Monday, April 4, 2011

Freedom Vs. Social Responsibility

“We’re free!” I’ve been hearing this, and saying it, for around 2 months now. It’s a statement that we, as Egyptians, are not familiar with. I’m not quite sure if we fully understand it either. We’re saying we’re free because we’re rid of a tyrant and trying to get rid of anything relating to that tyrant, even the history that gave that tyrant control (so we’re actually violating the right of the people to come for honest history). We’re using this freedom to attack, defend, and ridicule ideas and people. This is not freedom! So I ask: what is freedom?

The answer I’ve been getting on multiple occasions is to be able to do what you want without overstepping the bounds of/disrespecting/hurting other people. Sounds valid enough! As a free person, you have the right to debate, attack, or defend an idea you believe in. as a free person, it’s your duty to accept other people debating, attacking, or defending an idea they believe in as well. Again, this sounds very valid! For me, these definitions of freedom are not satisfactory enough, and here’s why.

I’ve started “The Story Magazine” project a few months ago. It’s under construction (very much under construction, so please if anyone wants to help, learn more and lend a hand here, a bit of advertising never hurts). My first task was to call for writing material; the content of the magazine, more specifically, stories. I received some stuff from different people, some were good, some were bad, some were plain out of scope. Basically, a lot of the material included mature content; explicitly described romantic scenes, lots of sex, and quite a bit of drug abuse as well. I wasn’t really surprised, I mean I’ve read my share of Ehsan Abdel Koddous’s books as a kid which weren’t that chaste. I’m not a fan of Alaa El- Aswany but he’s apparently ok with that also and he’s a best seller, so the people are buying! Bottom line, it’s not uncommon, or unheard of, and shouldn’t even be in the least bit annoying to me… except that it was. All I could think of was “what if a 14 year old girl reads this? What if she starts to think that getting touchy-feely with her boyfriend is ok (I won’t even get into the “it’s ok to have a boyfriend” thing. From what I’ve seen, it’s too late for that)? The idea was scary and haunting. Suddenly, instead of having a literary, educational, and entertaining project, I was wrapping a noose around my neck on doomsday. I decided I will not, under any circumstances, publish out of place romantic stories, if not ban romance to start with. This was my first major encounter with the idea of social responsibility, and this was before the revolution.

Post revolution culture is freedom of speech. Everyone says everything and anything. We get our share of swearing along with it. At some point, I was hoping people would start rating their posts and comments: PG-13, R, or even a tag “viewer discretion is advised”. Again, I got hit by the concepts of freedom vs. social responsibility. Facebook, no matter how public, is still a controlled environment so it doesn’t really matter who says what. Let them fight obscenely if they want, I don’t care. I don’t believe that this is freedom, this is plain lack of manners. But the thing is, I still can’t define freedom, or accept the generalized idea of “do what you want as long as you’re not hurting other people” because in the end, there’s always the butterfly effect with everything we say or do.

Let’s take smoking as an example. Any smoker has the right to smoke in an open area or in their own homes. I, as a non-smoker, have the right to ask the taxi driver to put his cigarette out. I also have the right to sit in the non-smoking area of a restaurant just as a smoking person has the right to sit in the smoking area. I’m not hurt by someone smoking in the open street since I might get bothered by the smell for only a minute. My mom used to make my dad smoke in the balcony or the kitchen near the air vent so as not to bother her or us with the smoke. But if we all believe in the statement “every vote counts” that was widely used during the last vote on the constitutional amendments, then do we consider that every cigarette counts as well? Aren’t we polluting the environment by smoking? Adding to the ozone layer decay? Increasing probabilities of lung cancer and respiratory diseases? If this all sounds farfetched, how about hurting ourselves, exposing ourselves to diseases, possibly death? Doesn’t that affect the people who love us and depend on us negatively? Does this count as trespassing on their freedoms? Do we have the right to hurt ourselves while knowing that when we do, we hurt those closest to us? Do we have the right to hurt them? It is our social responsibility to the planet, humanity, and to the people we care about to not smoke. Will we be asked for the rights of all those people on judgment day just for practicing the simple act of smoking? I’m taking this personally because for me it is personal; my dad smoked like a chimney and he died before I was old enough to tell him that he doesn’t have the right to smoke and hurt himself when we, as his family, depend on him. I’ll move on to something else because I’m not just attacking smoking here, because I really want to understand where people stand on freedom.

Let’s consider the law of banning burqa (niqab) in France. It is every woman’s right to dress as she pleases. Wearing the burqa does not by any means violate any person’s rights to anything. Now this law was passed in a country that believes so much in freedom and democracy. The muslim society condemned this law as a violation of a muslim woman’s basic human rights. She is supposed to be free to dress however she wants. On the other hand, what if a French woman moves to a muslim country, and is required to dress more decently that she is used to in order to respect the muslim culture. Does this also count as a violation of her rights? In my opinion, it is part of her social responsibility to respect the culture she is living in, and I would be much obliged if she does “cover up” in respect to this culture. However, if I stick to that opinion, then I have to accept the idea of the woman wearing a burqa should remove it in western countries as a part of her social responsibility of respecting their culture. I don’t accept this idea and I am appalled by the French law. In this particular situation, I am in a fix! I honestly don’t know what to think. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to help me out on this one.

My thinking has brought me to the idea of “responsible freedom” which isn’t exactly a new concept. Since I don’t have a complete manifesto on the idea, I’ll summarize what conclusions I’ve come to:

  • A person has the right to accept/decline an opinion but does not have the right to offend that opinion
  • A person can adopt an idea/action as long as they fully comprehend the consequences of that idea/action and accept them as something they will be liable for in front of God and the world
  • A person has to consider the basic rights of other people even if the people aren’t fully aware of their own rights
  • Respect is key in every transaction we make. If a person expects to be respected, they must first respect the freedoms of others.

All the above is very subjective. It’s all me and my opinions on this. I’m still asking for help on grasping the concepts of freedom. I don’t claim maturity on the subject; I just want to understand it.

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