What is freedom?
This may be the most difficult question, as the answer may rely on the person who is responding. But, as humans, and perhaps more specifically humans in the West, people share some history and some background assumptions about freedom. Freedom “is the one value that many people seem prepared to die for,” writes sociologist Orlando Patterson, author of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Individualism is characteristic of the west; to be an individual is to have the freedom to be that, right? Or maybe not.
Consider how freedom to live a bigger life and to have more opportunities began to evolve in the Late Middle Ages. What changes occurred during this time? What opportunities did those changes ultimately provide?
The Reformation in 16th century Europe was also a period of great change. The Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and its power was questioned, and ultimately it loses the grip it has held on people in the West. In many ways, this created more freedom for people both in terms of their beliefs as well as in term of the power structures. How important is the freedom of belief to you?
America began to change rapidly in the 20th century. The population shifted from farms to cities as the industrialization that began in the previous century became the primary source of employment. Women continued to join the workforce in record numbers and begin to expect more freedom and opportunities. In what way do opportunities create freedom?
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire also leads to change in workers’ rights. This disaster exposes a terrible price that was paid for those changes, yet the protections workers have today in this country are the result. So workers’ rights to a safe workplace with reasonable hours is a freedom for which people fought.
The Enlightenment philosophers advocated for God-given rights of life, liberty, and property, which led to their inclusion in the Bill of Rights. This is the basis for the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States is the essence of what it means to fight for freedom. The fight for equality is a fight for basic human rights, the freedom to live how you want, where you want, with whom you want.
Historically, there have been many fights for freedom in the West; only a few are touched upon here. And there are still many rights and freedoms for which people are still fighting. What current fights for freedom can you think of?
Patterson, Orlando. Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Basic Books, 1991.