By George Cheney and Sally Planalp
“Freedom” is probably the word most often associated with U.S. values and what we call the American experience. One sure way to energize people at a large gathering is to celebrate freedom, as we do on July 4th and other national holidays. But how often do we stop to consider what freedom means, or more accurately, its many meanings? Our various freedoms are a diverse bunch.
In a society that features the individual person, the kinds of freedom that first come to mind are usually important rights, like “freedom to” exercise free speech, practice religious beliefs, own property and guns, etc. Many of these freedoms are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Some of those amendments also concern “freedom from,” as in freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and from cruel and unusual punishment.
Discussed less often is “freedom with,” which involves achieving freedom in coordination with other people. When we’re caught up in our own “freedom to” and “freedom from,” we can easily forget that we are at the same time bumping into others who have their own rights and freedoms. It’s easy to think that extending our freedom to others around us somehow diminishes the freedom we have, but this is a narrow perspective. Some freedoms and rights cannot be created and exercised alone. Think of freedom of the press or the right to a fair trial, but also the freedom to buy food at a grocery store, make a phone call, or use the internet, which require coordination with uncountable other people.
We often fail to distinguish between short-term and long-term effects of freedoms. A powerful example of this right now is resistance to wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. A sense of freedom for the moment — not wearing a mask and not being told to wear one — can ironically undermine the freedom for all of us to be in public for the longer haul. The appeal to “freedom” creates an illusion that individuals will be actually freer if they can choose what to do in any situation; in the long run, however, it puts lives at risk and jeopardizes our collective freedom to return to a less restricted public life.
It’s unfortunate that masks have been politicized when wearing them would benefit everyone. At its core it is a public health and safety issue that should never have gotten tinged by politics. In this case, individual rights and the rights of the group are inextricably intertwined. What seems to be a simple exercise of individual rights actually gets a lot more complicated and can circle back like a boomerang to hurt everyone. On June 23, Lori Freeman, the CEO of the National Association of City and County Health officials, stated: “What has typically been just pure public health advice coming from a trusted source in the community, the local health department, is being politicized and made to seem like the public health advice is something that is restricting people’s rights, their freedoms to move about.” The head of the Royal Society, the British counterpart of the National Academy of Sciences, went even further to say that not wearing a mask should be viewed as antisocial and taboo, like drunk driving because both threaten other people’s lives as much or even more than your own.
A creative way to make the point was circulated on Facebook by Barbra Barbour on July 1. She announced the guidelines of the “Freedom Café.” In addition to allowing everyone to choose to don masks or not, she allowed for other kinds of choices: “We understand that you may be used to chicken that is cooked to 165 degrees. We do have to respect that some of our cooks may have seen a meme or a YouTube video saying that 100 degrees is sufficient, and we do not want to encroach on their beliefs.” The Freedom Café also encourages but does not require hand washing by employees who are touching food, etc. You get the point. Your “freedom” is my health risk. Ultimately, it’s your risk too if others make the same moment-to-moment decisions to exercise their freedoms in the way they see fit.
As President John F. Kennedy might have said, “Ask not whether your freedom, comfort and convenience are worth the lives of others. Ask whether their freedom, comfort and convenience are worth your life.” The answer to each question should actually be the same. To paraphrase Dr. Anthony Fauci, because of non- or pre-symptomatic transmission of COVID-19, you cannot know if you might be the victim or the carrier. There’s the rub with this strain of coronavirus: you may feel fine but still transmit the virus to others.
The life you save may be your own, or it could be your mother’s, your neighbor’s, your co-worker’s, your teacher’s, your grocery clerk’s, or your nurse’s life. In the U.S., we have come to accept reasonable requirements for operating vehicles (seat belts) and entering buildings (“No shirt, no shoes, no service”). So, why prolong and deepen a crisis by avoiding a simple adjustment with proven results around the world?
Cheney and Planalp are residents of Moab and communication professors, now retired from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. The opinions expressed here are their own and do not represent the University of Colorado or any other institution.