Recently the issues of freedom of beliefs have played a prominent part in conversations especially over the last few weeks both online and face to face. For the apparent simplicity is not a simple thing or something that everyone has reached agreement on.
As a result of this, I want to set out my thoughts at this point on time on this subject.
What is freedom?
“The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants.” – Oxford Dictionary represents what I perceive to be the majority of peoples understanding although it is worth adding this quote from the author Terry Pratchett “And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based.”
Personally, I start with a definition of freedom that is a mix of both the “the right to act, speak, or think as one wants and the responsibility to offer that same courtesy to others. Also binding you to the responsibility of understanding the impact that your action has on others and being personally responsible for them.” With this as a definition it is possible to believe that something is correct at the same time as understanding that the Law and other people do not agree.
How can freedom work within society?
Accepting new things
This ability to change represents one of a modern liberal society’s most difficult questions, how can a single social structure cope with people who have complete disagreements on an essential day to day event?
The answer is the provision of Laws that will set the parameters of acceptable behaviour for individuals, and it’s true that these laws may limit a person’s freedom as they all allow for different degrees of flexibility.
An example of this is that it is still illegal in some countries to be involved in a homosexual relationship (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/gay-lesbian-bisexual-relationships-illegal-in-74-countries-a7033666.html). In the rest of the world this is seen to be acceptable, and there is no real stigma attached.
This historic change for many is why it is necessary for any society/democracy to have a process for changing the laws and adapting to accept behaviours that are now seen to be more acceptable.
It is also the reason that in most modern democracy’s religion is separated from government.
Protecting against harmful things
The protections that laws bring by removing peoples rights to undertake an action. An example of this is that it is illegal to attack and harm someone; this protects individuals from being persecuted for dressing differently, walking hand in hand with a partner of the same sex, being of a different religion and even being the recipient of an act of violence for a minor incident.
The law is also set up to protect us from people whose beliefs would harm us, this harm could be physical or mental.
The example of religious or political extremism is a crucial one as it helps society to maintain the freedoms we all expect. For example, the politician who has views that are dramatically different from others is allowed to discuss and debate them with people who decide to engage. They are protected from threats and physical harm because of their views, but it equally protects society from them inciting or carrying out acts of violence against others.
The complexity of freedom
Above you will have already noticed the many problems that a free society faces:
- If a group is preaching hate and you stop them from doing this are you removing their freedom?
- Someone who has a different view on the workings of a family, are you removing their freedoms or protecting that of others by intervening?
- Is it ok for someone to exploit others for personal gain if the others are comfortable with the arrangement?
Many other examples could be part of this list, and in thinking about them, we begin to become aware of the issues that exist when legislating for freedom and finding the correct balance between personal freedom and protection.
In my view, it is critical to any democracy/society that:
- Religion is separated from the legislative process although we must also accept that individuals who are involved in the process may have religious views.
- There is a clear process for questioning and changing laws that should support the people asking, and therefore the law and society as a whole by creating an inclusive environment.
- Individuals within the community should be educated to allow them to understand the decisions, discussions, the source of an individuals views and how to discuss/debate this with them.
- Personally, the most important point is that the whole society/democracy should actively seek to understand fully before rejecting a new view and also be comfortable revisiting if the information changes.
This blog is in no way meant to be an in-depth piece on freedom but just a starting point to think about the complexity that is involved and how as individuals we must hold ourselves to standards that we expect from others.
We as individuals do not have the right to target people in an abusive way for their views, but we must also defend the right to freedom from people who want to take it from our society.
The fine line that has to be kept to protect people and make sure that we have freedom is impossible to maintain all of the time, and this responsibility must start with us and work its way up to the government.