We’ve struggled more and more as a culture, recently, with this idea of freedom. Specifically, we seem to be exceedingly tripped up over the question of how we can give freedom to some without imposing restrictions on others. If I give my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo all night long, I give up my ability to sleep soundly, don’t I?
So how do we actively grant others freedoms without restricting ourselves? How do we allow those around us to do as they will without hurting us?
Freedom is a lack of restraint or hindrance, not a lack of consequences. The extent to which we restrain or hinder others is within our ability to control, but the consequences they will face are largely beyond our control. For instance, I can decide not to make any move to restrain or hinder my neighbor’s ability to blast her stereo, but I cannot guarantee that nobody else in the area will object or call the cops or beat down her door at 2am to complain.
So the first question becomes whether we actually have the ability to restrain or hinder the decisions and actions of others as much as we like to think we do in the first place. The extent to which I can restrict the freedom of others is dependent largely on the relationship between us. I can’t actually tell my neighbor not to play her stereo loudly. I don’t have that power. I can ask her to please not do that, and she might agree. I can try to generate negative consequences for her if she decides to do it anyway, but she still has the freedom to defy them.
When we talk about granting freedoms to others we really are making a commitment on our own part to withhold any negative repercussions we can deal out in response to their actions. If I tell my neighbor she’s free to play her stereo as loud as she wants, I’m really promising not to call the cops or complain when she does that. Now, that doesn’t mean, for instance, that I’m committing myself necessarily to harm. I can grant my neighbor freedom to blast her stereo, but that doesn’t mean I just accept the sleepless nights which might therefore occur. I can wear earplugs, try to soundproof my bedroom, or sleep in a different room. In short, I absolve her of any responsibility or liability when it comes to the amount of sleep I’m able to get, and I take that responsibility on myself.
When we talk about giving other people freedom — to act, to choose, to be — we’re doing two things: promising not to actively impose negative consequences on them for exercising that freedom, and agreeing that we are responsible for our own existence and absolving them of that responsibility. The way to grant freedom to others without allowing yourself to be hurt is to recognize that you must protect yourself from that hurt with your own actions, your own choices.
The reason we’re so obsessed as a culture with how the freedom of others infringes on our own is because we have forgotten that our lives are our own responsibility. We have forgotten that the world is not obligated to do as we want, that our happiness is not the responsibility of others. We have forgotten that we don’t have the power to force others to do what we want them to do. We’ve forgotten that the ability to affect the actions and decisions of others requires some kind of relationship between us — either a relationship of respect or a relationship of power.
We seem to want the power relationship despite the fact that there is no grounds for us to assume that power over others and we are unwilling by and large to give that power to others. So the only thing left to us is to develop relationships of respect. If we want others to respect our needs and desires in their decisions and actions, we have to be willing to do the same. We have to reach out and connect to others. We have to develop mutual respect, mutual willingness to bend.
We have to extend freedom to others if we want it for ourselves.