Ideas can get away from us, even take control of our lives. Sometimes, a great idea can become destructive when taken to its most extreme form.
Life is full of ambiguities and imperfections. If we take our great ideas out of this context, they can become dysfunctional, stupid, and even dangerous. So it is with the great ideas of freedom and responsibility.
Absolute freedom violates the very premise on which practical freedom rests. We cannot really be free if our freedom rests on the oppression of others. That is the central flaw in the more recent framing of the idea of individualism today. Many who refuse to face their responsibility to recognize or care about the effects of their behavior on others tout their individualistic right to freedom.
Case #1: Freedom and Public Health
Consider the politicization of simple public health measures recommended by the CDC for minimizing the spread of the virulent virus, SARS-CoV-2, which has ravaged the entire world over the past year and more. Two primarily factors allow easy transmission and thereby cause Pandemics: 1) the ease with which a virus can transmit itself from one person to another, and 2) by the frequency and closeness of contacts between people, which allows transmission to occur.
If everyone wears a virus filtering mask and maintains at least six feet of ‘social distance,’ both these spread-factors are significantly constrained, severely reducing the virus spread. That is the essence of responsibility, which soon leads to more freedom.
In modern times, people from all over the world travel all over the world, thereby maximizing the potential for the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus. A third factor, mutation, can produce new variants of the virus that more easily spread and may be more deadly. The more people infected, the more variants result, making control of the pandemic more difficult to achieve. Vaccines may also be less effective on new variants, causing new spikes in their spread.
People who refuse to comply with public health protocols in this context, because they think such limits on their behavior violate their constitutional or God-given rights to freedom, do not understand the nature of freedom itself. Humans are social animals; our freedoms always exist in relation to the freedoms of others.
If we assert our freedom by endangering others, we have violated our responsibility not to endanger them. Oddly, those who assert their absolute freedom to refuse to follow public health protocols (a very minor inconvenience) directly interfere with the freedom of others to avoid the risks of contracting the COVID-19 disease. So many who would not assert a right to drive a car while drunk (although they may do so anyway) insist on a right to flaunt their ‘freedom’ by endangering others to the risk of being infected by the virus.
Case #2: Freedom to be Violent to Assert Dominance Over Others
One rarely mentioned factor in the case of Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in the presence of many citizens who pleaded for him to get off Mr. Floyd’s neck is very important. Certainly, racism played a part and is institutionalized in many police departments, despite the efforts of good cops. But authoritarianism is also an element in the expression of gratuitous violence.
Chauvin’s disdain for the pleadings of the crowd was in part an expression of the authoritarian’s need to demonstrate his superior power over others—in this case the power of the badge and the gun. He just had to demonstrate to those mere citizens that he had absolute power to ignore their pleas that he stop torturing George Floyd. His flaunting that power killed Mr. Floyd.
The authority of the state rests in significant degree in it’s monopoly over the exercise of violence. When a police officer’s personal identity is that of the warrior rather than that of the guardian, his urge to assert power and receive subservience to his authority is paramount. He sees no limits to his power as an agent of the state (or city or county), particularly since he has internalized an autocratic attitude as part and parcel of his own personality.
The same authoritarian appetites drove the mob response to the Insurrectionist in Chief on January 6, 2021. The authoritarian is inherently anti-democratic. The Big Lie that Biden became president because of “voter fraud” was really a rejection of democracy itself as the basis of authority in society. The dictionary definition of authority is “legitimate power.” To members of the cult of personality the only legitimacy resides in the maximal leader himself, no matter how corrupt, ignorant, racist, or misogynist he may be. After all, to the true believer, facts do not matter.
The Tragedy of the Dominator Based Society: Threat to Democracy and Life?
The old European civilization declined after warrior invasions and equalitarian states like that on the island of Crete fell after flourishing from the fifth to third millennium B.C.E. Crete had maintained feminine values of compassion, sharing, peace and most importantly, power as responsibility. Ever since, Western Civilization has suffered from the violence and destruction of the male dominator form of social organization. Numerous times, the equalitarian culture of feminine values has reasserted itself only to be crushed by authority grounded in violence, such as after the Troubadour era in France, and the Elizabethan period in England.
In our own times, the increased freedom inherent in women entering the industrial workforce facilitated what may be the most powerful resurgence of humanistic equalitarian values ever. Now we see the latest reaction of male-dominant authoritarians by the reassertion of “masculine” values of domination, violence, war and destruction, as expressed in the authoritarian insurrection at the nation’s Capital and the variously absurd conspiracy theories promoted by the autocratic agents of neo-fascism in the U.S.A. The struggle continues.
Yet, our species survival moving further into the chaos of climate and ecological collapse in the Anthropocene, is anything but secure in the hands of the dominator culture. Only the cooperative impulse and the compassion of the partnership model of social organization will have a chance to forge a path past the dominator culture and destructiveness of industrial civilization. Harmony with Nature and each other is at the core of the partnership culture and Gaia, precisely the opposite of the predatory violence and destruction of the dominator culture that rules industrial-consumer society.