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Tue 20 October 2020
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Joe Haward explores the modern conflation of ‘freedom’ with ‘choice’ and the concept’s historic definition of human flourishing through caring for the whole community

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised multiple questions about human rights and freedoms within Western liberal democracies and the degree to which state regulations should impinge upon a society’s way of life. 

Demonstrations have been held in a number of cities in recent months, including London, lamenting the erosion of a way of life previously taken for granted.

The QAnon conspiracy theory movement – the followers of which believe that US President Donald Trump is saving the world from a cabal of elites engaged in paedophilia and cannibalism – is gaining considerable traction in both the US and UK. With the arrival of the Coronavirus, it has advocated that COVID-19 is being used to strip away freedoms and control populations. But when these conspiracy theorists speak of ‘freedom’ what they really mean is ‘choice’.

The anti-mask, anti-vaxxer movement believes that freedom is about your right to choose; about your own ability to live your life according to your individual autonomy. Such a view of freedom extends beyond conspiracy theorists however. Within modern, liberal, capitalist democracies, the power of choice has become the primary way in which we understand our human rights and what it means to be ‘free’. 

Every election cycle in the UK and in the US focuses on the electorate’s power to choose. In his inauguration speech in 2009, Barack Obama said that the American people had “chosen hope over fear”. Eight years later, Donald Trump declared his election belonged to the American people, a people who “became the rulers of this nation again”. The UK’s Conservative Party urged voters to choose to “Get Brexit Done” in the 2019 General Election, honouring the choice that was made in the EU Referendum three years earlier. The language used by Brexiters amplified the idea of choice as true freedom by declaring Brexit to be “the will of the people”. 

But evidence of the suppression of the black vote in the 2016 US Presidential Election and the role played by Cambridge Analytica, suggests that democratic ‘choice’ is not as straightforward as we are encouraged to believe. Nearly every US presidential campaign in the past 60 years that has spent the most money has won. Yet ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’ continue to be synonymous in Western democratic societies. 


Freedom in a Common Humanity

Capitalist materialism has conditioned us moderns to believe that freedom is found in the ability to choose.

We are bombarded with adverts that are personalised through our data, each presenting us with a ‘choice’; to buy or not to buy.

It is easy to come to the belief that, the more choice we have, the greater our freedom is. But infinite choice does not equate to true freedom – quite the opposite. Our ‘choice’ to buy something is often controlled by those with the power to influence our consuming habits. We don’t ‘choose’ a new phone as such, rather, within a capitalist framework, we buy the phone from the company that has most successfully influenced us to believe that we are making a choice that will enhance our individual lives. It is a consumerist web of influence that ‘free choice’ has little to do with. 

Historically, freedom has not always been defined in such ways. In the time of antiquity, freedom was understood by some as the ability to choose well, unhindered from selfish or harmful desire; freedom was the pursuit of that which enables human flourishing. 

Early Christian writers such as Gregory of Nyssa believed that humanity could only be understood as a whole, that each of us is bound to the other. For Gregory, humanity was a plurality, and human wholeness can only happen when humanity is wholly healed. Such thinking was commonplace within early Christian communities. During the Great Plague of 251-266 AD that swept across the Roman Empire, many Christians died as a result of their commitment to care for the sick and to give the dead a proper burial. Freedom was found in the love of one’s neighbour. 

The Nazi resistor and German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that “freedom is not… a possession, a presence, an object… In truth, freedom is a relationship between two persons. Being free means being free for the other, because the other has bound me to [them]. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”

To be free is to care for my fellow humanity, not seeking selfish ends, but the flourishing of my neighbour. Indeed, Jesus of Nazareth said that love of enemy was the highest human goal, for when both oppressed and oppressor discover their true human selves, that is where freedom is found. 

The ‘freedom’ that anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are protesting for is the pursuit of individual choice, wrenched out of the context of how to enable our common human flourishing. They speak with passion on how rights, freedoms and our collective way of life is disintegrating, but fail to witness the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic within the US and UK where populist leaders have not looked after their fellow citizens. It is not about a ‘choice’ between the old or young, between the economy or health, between ‘herd immunity’ or lockdown, it is about the freedom of “being free for the other”; learning what it looks like to love our neighbour. That kind of freedom takes truth seriously. 

If my wife, in a moment of madness, decided to run into a burning building and I pulled her away, no one would accuse me of denying her freedom. They would testify that I was rescuing her from her madness. To allow COVID-19 to rip through our communities is an act of madness that will result in death and life-changing health conditions, across generations. That is not an act of freedom.

Thinkers, such as Immanuel Kant, saw human beings as endowed with inherent dignity, who therefore cannot be treated merely as a thing or resource. Human beings have an individual worth that must be reciprocated. Therefore, we must pursue the common good, my own ‘rights’ given to the pursuit of a true freedom in which we can collectively flourish. To choose well is to be truly free. 

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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