Reflections on freedom, liberty, responsibility and duty
September 10, 2016 01:00 By Pornpimol Kanchanalak
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My four-year-old little girl protested hurtfully as I tried to draw a line with a stern look on what she could and could not do with her crayons. She read my sternness as loss of love for her. She put her head on my lap with her little arms tightly wrappe
For the first three years of her life, I gave her all of my love – unconditional and unqualified. I read from many books that it was essential to meet all the needs of a child in the first three years. It is supposed to build their emotional immunity and strengthen their inner core because as they slowly make their entry into the real world, it can be quite bewildering, cruel, and at times inimical.
On her part, for the first three years of her life, she experienced total freedom as I let her have it, and the love that filled up her world many times over. The time has now come for her to learn about the boundaries in life, and that entails learning to live within limits. She is learning how to live a life among other living beings. At four, the little girl feels the totality of her freedom and love slipping out of her grasp. It can be a perplexing and complex learning process that requires delicate balancing acts for both the little one and myself. Hopefully, in the end we would be able take comfort that we have done it right because she would end up becoming a responsible and contributing member of her society.
It is not my intention here to enumerate the gazillion theories and definitions of freedom and liberty. Rather, it is not inaccurate to sum it up that freedom and liberty are two distinct concepts – not exclusive from each other, but not at odds. Often times they are lumped together, as if they are one and the same, and thus can be used interchangeably. Interestingly, the two notions are rather fluid, and their attributing tenets morph with time and surrounding narratives.
Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of the United States, never spoke of freedom as a right, only liberty. In fact, in the US Declaration of Independence, liberty was listed as one of the inalienable rights. For Jefferson, liberty does not mean freedom to do anything one wants. In fact, all laws are restrictions on freedom. For Jefferson, freedom merely meant freedom from despotic oppression. For Jefferson, “Rightful liberty is unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by equal rights of others.” Jefferson never entertained the idea that there should be any freedoms, any rights, or any liberties that are completely without limitations or restrictions. Even government itself, Jefferson contended, is subject to various limitations, including those imposed by the Constitution.
So, here we can draw one distinction between freedom and liberty – freedom is a more general term in the sense that it is a state of being capable of making decisions to do something without external control, whereas liberty is freedom that is granted to someone by some external power so such freedom does not infringe on those of others.
It gets more interesting to track down how these two terms get continuously redefined over time. It appears that liberty that more or less entailed restrictions slowly gave way to freedom that entailed more individualistic aspects of man. At the time of World War I, sauerkraut was named “liberty cabbage” and dachshunds “liberty dogs”. Fast-forward to 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq: President Bush declared it “Operation Iraqi Freedom” after “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan. In his speech to the nation, the president said the war was to “defend our freedom” and bring “freedom to others”. Soon after, French fries were renamed “freedom ries”.
Liberty was the dominant patriotic theme of the US for 150 years after its independence and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address invoked the notion that the US was a nation “conceived in liberty”. Freedom came into its own only at the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal policy. The 32nd president contended that citizens as human beings must allow four types of freedom – of speech, religion, from want, and from fear. Timothy Leary, the Father of the LSD culture would then add the fifth freedom – of consciousness, to let mushrooms of the Amazon or psychedelic drugs such as LDS take you wherever they take you.
Freedom and liberty have their siblings in two other important and delicately distinct concepts – duty and responsibility.
In May this year, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas gave a commencement speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan. He told the students that “Without responsibility, there can be no freedom. Responsibility and freedom are opposite sides of the same coin.” He went on to stress the centrality of responsible discharging of one’s duties as an essential ingredient in the provision of liberty. Back in the 1960s, John W Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under president Lyndon B Johnson put it succinctly that “Liberty and duty, freedom and responsibility. That’s the deal”. To him, without the notion of duty and responsibility, liberty and freedom would run amok.
These days, I ask the little girl to say every morning that it’s her duty to go to school, and my duty to go to work. I taught her to write the word down both in Thai and English so she gets familiar with it. I am sure she has yet to grasp the entire notion of the word, let alone its implications, but she knows it is something that she has to do. I was able to stop her from drawing dinosaurs with crayons on the walls. Her freedom was restricted. But she bargained if she could use colour pencils instead, and for just one time. I obliged. After all, not many things in our life are absolute.
She is asleep now. The little girl asked me to hold her hand before she went to sleep. She was afraid that my slamming the brakes on her total freedom meant my heart was not totally with her. In the stillness of the night, with her tiny fingers wrapped around mine, I felt her trepidation. I whispered to her, “I still love you every day.”