Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.
Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.
Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.
Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.
Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.
I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?
Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.