Understanding the Concept of Freedom

Freedom is a topic that elicits strong opinions from most people. For many, it means the liberty to act as they see fit, with no external restrictions. For others, freedom is a state of mind that allows them to be true to themselves in their choices. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, we find that the concept of freedom has different meanings to everyone who defines it.

For the purposes of this exercise, we have chosen to focus on political freedom. While there are many aspects of freedom, we believe that understanding the political concept can help to clarify some of the other definitions.

The first thing to understand is that freedom is not a concrete entity, but rather an ideal that is constantly evolving. It is not a state that one either has or doesn’t have, but rather a process by which we move closer to or further away from the goal. The idea of freedom can be described as a spectral illusion that can be glimpsed and then quickly wrenched out from under us by the ever-changing dynamics of power struggles in society.

For example, a drug addict might feel that the medical warnings and legal prohibitions on his use of drugs are restricting his freedom to do as he wishes. However, once he defies those restraints and continues to use drugs, his actions become self-defeating, and he has lost his freedom.

In the same way, a nation can lose its freedom to act according to its own needs by giving in to powerful interest groups that demand special privilege. In America, we see this interpretation of freedom in the pushback against everything from seatbelt laws and portion control on sugar-sweetened beverages to indoor smoking bans.

This is a very dangerous interpretation of freedom because it can lead to the belief that certain groups are more free than others. We have seen the repercussions of this in the annual gun death toll, which is the result of our country’s refusal to act according to its own sense of morality, but instead allowing itself to be squeezed by a status quo that is not in its best interests.

For this exercise, we will divide the class into half, so that no group is too close to any other group. The groups will be assigned one of the freedoms from our list to present, so that each can create a tableau of a society without that particular freedom first and then one of a society practicing it. Each group should have at least 10 minutes to complete their task. Once each group has finished, the students should walk through each tableau as if it were a museum of statues, examining each to see what freedoms seem to be lacking in that specific representation. When they are done, each group should share their results with the rest of the class.