Freedom & Responsibility

As we get further into the Year 1, A.C. (Age of Covid-19), I struggle, as many of us do, to think of the proper way to think about issues involved with how to be responsible and maintain freedom. As a singer, my tentative philosophy has been to “push the envelope, but cautiously”. The other day, I got together with 4 other basses, in my backyard, and we conducted, somewhat clumsily, yet enthusiastically, a sectional rehearsal, to go over our parts for a few of our newer songs. For the most part, we did it as responsibly as we could; Everyone was temperature tested with touchless thermometers, we spread out or lawn chairs at 6 foot gaps, and all faced outward (mostly) so that we were not singing toward each other. When we weren’t singing, we pulled our chairs into a more circular arrangement to chat, and put our masks on.

We did our singing without masks, which technically we have been advised not to do, by many musical experts who have weighed in on the subject, altho advice from the Barbershop Harmony Society did hint that small sectionals might be possible, without going into any great details as to what protocols should be observed.

My point is, we were all there voluntarily, and we acted with what I thought was a fair amount of prudence, and so I like to think we were acting as free Americans, but in a responsible way. Maybe you don’t agree, but that was our intent.

Sunday’s Detroit Free Press had 2 thought-provoking columns; one by Mitch Albom, who writes for the Free Press and one by Nolan Finley, who writes for the Detroit News. While the columns are not representative of exactly the same subject, I think they are complimentary in a significant way, as they both deal, in their fashion, with the issue of Freedom versus Responsibility.

I think my casual analysis is that Mitch tilts slightly more to the left (liberal) and that Nolan a bit more to the right (conservative) but I suspect that both men would reject that appraisal, and plead that they would prefer not to be pigeonholed into either box. Whether you agree or disagree with my assessment, I think anyone who has read either man’s columns on a regular basis would judge both of them to be thoughtful and measured in their opinions.

Having read many of their more recent columns, I have perceived that neither of them is likely to vote for our current president in the next election. I only mention that as an easy example demonstrating that people of differing viewpoints can agree in some areas. This may seem obvious, except if you were to listen to some of the people who pass for commentators on our various news stations you might be convinced that the “Butter-side Up” folks NEVER agree with the “Butter-side down” ones on ANYTHING. For anyone curious about this reference, you can find it fleshed out in Dr. Seuss’ prescient book “The Butter Battle Book”.

Mitch’s article addresses the rather depressing occurrences accompanying the latest moves to slightly “re-open” the state. I will say that I have a dislike for that word: to me, too many people have a simplistic understanding of “re-open” as meaning “back to normal”. But there has never been a static “normal”. Normal has always been a dynamic concept, and it changes from century to century, year to year, and lately, from month to month. Since everyone agrees that “words” matter (sometimes a great deal), my thought was we should only refer to “relaxation of some protocols” with the emphasis being on what that entails, rather than referring to the vague and ambiguous word “reopening”. Mitch rightly points out that with all the attempted safety measures put in place, when they allowed bars to resume entertaining guests, the variable they could NOT control was the behavior of the the Bar patrons. Perhaps it would not have mattered how we worded it; that people would not have acted any differently, that they were predisposed to view the bars opening their doors as a “return to normal”. That’s fine, and I’ll yield that point. It seems obvious enough that many folks will hear what they want to hear and tune out the rest.

So, it’s clear enough that while the state allowed the freedom to go to the bar, the bar’s customers (at least many of them) couldn’t shoulder the responsibility. Instead of acting in a way that would support the continuation of that establishment’s availability, there actions precipitated another local outbreak and forced the bar to close.

Mitch cites impatience as a trait that contributes to the possibility of a spike in Covid-19 cases, and that certainly is true. But maybe as big a factor is simply failing to be aware of the consequences of your actions. Responsibility begins with understanding that what you say and do can affect other people and if you believe that the only one you have to worry about is yourself, that’s almost the definition of irresponsibility. Anyone who had been diligent enough to pay attention would know that the safest ways to protect each other included wearing masks (especially if were in doors, and in close proximity to others), and to maintain physical distance from anyone not from your own household.

By contrast, Nolan Finley’s piece in the same paper addresses a concern that many of us have that we will no longer have the freedom to express any dissenting opinions: That only “Politically correct” opinions can be voiced, and any contrary views will be muzzled. He points out that a true conversation that is meant to lead to meaningful change must allow for people to voice concerns, even if those concerns are not directly shared by other parties.

He rightly states that censoring people who wish to voice reasoned opinions in a respectful, civil manner can lead to people feeling marginalized. This is a universal concern, is it not? No one wants that treatment, whether they be black men living in the city, or single mothers, or farmers living in the country. It’s not unreasonable to say that shutting down meaningful discourse, allowed frustrated voters to turn a blind eye to our current president’s tone-deaf personality. I might say that Trump’s election led to some worthwhile changes, but we’ll leave that aside as his ignorance and unwillingness to listen to advisers who disagreed with him (or even keep them on their jobs) has been more than an offset, and it’s difficult to see how he can best lead the country at this point. But people who decried his election should understand that labeling anyone who had a dissenting opinion on political issues as a racist, bigot, homophobe, or misogynist may have helped lead to that electoral result. As anyone who has taken a course in Logic knows, “attack on the person” is not a valid form of argument, and it’s real purpose is to delegitimize the other party.

So what are we to think? Surely, freedom without responsibility is like giving someone a car without teaching them to drive. But…..denial of many freedoms, particularly freedom of speech, may lead to more terrible consequences. Most of us in America have never lived in a society that bans all dissent, but history is rife with examples of such tyrannies, and many among us who have come from those situations could easily provide us with cautionary tales of their experiences.

What we need, then, is a healthy respect for both freedom, which is the hallmark of a democracy, and responsibility, which should not be mistaken as licence. Just because we can do a thing, does not mean that society can sanction it. Individual interests, at times, take a backseat to community interests, and needs. For example, we don’t allow people to vandalize another person’s house or automobile, because we think that person has been mean or cruel to us. Our system of justice isn’t meted out by each person deciding what another person deserves. Nor do we allow one person to be sole judge and jury of anyone. It’s impossible to imagine how such a scenario could ever work out in the long run.

The people who are deciding, on their own, what words or phrases can be said, or what statue can be displayed, or what stores can be looted or buildings burned, or when they are willing to adhere to protocols designed to protect all of us from harm, are not our better angels, and we should be smart enough to realize this. They are the ones who, in denying others of their freedoms, and/or displaying their contempt for rules that require us to act responsibly, are examples of these twin evils of the current age.

Real tolerance, and not the packaged version, requires of us to show respect to others through our actions and our willingness to protect the freedoms to which they are entitled.

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