man can have 3 decades of his life stolen from him because the state opposes the way he thinks, or his dream to live in a free state that does not treat him and his people like 2nd class citizens, that is when you know there is no freedom to be had. Freedom in South Africa, before the end of Apartheid, was an illusion for the simple reason that it was something that only white citizens were able to partake of, so long as they adhered to the barbaric laws of the apartheid regime.

When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years he was a free man, but he would not know true freedom until he had the opportunity to cast his vote in the first “one-person-one-vote” election in South Africa on April 26, 1994. Over the days that the polls were open nearly 20 million South Africans of all colours cast their votes for who would represent them in the first non-white-only government. The African National Congress won the majority of support with 62.6% of the vote and, on May 9, 1994, Nelson Mandela was unanimously elected President by the National Assembly. The days of the elections were so important to the people of South Africa that the 27th of April was declared a public holiday: Freedom Day.

As the president of the “new” South Africa it is likely that Nelson Mandela did not, at that point, feel very much like a free man for the simple reason that his time was not his own, something that every head of state would likely agree with were they asked the question of their own situation. In his book “Long Walk to Freedom” Nelson Mandela wrote that “a leader often sacrifices personal freedom in order for a leader to serve the needs of his people” (paraphrased). It is a variation of the idea that personal sacrifices must be made in order to help others. That is the essence of being a truly great leader, of being a truly great human: someone must be willing to give of themselves for the betterment of others. In answering the question, “am I my brother's keeper”, the response is “yes”, without hesitation, even if that costs something on a personal level.

True freedom, after this model, comes from the expression of an individual's interpretation of a rather esoteric ideal, an expression that is almost impossible to define in traditional terms as it encompasses so many definitions. People ultimately cobble together their own interpretation of the word, regardless of whether or not it is close to being an accurate definition. When it comes to an individual's idea concerning freedom there really is no “right answer”, and the truth is an altogether different and irrelevant point to those who believe that “freedom” is a “God-given right”, guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States (for those living in the United States ... Canadians have the “Charter of Rights and Freedoms”).

Alas, this is where the idea of “true freedom” enters the concept of relativistic or situational definitions. Some might argue that true freedom is an absolute that cannot be measured against perceived rights and “freedoms” that are conferred upon an individual by the state. At the same time, true freedom cannot be represented by anything that the state can confer upon a citizen for the simple reason that rights and freedoms conferred by the state can be taken away just as easily as they were granted; that does not make the idea of freedom very concrete if it is something that can be removed by a court decision or governmental decision, it makes it sound more like a vague concept that is “open to interpretation” rather than an entrenched right. Take, for example, the right of “Habeas Corpus”, which has been an important part of common law since before the Magna Carta (1215). This “right” was taken away from people in the United States, with the stroke of a pen, after President George W. Bush decided that terrorists did not deserve the same rights as those guaranteed under the constitution to all other defendants.

One of the main problems encountered by people attempting to formulate a concrete definition of the idea behind “freedom” comes when an individual's expression of their freedom impinges upon another person's ability to enjoy their life. The problem with individual freedom is that, for the most part, people do not live their lives in such isolated situations that make it possible to do anything they want without having to be concerned with the ramifications of their actions. True freedom does not necessarily mean doing anything you want, whenever you want; it means that you are free to make choices to do the right thing, those things being things that do not interfere with the lives and livelihoods of others. What is truly important is that we are given the ability to make the proper choices when it comes to the exercise of this freedom which is why education is one of the most important things in a “free” society. Without an educated population it is impossible to have a citizenry who understand what their responsibilities as citizens are and, subsequently, what their freedom represents.

Education is the cornerstone of a free society insomuch as it serves to provide a level playing field for every citizen, regardless of their position in society. Where there is an educational system that treats its students with dignity and respect you will find a citizenry that appreciates their freedoms without seeking to violate the rights of others; civility is as much an element of cultural decontamination as it is a part of the permissive nature of the society from which an individual is from. When people believe they are allowed to do anything because it is their “right” to do so, that they are exercising their freedom, the violation of the rights of others will take place more and more frequently for the simple reason that they will not care whether or not their actions have ramifications outside of the immediate moment in which they are operating. This is the great conundrum of freedom that may never be fully satisfied: is one individual's freedom more important than the freedom of all? What happens when your freedom interferes with another person's life? Is the pursuit of the one supposed to supersede the other or, are you to alter your plans to accommodate the society of which you are a member? Perhaps the definition of freedom has to include the word “sacrifice”.

The very concept of freedom, from the beginning of modern history, is fluid as can be seen through the history of the United States and its Declaration of Independence. In the Declaration of Independence there are the famous words declaring that we are all endowed with the unalienable rights of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. One may infer that “freedom” was on the tip of the tongue of the writers of the Declaration, even if it was not actually written down: the words chosen are all synonymous to freedom. However, it must also be remembered that the Declaration of Independence was aimed at a particular crowd: white, male landowners. Women and people who were not white were not considered in the same category as the landowners, nor were they given the right to vote or speak in government. Freedom was not for all; not then, or now.

The very idea behind the “pursuit of Happiness”, for example, can cause contention amongst those who do not share similar views of what that pursuit may actually entail. While one person may feel the pursuit of happiness includes the playing of drums in the middle of the night, their neighbours would likely feel somewhat differently about that expression of freedom and ask the drummer to change their schedule for the sake of community harmony. By playing their drums at another, more appropriate time of the day, it is possible for the drummer to have his pursuit of happiness – to have his expression of freedom – without having his neighbours want to burn down his house in the process.

Freedom is something that will be debated for generations, but the true definition is really not that difficult to find as it relates to the entire human condition; it must be seen as a relativistic term in regards to how we all live, or it holds little personal meaning: if one person thinks themselves to be free while their brothers or sisters are not, what is the value of their freedom? Unless we are all free, unless we are all endowed with the same rights and privileges that every citizen is entitled to enjoy, freedom will remain nothing but a concept to be discussed in university classes and high school civics classes.

When Nelson Mandela spoke to 120,000 supporters in the First National Bank Stadium in Soweto, South Africa, he addressed the fact that there had been problems with crime in the township. Crime had to end, Mandela pleaded, for “Freedom without civility, freedom without the ability to live in peace, was not true freedom at all.” In the end, freedom is more about the things we decide not to do than what we decide to do; it means we are free to live our lives in harmony with each other, regardless of colour or creed, in peace, because that is the way we should be living. It isn't about doing things that risk the lives of others so that we can have a fleeting thrill. Irresponsibility is not an expression of freedom, it is an expression of immaturity. Freedom is something that, after 27 years in prison for political beliefs, Nelson Mandela could say he understood by virtue of the fact that he could have a meal when he pleased and sleep when he wanted. The little things become precious when you have had everything stolen from you.

Ultimately freedom is what you make of it, it is the lifeblood of our democratic system: we are free to vote, to choose those who will represent us in government and ultimately shape the course that our nation takes in national and international affairs. Our greatest task as freedom loving citizens begins at the ballot box whenever there is an election: if we fail to vote we fail our nations. We abdicate the responsibility that our government expects from its citizens. If we do not vote, if we do not use our freedom to express our opinions at the polls, how can we be surprised when a reactionary political entity is elected that wants to curtail those personal rights and freedoms? Any right conferred by the state can be taken away: we must never allow this to happen. The only way to prevent it is by speaking through our votes. If we do not vote, if we allow apathy to overtake our love for freedom, the damage will have been done. Just remember, if you do not vote, you are entrusting your freedom to the people who do.

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