I overheard them as they left the store: “Requiring a mask is an attack on my freedom.” It was fairly early in the pandemic, and it was my first curbside pick-up at the lumberyard. They walked by my car as I negotiated this new way of shopping. I was wearing a mask.
Immediately, I thought of my partner. For nearly 20 years, she was the faculty adviser for a campus Amnesty International student group. Amnesty International (AI) is the human rights organization supporting prisoners of conscience: people imprisoned for exercising their fundamental human rights.
There are many ways to think about freedom, but an international human rights perspective grounds your thoughts in the realities of freedoms denied. Members of Amnesty engage in the rituals of human rights work with the humblest of weapons: pen, paper, and emails.
Over many decades, with many friends, we have written thousands of letters and emails to different governments requesting respect for basic human rights. So many people in so many nations are denied fundamental freedoms and access to justice.
A dilemma for democracy
The Pledge of Allegiance has had its controversies in recent years, but “freedom and justice for all” is an important phrase to repeat to yourself. It should be the world’s mantra. But it is challenging to mix freedom and justice in a way that works for all citizens. That is a dilemma for democracy — too much freedom eats away at justice, and too much justice eats away at freedom.
When Europe was divided by a wall, we saw incredible levels of freedom on one side of the wall and an eerie sense of justice on the other. It has not been easy for Europe since that wall came down, and there are now worrisome trends from England to Poland.
Democratic processes that endure are hard to create and maintain. Making them work requires constant work and involvement. Democracies do not tolerate idleness or short attention spans. The hard work of successfully blending freedom and justice greets a democracy every morning. That is why history provides so few examples. Historically, some of the cultures that developed and celebrated democratic principles were slave-based economies. Think Thomas Jefferson.
A new context
It appears this century provides a new context for exploring these problematic issues. What does it mean to be free? How do we pursue just resolutions in a messy world? What is democracy in the 21st century?
Democratic processes are dependent upon this elusive blend of freedom and justice. When democratic processes emerge, they fumble and swing from one extreme to another — freedom impinging on justice, justice impinging on freedom. In a sense, every democracy carries the seeds of an ongoing civil war.
Shaking the jar
Separating a democracy into two camps is a formula for disaster. Imagine, for a moment, that you are making a quick, simple salad dressing. You pour a good measure of vinegar into a jar. Then you add a slightly larger amount of oil. Left alone, they separate into two distinct layers. To become a successful dressing for your salad, you must put a lid on the jar and shake vigorously to blend the two.
Democracy is the vigorous shaking that prevents these two principles from separating and following their separate paths. Democracy is the daily process of blending freedom and justice within our lives and the lives of those we encounter.
Put differently: Democracy is the constant work of keeping freedom and justice on the same path.
That is why my partner and I brought together interested students to discuss human rights issues for nearly 20 years. We were shaking the jar.
For many young people, the simple fact that democratic processes are dependent upon such an elusive blend and balance of values and responsibilities is a revelation. Consumer societies tend to create people who sit and watch rather than people who stand and do. Consumerism creates a world of simple, well-defined transactions rather than a world of listening and then formulating well-reasoned responses and ongoing interactions.
Democracy is hard work.
A necessary third ingredient
But there is a necessary third ingredient. Everyone who makes salad dressing from scratch knows our vinegar and oil mix needs one more component. After pouring together the vinegar and oil, add a small amount of water. Then vigorously shake the jar. That little bit of water helps the vinegar and oil blend while slightly muting the vinegar.
In democracies — beyond the pursuit of freedom and justice — there is a third necessary ingredient: compassion. In the canons of Western Civilization, there are centuries of writing about the ideas of democracy, freedom, and justice. Compassion? Not so much.
Compassion is at the heart of Eastern religions and philosophies. As the rift between East and West widens, a conversation about the role compassion plays in creating the sort of democracies we envision might be useful: consider the East’s thoughts about compassion and the West’s focus on balancing freedom and justice. Then consider how often we fail to live up to our aspirations – East and West.
The world is in desperate need of conversations that rise above those that came before. Every past conversation matters, but we need new ones.
Rather than getting angry with the people who won’t wear masks, maybe we should talk to them. Try to engage with them, not necessarily about not wearing a mask. Ask them if they are stressed or angry. Find the source of their unwillingness to wear a mask. Put yourself in their shoes. Demonstrate compassion. Then ask them to please wear a mask.
Scolding will get us nowhere.
Their souls are simply leaning too far into a perception of freedom inconsistent with our perceptions of justice and community. Be gentle. At some point, they may need to remind some of us that we are leaning too far towards justice. Remember this delicate balancing act and remember the frailty inherent to democratic processes.
If we start a conversation, there might be an opportunity to remind our mask-less friends of those who need and deserve fundamental freedoms. Those unjustly imprisoned, confined, and tortured should never be left to fend for themselves. Carry them into your thoughts, actions, and discussions. Their lives remind us that people can be picked up, thrown into a dark van, and tossed into a cell for no reason. Could that ever happen in your community?
The basis of our efforts should always start from this point: the never-ending struggle of communities to blend freedom and justice with a dash of compassion.
Keep shaking things up. Mix these vital conversations and thoughts into your daily life.
But in the short term: Please wear a mask, and converse with your fellow citizens while 6 feet apart.
Keith Luebke recently retired from teaching nonprofit leadership courses and has several decades of experience directing nonprofit organizations.
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