Is Personal Responsibility The Flip Slide of Personal Liberty?

Most of us would likely agree that Americans typically identify as “freedom-loving people”. But how would any one of us define freedom or personal liberty and can we all agree what it is or isn’t? That’s a trickier question, especially today. As for a working definition, freedom probably means many things to many people, with lots of overlap. For this article, let’s say this:

Freedom is power…control…choice. It’s the power to control your own choices. 

As a concept and something we put into practice in our personal lives, work and politics, liberty has even more meaning when accompanied with the built-in governor of self-restraint. People want and seek freedom precisely because they believe that ultimately much of what goes well (or doesn’t) in life comes down to individual choices, words and actions. And just as there is the freedom to say and do things, we often focus less on our freedom to do the opposite… to not say or do something, to “take a pass” based on what we each inevitably see as our own sound judgement. For this to work at scale, it is also true that the flip side of personal freedom is personal responsibility. 

A small example: you are a teenager and going on a long-weekend get away with friends and a couple of parents who have agreed to chaperon…maybe it’s your first time to do this.  It could be a trip to a new city, camping…anything like that, really. Chances are this has happened to many readers but at the very least most of us get the set up.

When I was a kid I got to on such a trip and my parents gave me $100 in the form of five crisp $20 bills, an amount of money I was unaccustomed to having or holding, at least all at one time. Given that, I really could not imagine being able to spend all that money, but my parents helped me see how that was not only possible, but likely.  There’s food, the cost of gas to pitch in, the shared cost of accommodations…they had done the math and decided that I would be ok and able to participate with this amount of money.  

They explained this to me, in case it was not obvious, just part of what parents do. So, I had the freedom and opportunity to go on this trip and the power to make my own choices with this freedom (and that money), up to a point. This is where self-restraint and personal responsibility were required to make the most of my new found freedom.

I am sure it was a test on some level as to whether I could handle it, both the freedom and the responsibility…their future was up to me. And neither one had much meaning without the other. Well, I made it through the weekend without running out of money. Mission accomplished.

As it is with strength and discipline for individuals, so it is with communities…there’s a relationship between personal freedom and personal responsibility. In a regular world this is the freedom to speak your mind as well as the restraint and responsibility to not impose your mind on others, and, even further, to have the tolerance and forbearance to hear someone else whose views, desires, words and actions that might not align completely with your own.

This is not an article about COVID per se but our current crisis, not just the biological kind with the virus but the cultural kind with our collective inability to get on the same page around what measures we should all take (or not) reflects this same point. Excluding those people who might think the virus is a hoax or not real (and it’s easy think that is a shrinking minority at this point), this logic applies to all of us and we probably all get it as a concept, though our interpretation and application seem to vary widely

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky (that’s “Dr.” Walensky and also mother of three), recently stated, “We are yet at another pivotal moment in this pandemic, with cases rising again and some hospitals reaching their capacity in some areas. We need to come together as one nation, unified in our resolve to protect the health of ourselves, our children, our community, our country and our future with the tools we have available,” she said. Freedom and personal responsibility seem like two of those tools for sure.

Things like FDA approval, watching the surge of the new variants, and just time and comfort will help to reduce the gap in how people view the pandemic.  Without making this a referendum on pandemic politics, I would just say that one of the key things that’s missing for now, however, is a shared sense of what our freedoms and responsibilities are in our current shared situation.

When there are shared values and priorities, then there can be shared approaches to problems. That’s what we do not have right now, and this is part of what Community Corps seeks to address.  The program aims to build individual and group strength, understanding and cooperation through a summer civics bootcamp designed to mix people and views that normally might not. The next time we have a social crisis, like the pandemic – and we will – maybe we will also all be better prepared in our heads and hearts, not just as individuals but as communities. When that happens, there will be nothing we cannot overcome.

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