Freedom for most of us means personal autonomy. Without a measure of autonomy in our lives there can be no self-reliance, no creative initiative, and no planning for the future. Morality has no meaning without it. Yet, life is complicated. We have families. We have jobs. And we care about the communities in which we live.
And, who are we? Personal identity is formed by our beliefs and values, our hopes and expectations—and especially by our relationships.
So why are we so ready to allow social media, outspoken personalities, and even family and friends to dominate our perceptions? Is it OK to explore, to question, to entertain doubts in a complicated world? How much freedom can we have without curiosity?
Accepting the reasonable differences we have with family or friends does require courage, of course. Thinking for ourselves calls for trust in ourselves—to inquire, to question, to be objective. And, self-respect and the sense of identity we all need, depend upon our relationships with the people who matter to us.
Interactive relationships form the fabric of a society. Moral responsibility is lived and made real through active participation in community and society. Each of us is an essential part of the whole.
Yet, it is personal independence of mind—autonomy—that gives meaning to authentic relationships. This is the “self” that interacts.
Independence and autonomy are possible because we have been given free will. But this comes with responsibilities. The choices presented to us by free will are what make morality possible—and necessary.
And, as we all know, free will is also what makes mistakes so very easy.
How do we learn good judgment? How do we know the difference between right and wrong, good and evil? Terrible mistakes have been made by people who were sure they were right.
Can we recognize a problem when someone else is just a little too sure of themselves?
This is why freedom is most secure in local communities. Trust can be built, working relationships become dependable, and personal autonomy is respected in authentic community. Here perceptions are tested in dialog.
We can create this among those who truly seek a dependable, trustworthy way of life.
This does not happen simply because we wish for it. A genuinely functional community requires intentionality. Trust is built with patience and determination in the testing of honest working relationships.
These are not things that can be delivered by politicians or distant governments. The really important things in life have to be made real by ourselves and in our relationships.
Americans need to learn how to do it.
Robert Nisbet, a prominent voice in the founding of the American Conservative Movement, foresaw the basic outlines of the crisis we are now experiencing.
His famous book, “The Quest for Community”, was among the most influential among conservative thinkers at that time.
“We have learned,” he wrote, “that man is not self-sufficing in social isolation, that his nature cannot be deduced simply from elements innate to the germ plasm, and that between man and such social groups as the family, local group, and interest association there is an indispensable connection.
“We know no conception of individuality is adequate that does not take into consideration the myriad ties which normally bind the individual to others from birth to death….
“The greatest single lesson to be drawn from the social transformations of the 20th century,” writes Nisbet, “…is that the intensity of men’s motivations toward freedom and culture is unalterably connected with the relationships of a social organization that has structural coherence and functional significance.
“Separate man from the primary contexts of [normal] association…, and you separate him not only from the basic values of a culture but from the sources of individuality itself.”
From the beginnings of industrial mass society, the loss of authentic community in America has led to alienation and loss—and an ever-deepening crisis.
Consequently, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an assault on an already suppressed sense of autonomy and personal identity. Covering ones’ identity with a face mask only adds insult to injury.
With a better understanding of how and why things have changed, we are better able to understand one another, to build what we need, and, in doing so, to create a future we can respect and believe in.
You may watch for the next post on or about November 8.
A note to new readers: An introduction and several chapters from the coming book are available in draft at the top of the homepage. Please read American Crucible!