Understanding what freedom really means

Given the latest terror attacks in Britain, and the attacks in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iraq, and seeing how fairly common events  these events have become, it is a wonder to me that anyone can argue against  the  fact that these attacks were carried out by religious zealots, or give the argument that the risk associated with being blown up in public by these people is somehow acceptable because it is less than the risk of being killed by the normal activity of  driving to the local supermarket.  But people I know do.

I used the word ‘acceptable’, but I don’t mean to say people who argue that being blown up has a small likelihood have no compassion or outrage, but acceptable in the sense that the majority of Muslims are not religious zealots and would never blow themselves up.  Their argument, if I have it correct, is that relatively speaking, these acts of violence do not represent the beliefs of most Muslims.  I don’t know this to be true, but I suspect it is.

So on the one hand, we have the emotional impact of a terror attack playing out in real time, and on the other, the perspective that it is a small statistical price to pay in a free society that allows all individuals to believe whatever idea they want.

There are multiple problems and logical inconsistencies with the arguments that freedom comes with a price, the price is relatively small, and the positive side to freedom outweighs the need to overreact by reducing the freedoms of everyone in the name of safety.   It is a bizarre false understanding of freedom that implodes when examined closely.  It also shows a naïve and ridiculous understanding of bad ideologies in a historical context.  History has shown time and time again what happens when bad ideologies are left unchecked.

My view is that left unchecked and unchallenged, bad ideological ideas become memes  – “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture” (Richard Dawkins).  Memes as they spread can lead to once unacceptable ideas becoming acceptable.  And many of these now acceptable ideas do not support what I, or even the people who argue against what I call the necessary wisdom of limiting the freedom to act out all beliefs, call freedom.

The belief that freedom to act out beliefs willy-nilly is a fundamental right, or even that it constitutes ‘freedom’ in any true sense, is to me a bizarre twist of logic that implodes under its own contradictions.  For example, I cannot see why any ideology that imposes itself by way of memes, rules and laws, emotional blackmail, threats of violence by a self-selected unelected dictatorial group of males, based upon the understanding of ancient texts and a belief in a dictatorial universal power, should be given the freedom to exercise their beliefs over their own communities in the West, and demand those who are not of their communities respect their ‘freedom of belief’.

Their concept of ‘freedom of belief’ means that anyone within their own community who does not conform to their understanding and interpretations of right and wrong action, must pay a heavy price. It means that what I call ‘freedom’ does not extend to their community because we have given their overseers the right to deny them the freedom to choose their own path based on their own volitions.

Stepping away from this line of reasoning, let me address the statistical argument. It is true that the probability of being blown up by a terrorist in the West is less than being involved in a fatal car accident.  For most of us the benefit of cars outweighs the risks of driving.  Likewise I could argue the benefit of freedom outweighs limiting the freedom of others.   Unless, of course, if granting a freedom to one, takes away freedom from another.

Hence we demand laws against drinking and driving, the Imposition of speeding restrictions in school zones. We demand vehicles that can withstand collisions, seatbelt requirements, and on.  Freedom to drive does not mean that manufacturers and drivers have no responsibility to ensure the safety of those who are innocent of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

If we want freedom, we must also honour the right of others to live without the consequences of our poor judgements, our wrong thinking, and our bad ideologies. That is also freedom. Unfortunately, the zealots amongst us do not share this line of reasoning.   They want to impose their beliefs, and want accommodation for their imposition.   Like in M-103, they do not want to grant freedom to others, only to themselves.

(An interesting aside:  I had a conversation with my daughter on her observations on child rearing.  She is observing in her circle how a lack of discipline and rules have resulted in a reversal of order within families.  Parents do not control their kids’ behaviour; kids now rule the nest lest their self-esteem becomes damaged – a bizarre state of affairs that does not teach respect, boundaries, responsibility, and rewards for acting out negative behaviour.  This is the new normal.)

To protect freedom and to create a kind of society that is loving and compassionate does not mean we must hand the keys to the kingdom over to everyone who has a belief that they want to act upon.  Everyone does have a right to believe whatever they want, but not act however they want.  It may sound contrary but the consequences of allowing all people the right to act out their beliefs will destroy the West and the freedom it cherishes.  As with children, unless we say no to bad behaviour and bad ideas, build strong boundaries to protect ourselves and others from harm, chaos will ensue.  History has shown this to be true.

I know this is all tricky – to balance freedom of individuality with social responsibility.  But when extremism is being acted out, facing it, calling it what it is, and acting to stop it and the memes from spreading is wisdom. Unless freedom is not what you want, I don’t see we have a choice.


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