Indivisible Freedom

Is freedom indivisible? The Washington Post has a story by Michael Kinsley addressing this issue directly. I have never thought about freedom in such terms, but it frames question of liberty, freedom, and choices in an interesting manner worth exploring.

Indivisible is defined as “not separable” or “not multiple of number” (from Encarta). These two complimentary, seemingly simple definitions actually make the concept of “indivisible freedom” somewhat complex. They say that all freedom is equal and that freedom has not concept of granularity. This can true when talking about a group of people in which different people are not equally free. By the indivisible definition, no one in that group is free. But what if they are all free, with free having a different interpretation to different individuals?

Some think of freedom as a multi-faceted or multi-tiered principle: we have many “small” freedoms that add up to make us “free,” in general. A simple example says, “since I can freely choose what I say, where I go, and what I do, then I am a free person.” That is, these decisions are unrestricted. So in a sense, this person in the example has a level of freedom. However, let’s say this person is unable to vote (the are an ex-felon). They have all of the above freedoms, but they do not have the freedom to choose their government. What we’ve just illustrated is “divisible” freedom: being free on one level or in certain respects, while not being free in others. Since this is the case, it is not possible to say conclusively that this person is “free.”

This now brings into the debate the following question: what is an acceptable level of freedom? What is the tipping point at which I transition from not free to free, from not having freedom to having freedom. This, like all other philosophical or political questions, does not grant us the luxury of a definitive answer. In the case described earlier, I would argue that this individual is not free because they are prevented from participating in a fundamental activity that helps to define the society that they live in. Maybe in a place where voting was not an option (e.g. a monarchy), then maybe my opinion would be different.

I disagree with the notion of the existence of “indivisible” freedom in today’s practical world. The article says “freedom exists in a world of trade-offs,” and that is a statement I agree with. Now, the context of that article is the illegal domestic spying courtesy of G.W. Bush, which of course I disagree with given my belief in the link between freedom and privacy, which I will discuss on a later post.

My idea of freedom is one with 2 pieces: individual and communal. I believe that the freedom of an individual should be virtually uninhibited, so long as acting within that freedom does not endanger or harm other individuals. No institution should infringe upon this. This covers my views on the right to choose, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to smoke weed, whatever. Now, with respect to communal freedom, this is something that should be regulated by the masses, or some representative subset of the masses. It would be these people that would basically determine how groups treat groups. Groups can be defined as states, corporations, countries, etc. They would have little say with regards to individual, one-on-one interaction.

The fault of the American system is that the entities of our representative democratic republic are far from representative. They are not representative both on the surface, race, gender, but also ideologically as well. So how do we make the system work? As with most of life’s choices, there are two choices: change the existing system or eliminate it to make room for a new one. These ideas, like freedom, are divisible and are not mutally exclusive. We can alter portions of the government (e.g. the impeachment process) while eliminating others (e.g. the death penalty) simultaneously.

Where ultra-bleeding-heart liberals fall short in their definition of freedom is they neglect the reality that freedom has different definitions to different people. The easiest experiment you can perform to illustrate this notion is to ask a Black person what freedom is, and then ask a white person. You will get two different answers. Therefore, freedom, being a subjective concept, is inherently divisible. Where we must reach common ground is on what is the ideal, optimal level of freedom and equality that we can all enjoy and sustaing peacefully? If that existed, maybe that would be indivisible freedom.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “Indivisible Freedom”

  1. Brandon Q. says :

    Great post G!!!!

    I think your post brings up an interesting issue in this day and age. In all of the US positioning for oil and other natural resources, almost all of our wars have claimed to advance the cause of freedom. How do you think this fluid concept of freedom liberates/shackles those of us in the Black community who may want to advance freedom but don’t feel obligated to fight for it?

  2. S. DeVougas says :

    Great post. This is an interesting article and I do believe we are just scratching the surface. I think that is what separates successful revolutions from unsuccessful ones. A lot of times, people do not understand what they are fighting for, and as the Bible states, “A house divided cannot stand”. We use the term freedom so flippantly, but what do we mean? Economic, political, mental or spiritual? It is a complex interplay. As a people, once we are free from the slave mentality then we will be more effective in the existing framework and poised to make a change. But until that happens, I personally believe that all the other freedoms we enjoy will do us no good because we will still be sheep for the slaughter. And that is the antithesis of freedom.

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