Freedom and The Common Good
I am a child of the 60s, and for as long as I remember, I have been living surrounded by prosperity.
I am not referring to wealth but to times of extraordinary ideas and progress. I was six years old when the first man landed on the moon, in itself a sign that everything was possible. My teenage years in the '70s were surrounded by revolutionary new ideas and strong political ideologies. I was too young to participate actively, but energy rubs into you nonetheless and forces you to see things from a positive angle. I suppose my parents must have been thrilled by it. They were teenagers during the war, but those boom years made them more open to new ideas, opportunities and optimistic about change. Abundance is something we associate with quantity and wealth, and it's indeed the product of a society that allows us to choose, discuss possibilities or question ideas.
The '80s and '90s continued that progress curve. 1989 was the year we thought we had been right all that time. The fall of the Berlin Wall confirmed that freedom of movement, ideas, and choice were the West's most significant achievements. Fast forward to the new millennium; the last 20 years have seen a polarisation of views under the banner of individual freedom, craving recognition and threatening whoever has a different opinion. I don't want to get into the topic of identity politics. Suffice to say that they have been dominating the debate in the last ten years. They have left politicians who adopted them unsure of what they were actually supporting and left many who may have different opinions struggling to make sense of it all.
Here is the conundrum of modern times. In democratic and forever evolving societies, how can we listen to the call for freedom while at the same time respecting the rights of all individuals? How can we draw the line where your freedom may affect mine? We can, of course, resort to the judicial system to get the last word, and in some cases, it's still necessary. Nonetheless, I believe we can still navigate the demands for new rights if we use our values - what we choose we stand for as a society - as a yardstick. If we are for equality, fairness and inclusiveness, we can pursue our freedoms on the condition that they fit that social contract and ultimately advance society's values.
Take freedom of speech, for example. It works if it operates in the framework of a democratic system whose ultimate aim is to foster the well-being of its citizens while protecting fundamental individual rights. Therefore if it becomes a racist slur or is used to discriminate, it can be limited and even punishable by law without affecting the basic right of liberally expressing our opinion.
We accept certain limitations to freedom of speech to protect the common good. If we were to lose this as a reference point, we may end up promoting individualism, which can endanger even the noblest of ideas and potentially rock the foundation of the system itself.
One of the most recent cases well illustrates the risks. Freedom of choice is an important pillar of democracies, but if weaponised can become very divisive. In the recent protests, the anti-vaxxers - as they are now collectively labelled - have been forcefully expressing their entitlement to refuse the vaccine. Borrowing the slogan "my body, my choice" from the pro-abortion movement, they have been fighting inoculation, masks and vaccine passport. The principle is the same: both the anti-vaccination movement and the pro-abortion argue for the same freedoms.
For a moment, let's have a look at both ideas and their effect on society. It may pain and disgust the anti-abortionists and those who strongly believe and advocate for the sanctity of life in the embryo. Still, I struggle to see how giving women a choice - which they may decide not to exert - can affect society as a whole. I accept it may go against the values of a part of the more conservative population, but it's not different from the right to bear arms or anti-immigration policies for others.
On the other hand, the anti-vaxxers' cry to "call the shots" and refusing the vaccine in the middle of a pandemic can actually have dramatic consequences for countries and the whole world. Covid not only has killed many but has affected the economy, plunged nations into huge debts, disrupted trade, hiked up prices, ultimately affecting the lives of all of us in different measures. A stance against immunisation in the name of freedom of choice can worsen a bad situation and go against the principle of protecting society. Thus it becomes a selfish demand that shows how misinformation, political interests and lack of trust in governments have unfortunately eroded the idea of the common good.
A social media consultant told me recently that nobody wants to hear about Covid anymore, as if it was a thing of the past. She was probably failing to appreciate that the pandemic has been probably the most shocking event since World War II. Covid is here to stay and not only because of the long term effect of the illness. For generations in the West, living through decades of opportunities, it has signalled the end of the era of optimism and possibilities. The way some of the world's most prominent but unprepared leaders responded to the emergency to advance their own political agenda has shown the cracks of a system focused far too long on political interests than society's priorities. We are more internally divided by polarised opinions about perceived freedoms and less willing to pursue coordinated responses internationally. Unless we rediscover and protect what we stand for, we will become more and more vulnerable to future challenges, and, ironically, we will have to give up on those freedoms we worked so hard for.