By Guest Writer, Allison Hunter-Frederick
By now you might be wondering about some of my examples, about how dated they are. If you recall, I said at the start that I wrote the first version of this article back in 1992. Why then don’t I simply update it with newer examples? Well, in 1998, I moved from Canada to the United States. This naturally limits how much I can write about freedom in Canada. And yet I still find the concept of freedom isn’t an easy one, because the two countries aren’t really all that different.
Sexual inequality in the U.S.
Here in the United States, I have worked in institutions that are top-heavy with men. Women were not viewed as leadership material. I have also sat next to those of my same gender and had them try to push me to take an interest in math and science, even though those weren’t my passions. Apparently, the need to flood those fields with women outweighs individual preference. And of course we have all heard of men being paid higher wages than women for the same job.
Religion in the secular classroom
As a teacher, I have stood in an American classroom, confused about how to answer a student’s question about religion. The Bible tells me I’m supposed to give answer to everyone who asks about the hope I have. Yet to do so would go against the mandated separation of religion and state. Talking to a student about religion could cost me my job, even if freedom of religion is apparently a Constitutional right.
But then I have to consider: what if there were no restrictions on religion? What if Christian teachers could lead their classes in prayer? What if teachers could teach creationism and not just evolution? Christians might think this would be great. But if Christians had complete religious freedom, so would every other religion. The Muslim teacher could teach about her faith. The Buddhist teacher could teach about his. And then, would parents really feel free to raise their children in their chosen faith? Would one group’s freedom be another group’s oppression?
It can quickly get very messy, trying to decide whose rights should be protected. Part of me thinks denominational schools were the answer to this complicated issue. But I also have to realize that even the denominational school system was not perfect, because only the most popular religions were represented.
Trampled freedoms of others
Then there are freedoms which I see trampled upon which don’t directly impact me, but which I should not ignore. Such as the fact that it’s harder for a person of color to get a book published or otherwise make it in the entertainment industry. At a recent multi-cultural conference I attended, the speaker asked those of color how many of them face discrimination every day because of their color and all of them said that they did. And recently I saw a video about discrimination against men: no one bothered a woman who was taking children at a playground, but people were suspicious of a man who tried to do the same.
Other countries are less free
Yet despite all of these flies in the ointment, the beauty of my two home countries is that we generally do get to have dialogs about what freedom should mean. Anyone who knows anything about Amnesty International will be all too aware that the same kind of freedom doesn’t exist everywhere in the world. For example, I recently reviewed a book what had been inspired by the true story of a journalist who had faced imprisonment when he leveled criticisms at his government. To this day, it’s not safe for him to return there, and so he now lives in Canada. Yet individuals across United States and Canada can speak up about their grievances with how that government operates, while also knowing that they will continue to wake up in the comfort of their home with their loved ones beside them.
Back in 1992, when I first wrote this article, I concluded by saying that a term like freedom could no longer be packaged into the phrase, “I am proud to be Canadian because Canada gives me freedom.” Even now, twenty years later, it’s taken me almost three thousand words to talk about that concept and I’m still not sure that I have a firm understanding of freedom.
Is freedom just about a lack of government interference? What if we were to do away with all laws? Do we really want a society where our neighbors could kill us if we disagreed with them. Could we actually be free if it weren’t safe to leave the house? Or if our employer were free to discriminate against us? The flip side is sometimes government will then restrict our choices.
Is freedom about a lack of societal interference? Human history is full of examples of mob justice–groups of vigilantes upholding their own sense of right and wrong, regardless of the law. We certainly want to avoid situations like these. But the flip side is that special interest groups are restricted in the degree to which they are allowed to live by their principles, for one group’s freedom is another group’s oppression.
Last, is freedom about lack of interference from anyone? I recently read a report about a man who went on a shooting spree in which he sought out women who had rejected him. The man wanted a relationship but women didn’t want to date him. I think that we can all agree that everyone has a right to decide who they will date, and yet this man felt that he was being treated unfairly. But freedom is not a matter of always getting what you want. The U.S. Declaration of Independence defines freedom as, in part, the pursuit of happiness–not a guarantee of happiness. The man in my example was free to ask women out, and they were free to say no. It’s too bad he could not understand that.
While it’s easy to see that people should be free to date who they wish, I’m not sure there are easy answers when it comes to freedom within society or under the law. No matter how much government officials and society as a whole try to take into account the rights of each group, someone will see this inclusion as an intrusion on their group’s freedom. Even in the “land of the free,” freedom is always something which involves discussion, struggles, and consequences. As such, there isn’t one pat statement to summarize it. But, I do recognize that we can at least have the discussions. For that reason, I am proud to be Canadian. And proud to live in the United States. In these countries, at least, there is enough freedom enough of the time that we take it not only for granted but as our right.