America’s Dangerous Obsession with Abstractions of Freedom

by Samuel Murray, columnist

Americans from all political backgrounds unite around one abstract tenant of our political life: freedom. Since the declaration of independence was defiantly written, signaling a motion to end the tyranny of the British monarch on the colonizers of North America – a series of increasing returns towards the notion of American freedom began. From an idea conceived in protest to a tyrannical authority, to one written on parchment on the nation’s most sacred legal documents, to a profound cultural fascination, conceptions of freedom in America are preached today as loudly as ever.

Yet this concept has caveats, and I will argue that America’s deep fascination with the abstraction of freedom impedes our ability to govern a fair and just society for all. In a nation that generally hates abstract intellectual philosophers and radical mass movements in the streets, it sure appreciates freedom. Everyone has their own definition of freedom, one that differs based off ideology, worldview, personal interests, to name a few (Foner 2013, 14). When someone invokes a policy position or political view based off freedom, it’s fair to assume their definition of freedom is variably constructed relative to your own – this is where division and hate can feed in to justify actions in the name of “freedom.”

This can denote issue framing, particularly that explored in the work of George Lakoff, where he examines where Progressives have failed to effectively persuade vast swaths of individuals to vote for progressive policies (Lakoff 2008; 2014). What Lakoff gets at is the difficulty of facing a constituency and stating outright your policy goals while simultaneously persuading them to believe your method is right and the other side is incorrect. In America – we invoke an issue frame to support policies which promote “freedom,” “democracy,” and “justice;” abstractions all with their definitional problems of relativism. These can be invoked in a policy debate to frame one side as pro-freedom/democracy/justice while the other side is against those core tenants. Who would want to vote for someone against freedom? This is where it gets dangerous.

As a nation, we recently experienced a vicious attack on our democracy. January 6, 2021 marks a dark point that will go down in history; a failed insurrection incited by a former President Trump. Is this what occurs in a free and fair democracy? The protestors invoked the popular issue frames “freedom” and “democracy,” stating the election was stolen and voter fraud favored President Biden; they needed to preserve their “freedom” by participating in an insurrection against our government. This is not to diminish the importance of how freedom has been invoked as a unifier for social movements across America and across time – but it has been recently overtaken as a frame by far-right extremists.

January 6 marked an important inflection point that stressed how many extremists and white supremacists are present in our nation willing to overthrow our government in conjunction with their personalized definition of freedom. Their freedom is not the freedom of all Americans, but rather to uphold the evils of white supremacy masked under the issue frame.

As Americans, moral individuals, and empathetic people – we must all strive to redefine of freedom. Freedom must be applied equitably. We should be cautious in saying America is truly nation that promotes universal freedom when we have institutions perpetuating mass incarceration, poverty, lack of health insurance, homelessness, racism, white supremacy: America is not entirely free until our collective populations experience a life that is genuinely rid of these societal ills and more. If we truly cared about all our citizens, poverty would be eradicated and racism would be crushed – that is a monumental task for which we should strive.

Is my definition of freedom the same as yours? It is unlikely. This is the difficulty. That is why freedom as an abstraction can be used both for hating and helping, for the benefit of the many or the few.

Additional sources:

Lakoff, George. 2008. The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st Century Politics with an 18th Century Brain. New York: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Lakoff, George. 2014. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Featured image: https://unsplash.com/photos/9t9toY_OiNg

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