Ways of Seeing: Freedom has many definitions
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
America has long been known as the land of the free. It’s in our national anthem. It was and still is the motivation that drives so many people to these shores: the idea that whatever they are being persecuted for or whatever they are fleeing from they can come to America and be free.
The early white colonists and settlers arrived here and traveled out into vast sparsely populated lands in search of a new life, a free life. (Ironically often the very things they were fleeing they then imposed on Native peoples they encountered.) It is this idea of freedom and a long history of self-reliance that have become core principles in people’s perceptions of what America is, both in our own mythos and abroad.
Freedom is also written into our constitution in the first amendment. There are specific freedoms that are protected: the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and to petition the government. While the idea and definition of freedom can be many things to many people, the freedoms guaranteed by being an American citizen are clearly laid out in writing and are meant to protect these freedoms and to guarantee equal freedoms for all.
We have long lived with the idea that our freedoms are protected and we have been praised for our independent pioneer do-it-yourself spirit. Somewhere along the way these ideas have led to a society where our idea of freedom often means the freedom to choose self-interest over community interest. The idea that the first amendment gives us complete freedom to be responsible only to ourselves with no responsibility to our community. And here is where the paradox of complete freedom begins. If everyone is free to do as they choose, surely some people will choose things that inhibit other people’s freedoms.
Unless there are some common goals and ideologies, some freedoms we choose together as a society to embrace, rather than only freedoms for ourselves, can we say that we as people are free? Does our freedom mean we are free to choose our own interests over the interests of the whole? Or does it mean that we choose to give up certain things to allow our community as a whole to have freedoms for all?
Most Americans have already agreed on certain curtailments of their personal freedoms for the greater good. For example, we don’t drive cars down the sidewalks. We have agreed that sidewalks are for walking and roads are for driving. If you decide to drive down the sidewalk, we as a society have agreed that you should be punished. I’m sure there are some with extreme points of view that this infringes on their personal freedoms, but we have agreed that it is important that people are able to walk on the sidewalks free from the fear of cars.
Where we begin to differ and therefore to argue about freedom and our first amendment rights is not the basic idea, but the degree to which rules and regulations are imposed on us. It’s a simple concept — the idea of community over self. But it is one critical to how our country runs and how we define freedom.
Is freedom something for oneself, or something for people as a whole?
Claire Corkins grew up and lives in Bristol and studied Human Ecology at College of the Atlantic in Maine. After college she worked abroad teaching English as a second language. She currently works with her father in such various endeavors as painting houses, tiling bathrooms, building porches, and fixing old windows. She hikes, reads, plays ice hockey, travels, and wishes she could wear flip flops all year round.
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