Freedom and Responsibility
My son and his friends couldn’t grow up fast enough. Just before the beginning of seventh grade, the parents of one of his friends caught him and the other boy sneaking beer into their house. I worked from home and wouldn’t let the boys drink or smoke pot in my presence, so the constant stream of friends visiting in middle school turned to a trickle as he spent more and more time at homes where parents weren’t home or permitted alcohol use “where we can watch them and make sure they’re okay.” My husband and I found ourselves in constant conflict with our son over schoolwork and grades, driving, and the kinds of underage experimentation common among teenagers. He wanted us to “trust” him. We wanted evidence that he deserved our trust.
Eventually, he left for university and life as an adult. Today, he’s married, working in a field he enjoys, and expecting twins next month. His far-more-sensible younger sister — who we sometimes left to babysit him when we went out for the evening — had much more independence during her teenage years because we trusted her to make good decisions. One more thing we noticed over the years: His friends who were in the biggest hurry to grow up — the ones who drank alcohol, experimented with drugs, and had sex at younger ages — were still living at home after high school and in their twenties. They rushed toward adulthood but were the last ones to get there. They wanted more freedom but in the end had the least.
One of the biggest challenges my husband and I faced in raising our son was convincing him that today’s instant gratification could close out tomorrow’s options. Low grades or a suspension meant not getting into the college or university he wanted. A police record had long term consequences for certain career paths. The adolescent brain is not wired to take complex future events into account — the reason countries have no shortage of cannon fodder for their wars.
Responsible behavior and trustworthiness leads to freedom, while irresponsibility takes it away. As the countries of the world confront the Covid-19 pandemic, we see that pattern writ large. Countries that locked down quickly, where people cooperated with the lockdown, are opening up again. And countries with leadership that politicized the pandemic, that considered lockdowns and mask wearing an encroachment on freedom, find cases and deaths skyrocketing and their options growing narrower by the day. The citizens of those countries face travel bans for the forseeable future. Parents fret as schools lack the funding, protective equipment, and procedures to open safely. Will schools in the US be able to open, as their European and Asian counterparts have, or will children lose yet another year of education to incompetent and malevolent leadership, and the lack of cooperation of people who could reduce transmission of the virus to others by wearing a simple cloth mask but won’t? Will we be able to conduct a safe election in November? If the virus continues its rampant spread, I could see the current administration declaring a state of emergency and cancelling, postponing, or invalidating the election. The cornerstone of democracy — free and fair elections — rests in large part on our ability to control this deadly pandemic.
When I see people refusing to wear masks in stores and getting in other people’s faces, when I see them harassing mask wearers as “libs” needing to be “owned” or taught a lesson, I think of those teenagers who wanted their “freedom” so badly that they screwed up their lives and never launched as successful adults. Sadly, those masks resisters aren’t children or teenagers who still have time to grow up and turn their lives around. Death and disability from Covid-19 is permanent, and it affects everyone with whom they come into contact, people who don’t necessarily share their immature beliefs — health care workers, low-paid essential workers, family members, neighbors, the immunocomprised person standing in front of them in line at the supermarket.
But maybe this is what Trump supporters want. They don’t really want freedom — for themselves or anyone else. They want a strong leader to tell them what to do and to punish anyone who steps out of line. Democracy is annoying and too much work. It gives too much of a voice to people they don’t like, who write rants like this one warning them of the consequences of their desires for instant gratification. The late political philosopher Christopher Lasch once wrote, “The only alternative to the superego is the superstate.” Lack of self-regulation, lack of responsibility for oneself and others, will lead to an all-powerful State doing the job the community of individuals won’t do. With freedom comes responsibility. Without responsibility, there will be no freedom.