“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”
— Bob Dylan
By DENNIS HARROD
I was behind a pickup truck the other day and it had a sticker on the back window that said “Freedom” and what looked like it might be an American flag. It was hard to tell. It had vertical stripes. And I made some assumptions.
The driver must be a right-wing guy (it’s a pick-up truck after all and aren’t all drivers of pick-ups right-wing fanatics? Wait a minute. I drive a pick-up truck. A black one at that. Hmmm.)
Anyway, I began to ponder the word “freedom” and what it means to different people. What does it mean to you? Free to do as you please? Free to choose how to live your life? Free to exploit others at their peril?
Free for you but not for me because of my gender, skin color, language, sexual orientation, religion, political beliefs? Free to carry a gun wherever you want, regardless of your training or lack thereof, regardless of your mental state, regardless of past violent actions?
Continuing along my stereotyping path, the guy in the truck in front of me celebrates freedom, but possibly only for certain people who are worthy of the privilege. White people. Christians. “Patriots.”
But what does “freedom” really mean? A guy (I assume it’s a guy, but have no proof other than my prejudices) in a rural town that I pass through frequently has a big painted sign that says “Liberty: the freedom to do that which is right.” Sounds good. But what’s right? Who decides?
With my own prejudice in full swing, I’ll assume it’s the White, Christian, God-fearing European male that for so long stood as the stereotype of our country. Other people were OK, as long as they knew their place. But God forbid they should seek equal dignity and equal rights and overall equality with the chosen people.
According to the late biologist E.O. Wilson, humans have survived and prospered as a species because of our ability to form groups and put the group welfare above our individual wants and needs. But the good that comes from inclusion in such a group carries its opposite — exclusion, whether of other humans or other species. We have elevated ourselves above nature, and our particular group above other groups, above people and other beings who are “different.”
Different. Those who don’t think like us, don’t look like us, don’t want the same things we do. But where is the line, and who is to say that we are right? Of course we’re right and they’re wrong and if they won’t see their error, then too bad for them.
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn summed it up perfectly in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple!” he wrote. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
We are at a point where it’s “us” against “them,” where there is no more communication, no more compassion, no more time to listen to what others are saying or to ask ourselves why someone would think that way and to ask ourselves as well why we think the way we do.
We are right. They are wrong. And when we are convinced absolutely of our own infallibility, our own certainty, the only certainty is that we are doomed.
Dennis Harrod is a co-founder of Sense of Decency.