Freedom is an often used word in our country, and yet it remains difficult to get a full sense of what it means. Often it is described as a freedom to do something: the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to practice any given religion are good examples. Yet while it is easy to describe rights in the positive it is harder to find rights explicitly described in the negative, even though a “freedom from” is just as natural to arrive at as a “freedom to.” One may have the freedom to practice their trumpet as much as they wish, but their neighbor should also have the freedom from having to listen to crappy trumpet playing at three in the morning.
The difference between positive liberties—freedom to—and negative liberties—freedom from—is nothing more than a petty semantic distinction, and yet the sociopolitical implications of such a division cannot be understated. Negative liberties are less thought of in general, but are usually as readily accepted as their contrasting positive liberties. For example, it is clear that our country values the positive liberty of the right to bear arms, but why do we not equally value the negative liberty of being able to raise our children in a gun-free environment? To be clear, there is no definitive framework that helps decide which liberties outweigh which. Rather, I wish to establish that some rights work in direct conflict with one another and that meaningful discourse must occur to resolve such a conflict.
Rights working against each other and a general consensus of which one outweighs which is not always a bad thing. I think it’s pretty great that most people believe that my personal freedom from being murdered outweighs a murderer’s freedom to murder me. But things get a little trickier when we talk about the conflict between positive and negative liberties and their relationship with power.
Freedom is crucial to all of us but I fear the word “freedom” is used all too often to perpetuate a certain power structure, i.e. the word is frequently used by those with power to reinforce their power. In particular, those who are privileged in some way may use constructions of freedom to reinforce their own positive liberties while forsaking the negative liberties of those who are oppressed.
A person who claims to exercise free speech, perhaps in a DG article, may infringe on someone else’s freedom from emotionally damaging thoughts that may arise from incendiary language. A person who claims to exercise the right to bear arms may infringe on someone else’s right to feel safe in their own neighborhood. A person who claims to exercise their religion may infringe on someone else’s right to body autonomy.
Inciting hate and promoting violence against others is not practicing freedom of speech. Practicing open-carry near a playground of impressionable children is not practicing the right to bear arms. Delegitimizing someone else’s sexuality and gender expression is not practicing freedom of religion. If you do any of these things, it is you practicing your freedom to be an asshole.
Yes, you have the right to be an asshole. When that right interplays with privilege and constructs of oppression, however, I ask you to consider weighing your right to be an asshole against the implicit rights of the oppressed. Some people enjoy the full breadth of ‘freedom’ more so than others. Your ‘freedom’ may even be constructed in a way that directly undermines the tacit rights of someone who is less privileged. After all, we live in a country that features a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects certain people on the basis of race; a country that seeks to deny clean access to drinking water to Native American reservations for the sake of oil and gas pipelines; a country where a sizeable segment of citizens approve of a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the country.
The issues of rights and how they are weighed against one another will always be a contentious issue in the U.S. but it is important to make unexpressed negative liberties more visible, especially when it comes to discourses about differing power structures. There are many questions one could raise about this issue, and we may not get all the answers that we desire.
Just try not to be an asshole.