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The Problem with a Free Society
Posted at: Mar/28/2016 : Posted by: mel
Related Category: People, Perspectives, Society,
As anyone who pays attention to current events knows, these are trying times for any open and free society. On the evening of 13 November 2015, a series of coordinated attacks occurred in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis killing 130 and injuring another +360. During the morning rush hour on 22 March 2016 another set of coordinated attacks in Brussels killed at least 30 and seriously injured 230 more. These attacks were not aimed at military or governmental targets, they were aimed at disrupting as many lives as possible testing whether a “Free Society” can truly be a haven for its citizens.
The most common definition of a free society is one “where a person can satisfy his fundamental human needs while diligently avoiding significant harm to others in the process” (yourdictionay.com). The alternative wording is to say that individuals in a free society can voluntarily achieve as much success and accumulate as much resources as their potential allows, provided they do not harm others in doing so. In a more uniquely American perspective, Adlai Stevenson, presidential candidate in 1952, 1956 and 1960 said that a free society is one in which individuals find it “safe to be unpopular.”
Regardless of the specific definition, there are common characteristics to all free societies. Members of the society should be able to live and travel anywhere that their resources allow them access to. Markets in a free society should be self-regulating with the governmental role being to protect against theft and aggression. Another characteristic of a free society is the freedom of speech. Freedom of speech now includes some limitations on speech that would insight lawless actions or physical violence or harm to others. The other widely accepted aspect to a free society is the freedom of religion. Freedom of religion means the right to practice a religion in public or private, to convert by personal choice, or not practice any religion. In America, freedom of religion is formally defined in the Constitution specifying a separation between government and religion.
Political scientists and sociologists when asked about a “free society” will talk about conservative verses liberal governmental policies. Some will also talk about labor laws and consumer protections. The aforementioned are important philosophical arguments, but they pale before the basic need in a free society to safely go about our daily lives with a sense of security. Whether Belgium, France, the United States, or a host of other countries; most of their citizens are ambivalent about government, but adamant about enjoying the day-to-day aspects of freedom and safety. When interviewed about what one expects from their government, both side of the Atlantic Ocean consistently put national security and public safety in their short list.
The notion of a free and open society is similar to the mythical utopia. For a free society to actually work, everyone has to believe in it, regardless of whether they can all achieve the same level of prosperity, health, comfort and personal fulfillment. This effectively means that a free society depends on you feeling confident that the person in line with you at the airport, the person sitting opposite you in the subway train, and the person you notice sitting on the bench in the middle of a busy shopping district will respect your rights as much as you respect theirs.
Respecting, or at least tolerating the differences between yourself and the others is critical to a free and open society working. Bigotry, hatred and terrorism in all their variations represent the physical and philosophical enemies of a free society. When the bigot or the racist encourages and promotes discrimination or hatred of others they are chiseling at the foundation to a free society. The implication that one religion, race or social sector is superior, is in fundamental contrast to the tolerances needed in a free society.
When a terrorist or terrorist group detonates a device or threatens a “civilian target” they are effectively acting as a minority group trying to change the behavior of the majority of society through fear and indiscriminate violence. Clearly, these acts are in direct contrast to the belief in tolerating the differences in others and accepting the diversity of a free society. The fear that a terrorist seeks is intended to impact the lives of others at their most primal level. The primal choice that terrorist seek is the decision individually and as a group that we are willing to surrender the freedoms and liberties of a free and open society in exchange for mere survival imposed on some narrowly aligned against a set of narrowly focused rules.
Terrorism is unfortunately not new. Terrorism is as old as human’s willingness to use violence to affect politics and political change. Most historians credit Maxmilien Roberspierre with the first use of terrorism in the manner in which we see it currently. Following the French revolution in 1793 Roberspierre rationalized his use of organized terrorism as necessary to quash any resistance while transforming France from a monarchy to a liberal democracy. Robespierre said “subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right as founders of the Rebublic.” Clearly believing that the ends justify the means, Robespeirre’s sentiment is the foundation for modern terrorist who believe violence can be rationalized because it will usher in a better system. The obvious flaw in the idea that a small and potentially isolated group gets to decide what is a “better system” for society.
The use of suicide bombing was first used in the 1950’s against the Sinhalese majority government. By the 1960’s terrorism had become international when hijacking became a favored tactic. In international terrorism the goal is to force one government to apply pressure to another. In all these iterations, the goal is the same; for a minority to attempt to change society through fear, violence and ultimately the primal desire to merely survive.
The modern information age has added new dimensions to both a free society and to terrorism. The internet provides a media for sharing extremist threats and ideal across oceans and into homes at the speed of light. The internet also allows more people to instantly become informed on the excesses of their government and voice their concern and dissent.
In America, liberals and conservatives disagree on most issues that touch the political spectrum. Regardless, the notion that government should be limited in its impact on individual freedoms is a common thread even if the degree varies.
For a free and open society to sustain itself, the education of its citizens in the philosophy of freedom and the tolerance of diversity must be paramount. Unfortunately, those who prosper most and rise to leadership roles in a free society may be least qualified to manage that education. Free societies are by their nature continually evolving; therefore, those in a leadership and policy position may not be in touch with the problems of individuals and unable to forecast with any certainty what the future holds.
Despite these challenges, it is also true that unless we can successfully demonstrate that a free society is good for people, that it is of benefit to man, that the moral principles serve his best interest it will be difficult to sustain. Modern history and global conflicts clearly show that not everyone who talks about freedom is thoroughly versed in the intricacies of tolerating social diversity. A recent discussion I had with a person I admire included a great deal of frustration about terrorism contrasted with a love of western style free and open societies. Yet this same individual then expressed their anguish at those who worship a different god. Clearly, the challenges of education on the philosophies of a free society are as never ending as the directions that society evolves towards. It would be easy in this vein to carry a basic distrust of the capacity of man for goodness and compassion.
Many people believe, consciously or subconsciously, that man by his very nature is either stupid or evil. They look at history and believe that the evil and horrific acts result, not from bad ideas, distorted views, faulty reasoning, or the absence of reasoning by many powerful people, but from the basic and necessary deficiencies of human nature. Much of this comes from a confusing rationale of “me and not them.” This is evident when bad acts are rationalized as “man is basically evil,” yet they view themselves and those in their circle as philosophically normal and considerate of others.
Abstract fields such as religion and philosophy have a tremendous influence in shaping our societies. These fields of study can be used to teach tolerance and charity, or bigotry and contempt. Nevertheless, these abstract fields of study have a tremendous capability to recast man’s image.
Rethinking these issues helps to clarify the confusion that persists in many minds about alternative systems of society and government. Clearly, if a man, or men in general are evil or deficient in critical aspects of character, no social system is going to produce a good outcome for the majority when this evil intending minority is left unchecked. At least in a functioning free society there are rules on the limitations of behavior and a justice system to chase down and deal with the outliers who do not respect others as their peers.
Discussing the values of a free society is an exasperating job. But it is immensely revealing; it tells a great deal about why we are where we are. But a free and open society only really works when much like a board game, everyone plays by the same rules. The opposite of a free society is an environment of fear that limits open movement without checkpoints and paperwork. Privacy, even within one’s own home would be lost to the powers behind unannounced searches without warrants.
There is no doubt that terrorist see and leverage the advantages of a free society. The ability to easily move about and plot evil acts behind the privacy of closed doors is crucial to their dangerous agenda. These same liberties make it easy for them to create fear and drive political change either locally or internationally.
Living in a free and open society has clear advantages if you are willing to tolerate differences in race, religion, politics and social agenda. Concurrently, an open society is fertile territory for spreading hate and using violence to push an agenda. In this era in which so many want to take advantage of the freedoms in an open society, we cannot merely close our eyes and trust our personal security to the police and other agencies tasked with public safety. All of us have a responsibility to be vigilant, paying attention and reporting anything that we perceive as a threat.
Choosing to hide in your home would mean that the vendors of hate, fear and violence have won. Ultimately, freedom and the virtues of a free and open society cannot long exist without accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and even sometimes for the unjust consequences of our actions.
There is no optional outcome when striving for a free and open society, only the need for continued vigilance.