Freedom is a complex concept, defined by the individual, molded by their experience and learned worldview, and by its presence in their lives. It can be defined by a person’s place in the world, by their age, by their criminal history (or lack thereof), or simply by their perception of the basic rules of humanity. Freedom can be granted or taken away by any number of authority figures, such as parents, educators, or government officials. In America, citizens are afforded many supposed freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, or the freedom to love who you choose, just to name a few. However, none of the freedoms bestowed upon us as citizens of the world are absolute, neither in theory nor in practice. A reasonable person might agree that any particular freedom is limited at the point where choices made in the name of it potentially endanger the safety or lives of others. The concept of freedom is interesting in this way, as many people perceive it to mean the lack of restraints, while in reality, all freedoms are restrained by the rule of law in order to prevent chaos. Some people make sacrifices to enjoy or provide freedom, such as the soldiers who volunteer to risk and give their lives on foreign soil to defend the things this country holds dear, while others take it for granted on a daily basis. The word freedom may have an official definition in the dictionary, but its true meaning is open to interpretation to every soul on the planet.
Freedom is a liberty that can change or be revoked in the face of major world events. In an increasingly interconnected world, and with the rise of frequent, large-scale terrorist attacks, some freedoms are being modified or slashed by governments for the sake of national security. In the wake of the infamous terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, the American public has called into question the federal government’s perceived encroachment on its fundamental freedom of privacy, with ordinary citizens being subjected to random and sometimes invasive searches at airports, and the alleged surveillance of their phone calls and emails. Everybody draws their own line in the sand when it comes to protecting the integrity of their personal freedoms. This reality is equally interesting and disturbing, considering the practiced apathy many Americans have in regard to their freedoms, seemingly picking and choosing which ones to defend and which to ignore altogether. For example, a frightening number of Americans willingly and consistently forego their right to vote, but nonetheless, imagine the fiery hell that would be raised if that privilege was suddenly snatched away from them.
The freedom to make decisions for oneself or a loved one crosses into questionable territory when the resulting actions potentially endanger safety, lives, or freedoms of other people. A prime example of this notion is the recent and explosive debate that has opened over the anti-vaccination campaign. Years ago, one particular study, which has since been thoroughly debunked by the medical community at large, found a link between certain vaccines and the development of autism in children. Despite the study’s well-grounded dismissal, a movement sprung up across the country in which parents opted to skip some, or all of the vaccination schedule recommended for their children. Even more recently, the United States has seen the return of measles, a serious disease that was previously eradicated on American soil due to the vaccine that was developed to destroy it. This phenomenon begs a series of questions- how far does a parent’s freedom to raise their children as they see fit extend? At what point does that freedom become a hazard to others, particularly other children? Does the government have the right to infringe upon a parent’s right to choose what goes into the bodies of their children, in the name of the greater good? These are questions that have inspired heated debates across dinner tables, in endless comment threads on Internet blogs, and more than likely in government chambers. This is a point where the lines of freedom are blurred- a question of whether or not a certain freedom should be sacrificed willingly by those who hold it, or simply be taken away from them. While a given right or freedom may seem sound on paper, it may have costly results when put into practice by someone who interprets it for their own machinations.
Fundamentally, freedom is the ability to come and go as you please, so long as you obey the laws set forth by various levels of government. If your actions are deemed by authority figures or governing bodies to create a danger to others, or even to yourself, corrective action is taken and you may be forcibly removed from society for a certain amount of time thought necessary for rehabilitation. An overzealous judicial system in recent American history has caused overcrowding of the nation’s prisons, packing the cells with perpetrators of non-violent crimes, often for inordinate amounts of time. However, lessons do need to be learned when it comes to respect of the law, and repeated infractions, even those of a benign nature, should result in the loss of freedom.
Freedom is not absolute. While the founders of our nation provided for certain inalienable rights to be sent down through the generations, such as freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, they could not have foreseen the massive changes the human race would go through, for better or worse, over the next two centuries. The freedom of speech, for example, is one of the most sacredly held liberties known to American citizens, both past and present. At its core, the freedom of speech represents a person’s right to say what’s on their mind in a public forum, without retribution from the government, regardless of the merit or popularity of their opinions. Over time, however, the freedom of the press has been limited in what can be printed or broadcast in cases of libel or slander against a person or organization, and the freedom of speech granted to ordinary citizens does not protect the right to make terroristic threats. While most speech of a questionable nature, such as simple profanity or hate speech is not punishable by the government, schools and employers reserve the right to punish students or employees for unfavorable remarks made in public. The meteoric rise of social media has changed the parameters of freedom of speech for good. Things that are posted online for friends and family to see can make their way to the wrong people with the greatest of ease. In the age of the Internet, one’s existence on it demands that they forfeit a considerable amount of their freedom of privacy.
Freedom is something to be respected, to be learned, and to be earned. Some freedoms are presented symbolically at birth, others are granted through age, and others must be commanded by responsibility and action. It is something that is definable, yet open for debate and for revision. Nothing makes a person appreciate freedom more than it being removed from their life, whether it’s something as simple as parents revoking their child’s driving privilege in return for a broken household rule, or being remanded to a prison cell for something much worse. Freedom is not enjoyed by all, due to domineering parents, oppressive employers, or totalitarian governments, but it will always be sought by those trapped under the aforementioned weights. For most, it is something worth dreaming about, worth appreciating, worth fighting for, and for so many more, it is something worth dying for.