“I saw that in the literal sense, China was freer than America.” Brandon Ferdig compares freedoms and their limits.
My friend, Susan, attends a very liberal liberal-arts college. It offers no majors or class requirements. The intention is to remove all roadblocks from a student pursuing their interests. I thought it sounded great. In high school and college I hated having to take classes I didn’t want. Also, I thought about the whiz kids whose gifts were being held back by requirement detours and the other students I knew who wanted to be in shop class but were forced to read Dickens.
Susan contrasted her college experience with her days at a parochial boarding high school. There she had curfew. But Susan is a bird of her own feather and would often stay up late studying. For this, she was punished.
I see the best in people when they are free to spread their wings, unfettered by policy holding them back for being “too young,” “too irresponsible,” or because “it’s too late to be up.” “Treat people like adults, and they’ll act like adults,” I liked to say. Broad-brushing policy groups police people and remove a sense of identity and responsibility.
But there was a problem with my thinking. It wasn’t that I was wrong; I just always failed to see the other side.
Last summer, I took part in a nine-day stay at a tai chi school on a mountain in Hubei Province, China. There, I and the ten or so other attendees awoke at 5:30 each morning and were on the road jogging by 6:00. We practiced together; we ate together. Days were structured, directing my time and actions, and the group provided support to strive higher and stay focused. Restrictions and control rub me the wrong way, yet my freedom at this school was restricted, and my life was enhanced by the experience. Counter-intuitively, the structure concentrated my activities, freeing up more of my time to do with as I pleased.
Sure, I could have done this activity on my own, relying on my own discipline to get up early and out the door. But I hadn’t. And following my training, I tried to keep the routine going. That first morning after I left the school, I rose from bed and noticed immediately how much harder it was to do so when there wasn’t the expectation of a schedule given to me.
So my motto about always treating people like adults simply isn’t always true. (Or maybe it isn’t so juvenile to have rules.) Being overly concerned about the wrongs that rules may lead to misses the point of them, for the majority of adults benefit, at least at times, from being given orders.
Susan also says of her liberal, liberal-arts college that many seniors she knows have no idea what topic to write their graduate thesis on. This is unnerving as they’ve spent 4 or 5 years of their life, shelled out a ton of money ($43,000/yr tuition), and now can’t decide why they did so. (And this is after a competitive screening process presumably designed to accept only those who would succeed in this kind of environment.)
I had to think that some of these students would have benefited from a few orders. I also wondered whether this same argument for directives and mandates could be made in support of the Affordable Care Act.
Freedom, I realized from my experience in the tai chi school, is a malleable notion. And that was made evident all year I was in China.
In China, I saw two teenage boys playing one of those claw crane games—you know, that fun arcade/vending machine that requires the user to direct a claw over their desired item, hit a button, and then hope that the claw grasps and retrieves it. Well, back in China, inside the machine weren’t cute fuzzy froggies and teddy bears.
Inside were packs of cigarettes.
In this strange example—and others—I saw that in the literal sense, China was freer than America. In areas of smoking, drinking, seatbelt use, car seat use, and driving laws, Chinese citizens are freer to choose whether or not to use them or not, without state intervention. Figuratively, China also seemed to me to offer a greater camaraderie of people out in the streets. I saw neighbors interacting and relaxing, kids walked home by themselves after school, and the police were more approachable. Things just felt more free. Meanwhile, however, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) shapes these people’s lives by limiting many activities—speech, religion—that we in the West believe are fundamental human rights.
So while Chinese citizens live in more of a bubble, created by the CCP, within that bubble, people relied more on personal choice than people do in the United States. America offers greater personal freedoms to say, read, and believe as people like, while it is also more rigid when it comes to personal safety: drinking laws, curfews, and no toys with McDonald’s Happy Meals.
Depending on who you ask and how you define freedom will determine which place is freer. And what we in America think is universal—what makes a country better—isn’t always so. The Chinese I got to know preferred their system, and from looking around while over there, I could see why. Americans get on China’s case for not having democracy but freedom of choice for one’s leadership doesn’t look like such a good trade when people in a democracy repeatedly elect bad leaders.
Also, one can’t know the repercussions of this ruling. So I try and ignore the cheerers and the moaners about the recent Supreme Court ruling. Anyone happy or upset probably isn’t so because they care about people getting healthcare; they’re overjoyed or angry because they’re either relieved or scared their ideology was supported or threatened. It’s either Heaven or Hell to them, and we all know we’re on Earth.
The truth is, there’s a lot to consider when reviewing this case. I saw the way orders benefitted me, but there’s also a difference between voluntarily committing oneself to a period of structure and having it forced upon you.
The strongest point I do believe in is what the law indicates.
Let’s say this law does benefit our country. What does that say about America that we have to force people into an activity they ought to make on their own anyway? This is nothing to cheer.
Also, I believe, in a death-by-papercuts kinds of way, that each freedom lost is another slit into our humanity—so small that you may not detect the cost. But paper cuts add up. More people get healthcare now—because it’s a law. Fewer people smoke now—because we tax the heck out it. More people wear seatbelts—because we fine them if they don’t. Get the picture?
By making an action a law, the state is replacing the right reason to do it. The law has the capability of shunting an activity of self-care into the realm of “because the state says so.”
And while I appreciate China’s own version of freedom—that it showed me how different can also be good—I also saw while living there a culture lacking the independence and initiative in technological and expressive endeavors that America has historically exhibited.
It’s this I’d hate to see papercut.
—Photos courtesy of the author