Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Definition of Freedom

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary freedom means “The absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice of action”. However, regardless what the dictionary says, the arguments of freedom are quite diverse and opinions differ according to a wide variety of factors such as: race, age, gender, social status and the environment. At first glance the word freedom sounds positive, powerful. It is so powerful that often it is used by politicians to deceive and mold public opinion in support of their actions and to benefit themselves. The Iraq war is a classical example of that. Freedom may be the right I have to exercise the power of choice. The question is how much power I actually have when for every decision made there are consequences. The constant thought of possible implications is a factor that impacts my ability to make choices. That makes me feel as free as a bird inside a cage. In short, freedom is not really free.

The first idea that comes to mind when I think of the word free is to be of constraint of something. I recognize that I am always free to shape up my thoughts and develop myself seeking knowledge and understanding the nature of the environment around me. I am in control over my actions. I can change my attitude, my religious beliefs and my physical appearance. I can carry myself however I please and it is nobody’s business if all of a sudden I decide to grow a beard or long hair. I am free to change my job, buy a new car or take a vacation in the Bahamas or in Hawaii. Even though I may perceive the possibility of doing these things as freedom, deep inside I know that accomplishing these and many other things is just an illusion or wishful thinking because in reality I am locked in a complex set of rules. I have responsibilities with my marriage, my job, the mortgage, and many other obligations. I cannot really do any of these things without consequence. Is this really freedom? The controversial thing is that no one put a gun to my head and forced me into signing a contract holding me to these rules. I simply elected to engage myself in them, perhaps willingly driven by the thought that these commitments were necessary and beneficial to me.

I am free in the sense that I have self determination and the ability to make a sound judgment of what is achievable and what is not. I can only go on vacation if I plan ahead of time and allocate sufficient funds to cover out of ordinary expenses. In order for me to go on vacation my employer would have to release me for a period of time that would be convenient not only for me but also for the company. I wish I could buy a new car but I am aware that that is not the wisest thing to do at this moment. The extra car payments would put a burden on my already tight budget. I have to be very careful and consider all the possibilities which will result from my actions. In choosing an alternative I should consider the benefits and inconveniences such choice would bring upon me. It was my choice to come to the “land of the free” and live the American dream. I recognize that the advantages of being here today are enormous. But I pay a high price for that. The years I spent away from my family created a big void between us. Among the things I miss the most is gathering around the dinner table on Sundays with my mother, siblings and nephews and engaging in conversations with them. Over time a natural sense of disconnect has developed resulting from my absence.

In trying to gather different meanings of the word freedom I read some articles I found on the internet about the Brazilian slavery which happened from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Brazil had the record of being the last Western nation to retain slavery when it was finally emancipated in 1888 by Princess Isabel. Slavery only ended after mounting pressure from the British government and intense abolitionist movements within the country forcing Brazil to end the cycle of slavery trade that last for three centuries. I can comprehend that for a person who lived through slavery, the word freedom had a very special and powerful meaning. Abolishing slavery was a necessary and wise thing to do mainly because it became less profitable and riskier for traders to transport their “product” across the Atlantic as the British vowed to intercept and confiscate any transporting vessel with African slave headed for Brazil. The country was forced to open the doors for immigrants who came mainly from Europe. That was a signal that human trade was coming to an end and freedom was on its way for those who were physically exploited and psychologically diminished for so long.

Emancipation from slavery brought serious consequences for the former enslaved population who had to be acclimated to the condition of common citizens. They had difficulty getting used to the new set of rules and obligations that “free” people had to live by. They had problems finding jobs and making a living on their own because the land owners were not willing to pay a salary to them. Suddenly there were thousands of people roaming around the cities with nothing to do. Some of these individuals chose to go back to the rural areas where they came from and keep on living as “slaves” in exchange for food and a place to sleep as they could not find work opportunities in other areas. Even though freedom from slavery would prove to be positive thing to happen to the Brazilian society in the long run, for the first few years it brought serious consequences to the government, society and the former slaves themselves who had to adjust to their new reality as free individuals.

Freedom is not really a license to do whatever I want to do. I am free as long as I abide to certain rules and responsibilities. It is hard to find an absolute and precise definition of freedom. I may be free, but that freedom is set by a number of limitations. In the democratic societies where people are said to be free and are protected by laws, there are inequalities. People may not have the same experiences of freedom. Do the poor enjoy the same freedom as the rich when they lack resources and opportunities? How much freedom do the wealthy really have when they live with the fear of losing their status or with the expectation of becoming richer? Are the uneducated or illiterate people free when the number of choices they can make is very limited? Are people who are afraid to take on responsibility free? None of the mentioned above is free and this shows that freedom has many faces. Political freedom usually comes to mind when I use the word, but that is only one aspect of it. We may be politically free but, psychologically, we can be slaves. I really believe that what is important is to lead a free life is to be free in spirit so that none of the restrictions I have to undergo in life will be able to make me feel dependent. Whenever possible I will fight for freedom in that light.


Edu said...

Wise words. I totally agree with you, and I want to do something so I can feel better about freedom and myself.

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