Rethinking Freedom in the Era of Mass Shootings

Photo by jqpubliq | CC BY 2.0

Parkland. Las Vegas. Orlando. Aurora. Newtown… A broken record of politicians offering their prayers and condolences plays in the background.

America holds its breath in fear of the next massacre.

The day after a gunman opened fire at a concert, killing 58 and wounding more than 500, former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly wrote, “This is the price of freedom.” He continued: “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”

1,624 mass shootings in 1,870 days.

If this is the price, then it is a matter of life and death that we rethink the meaning of freedom.

“The American Paradox”

Ever since the founding of the republic, the idea of freedom has been fundamental to the vision and values of the United States. Yet, in practice it has always suffered from inconsistencies. From the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, the rhetoric of liberty was accompanied by the reality of slavery. As late historian Edmund S. Morgan noted, that two such contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over such a long period is “the central paradox of American history.”

Fast-forward to the twenty first century. The land of the free now houses the largest “prison-industrial complex” and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Perhaps these paradoxes prove to be resilient, because in the American mind the meaning of freedom has never been successfully grounded in civil rights. For the Founding Fathers, freedom was concerned with basic liberties regarding ownership and protection of land and property. And these liberties applied only to the colonial ruling class, prosperous merchants, and slave traders. Not the slaves, of course, not the Native Americans, the women, or the poor.

In other words, wealthy white men claimed freedom to be theirs and did not wonder what freedom, or the lack of it, meant for others. For they knew that such a consideration would require social upheaval and sacrifice, and challenge the individualistic and materialistic undertone of their notion of freedom.

Over time, this deceptive stance evolved into the US government’s strategy in global politics and economy. In its mission to bring freedom to the rest of the world, American leadership hardly paused to reflect on what freedom may look like to another nation, tribe, or religion. Preaching freedom, America went on advocating for free trade, opening free markets, acquiring capital and resources for its own benefit. It even justified wars with the rhetoric of freedom, occupying countries in the name of liberation.

American freedom has long relied on injustice and violence.

 “Freedom and Responsibility”

Social psychologist Erich Fromm distinguishes between two kinds of freedom: Negative freedom, or the “freedom from,” is mainly concerned with restrictions and obstacles enforced by external forces such as the authorities, institutions, social or cultural norms. Positive freedom, the “freedom to,” is about taking control of one’s life in order to live authentically and purposefully.

Solely valuing negative freedom and adamantly rejecting responsibility to justify reckless individualism, greed, and hedonism, hints at a crisis of meaning, as well as a sense of isolation and fear of others.

Political activist Angela Davis’s definition of freedom provides an antidote to this despair. According to Davis, freedom is not a private matter, but a social and political one. Individual rights and social rights are interdependent. Every individual belongs within a community and bears the responsibility to create a just society. So rather than negative freedom, such as one man’s right to avoid government interference, Davis puts her emphasis on positive freedom, the collective’s right to demand decent education, housing, living wages, health care, and a fair criminal justice system, for all.

Davis explains that historical memory is essential to achieving freedom. And, she adds, history teaches us that freedom has never been a given in the United States of America, but always a struggle.

“A Call for Critical Thinking”

Just as we cannot take freedom for granted, we cannot take the idea of freedom for granted. Because when it is reduced to private freedom—freedom from government interference or freedom to possess guns—and used a means for mere self-assertion and dissent, rather than accountability, the society finds itself in danger.

It is all too easy to point fingers at the shooters, calling them mentally disturbed, loons, and lone wolves. Yes, it is true that America faces dire problems with mental health, background checks when it comes to gun sales, and gun control at large. But that is not all. America also suffers from a profound crisis in critical thinking, in particular when it comes to its own ideals.

The Second Amendment was adopted in 1791. This is 2018.

Politicians’ prayers alone will not do. Democracy requires earnest and bold dialogues.

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a psychologist, novelist, and academic living in San Francisco.

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