What Does Freedom Mean to You?

Freedom.

lack of freedom to walk where one will

Freedom is a word, a concept, an ideal we all cherish. The left seeks to own freedom when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. The right desires freedom from government control over?, well, their everything.  And we all want the freedom to pursue lives of purpose and vitality.

Freedom holds a great deal in common with the concept of responsibility. This term, often evoked in our land of rugged individualism, connotes complete control over our lives. For if we lack control, how are we to act responsibly?

The notion that we are responsible for our actions or for what happens to us, is deeply embedded in the American psyche (from the Greek word for soul). It’s so hopelessly ingrained, that many expect children to be responsible for what happens to them.

Not long ago, a colleague shared with me a new “educational” campaign created by the non-profit, Safe Kids. It’s called “How to Not Get Hit by a Car.” The campaign is basically a list of 7 actions children should take to avoid grievous bodily injury as a result of getting struck by drivers of motor vehicles. For example, “phones down, heads up while walking”; and “pause at each lane of traffic and make eye contact with the drivers.”

On the surface, this looks like solid advice: “look around and pay attention.”  Yet seen with open eyes, it’s an affront to children’s self-respect.  As our friend, Ivan Illich noted, “to demand that our children feel well in the [poisoned] world which we leave them is an insult to their dignity. Then to impose on them responsibility for their own health is to add baseness to the insult.”

Visualizing Freedom

A French philosopher, Jacque Ellul, helped us think through the relationship between freedom and responsibility.  In one mental exercise, he asked us to picture a dam. Next, consider how the dam came to be.  In most cases, politicians decided when and where the dam should be constructed.  Then geologists readied the terrain to harbor the dam.  Engineers designed the damn, and at last, workers built the dam.

Shortly—or not—thereafter, the dam bursts, flooding villages and destroying aquatic habitat. The impact is clear and devastating.  But who’s responsible for this dam’s bursting? Well, no one! Ellul rightly reflects, “no one’s responsible and no one’s free either.”

We could apply the same logic to our transportation system.  In the example above, Safe Kids—among countless other organizations—place the responsibility for children’s safety on the children themselves. They and others are telling kids to assume responsibility for being safe around speedy drivers of two-ton machines! And on the other hand, some will argue that we should place the blame on people driving.

But is blaming drivers even fair?

What about the people who built the wide, runway-like roads? How about the engineers who designed these deadly facilities? Should we point a finger at the politicians who allowed such dangerous streets to exist?

And what about the entire unsafe, excessive speed-permitting, pollution-enabling, noise-inducing network of roads?  It probably took workers decades to construct such a latticework of asphalt.  Are we to reach back in time and lambaste aging or deceased decision-makers, road designers, and construction workers for bequeathing us with inherently life-threatening roads?

In cases like modern roads and bridges and dams and electric grids and port systems and food systems and education systems and health care systems and all other “systems”, when these facilities and systems inevitably fail, the results are most often harrowing. People suffer grievous corporal and psychological injury. Communities flood and burn.  People imbibe tainted water.

Across all collapses, no one person or agency is responsible. And when no one’s accountable, no one’s free.  Depressingly, each of us depends on these systems, entities we had no hand in making and enjoy no ability to change.

Pathways toward Freedom

And so it is: in this world in which we enjoy no freedom, telling people to bear the responsibility for their physical safety as they ramble about on roads designed for heavy machinery, transcends “blaming the victim.” Indeed, it has become a blameless enterprise.

And because modern street networks are part of our “transportation system”, we can hold no one person or entity accountable for the catastrophes that take place on these networks.  If safety is as too many governments say, “everyone’s responsibility”, then it is no one’s.  And as such, no one is free.

Okay, so how do we gain freedom? How do secure the type of freedom that allows us to decide where and how we live? And travel? And work? And love? And nourish our neighbor and ourselves? History and simply looking around tell us that when truly free, we humans harbor immense capacity for creativity and caring.

Right now, people living life across the globe are using their households to care for loved ones, provide companionship, and allow natural human processes of healing to occur.  Self-credentialed professionals need not apply.

Communities of interdependent peoples are celebrating good times, drinking wine they’ve produced and sharing music they make.  They harbor no need for grandiose dining establishments and concert halls. These folks subscribe to Illich’s call for “enough but no more.

They—and increasingly so, we—see that the tools we use should be handmade, easily repaired, endlessly reusable, and convivial.  Such tools will set us on a path toward authentic freedom. The bicycle. The shovel. The screwdriver and handsaw.

We will use these tools to construct a saner, more equitable, and freer society. One in which self-determined people build roads. Roads upon which all may travel freely. And when we spot a deficiency in the roadway—a sizable divot, a flooded area—we’ll all feel responsible for fixing it.  All will share responsibility, and all will be free.

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