Freedom & Responsibility – When Are We Going To Talk About Both?

A man holds a placard which reads "I am Charlie" to pay tribute during a gathering at the Place de la Republique in Paris January 7, 2015, following a shooting by gunmen at the offices of the magazine. Flickr, Keno Photography

“Freedom is never given; it is won.” A. Randolph’s words still stand true today. Humanity has come a long way in gaining the understanding of freedom itself: the moment you stop defending it, you lose it. Yet, growing up in the East, I started to see the inefficiency of the Western understanding of freedom. It has another side that few have considered in the rhetoric, something barely mentioned by the media.

There are consequences for those who abuse their privilege

Implicitly, we know freedom always comes with responsibility; we know that one’s freedom could be the protection for one individual, but also be a weapon against the freedom of others. People should enjoy freedom of expression, freedom of speech, but when one uses it to discriminate others because their racial features, he commits hate crime; people should enjoy freedom of belief, but only so as long as it does not interfere with the beliefs of others. There are consequences for those who abuse their privilege. Our legal system explicitly supports these premises. But the relentless focus on defending our freedom inevitably exposes the lack of understanding of the very nature of freedom itself.

When freedom reaches its limit, we are quick to defend its value and importance to our society, but reluctant to reconsider perhaps an equally important question: should we explore a healthier way to express our freedom?

The endorsement of individualism in the West means that people are born with the idea of their entitlement of freedom, and yet seldom do we talk about the responsibility freedom carries. Part of the objection made against the French publication Charlie Hebdo when it was attacked in 2015 was their usual hatred and bias against the Muslim community in their cartoons. While it is generally agreed that it is by no mean a justification for their unfortunate misery, many couldn’t help but feel disgusted by their execution of freedom. Yet, thousands took the street and declared “Je Suis Charlie” to express solidarity with those who were affected by the attack, and more importantly, with the idea of freedom of expression.

Here lies the dilemma: when freedom reaches its limit, we are quick to defend its value and importance to our society, but reluctant to reconsider perhaps an equally important question: should we explore a healthier way to express our freedom?

It is a question more pressing than most of us imagine. With the rise of the Internet, more of us can exploit freedom as we desire. Create an alternate identity on Facebook and start to leave hateful comments on posts you disagree with: no consequences. For some, the Internet is not a reflection mirroring our real life; it is an escape of the moral pressure imposed by society. Virtual reality provides the freedom to recreate our own identities at will, with little or no punishment for misconduct. In recent years, more and more censorships are being discussed and advocated by governments around the world, hoping to tackle the turbulence online.

While we safeguard freedom and protect it from being violated, can we shed the light on the other side of the coin, that freedom should be exercised with caution?

Perhaps, our discussion is getting too big. The issue at stake is a rather small: can we encourage people to behave respectfully, with consideration of others’ believes, in both the real world and online? While we safeguard freedom and protect it from being violated, can we shed the light on the other side of the coin, that freedom should be exercised with caution?

An immensely difficult task seems to manifest itself. It is so much easier to publish a satirical cartoon and make fun of the belief other people born and grew up with, than to provoke a rational, caring discussion about the topic; it is so much more painless to leave an inconsiderate, insulting comment on a Facebook post you come across, than to express careful thought on the opposite position and present your disagreement and the rationale behind it. One could suggest the nature of the Internet seemingly goes against constructive discussions.

But the consequences of the exploitation of freedom could be too high. We have to reconsider our approach and relation with this most fundamental element that makes human life worth living. It is a privilege, but perhaps also an obligation, for us to use this freedom to rescue freedom itself, not from someone trying to take it away, but from those who exercise it blindly and carelessly.

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