True and False Freedoms

To most of us, true freedoms are exceedingly boring. That is, until you are held up at the border based on your surname or skin colour, or falsely accused of a crime. The stakes are suddenly very high.

By Ted Mitchell
Published January 14, 2005

As a young student in 1982, I remember being handed a roll of parchment that came with much to-do.

I didn't understand what the fuss was about. It was a copy of the newly drafted Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it appeared totally unnecessary. This document details various rights and freedoms, some of which are freedom of religion, opinion, expression and association. Could anything be more boring to a twelve year old? (Read the complete document here:

Our Charter provides what I will call true freedoms. There are also false freedoms, which are the kind that get more attention these days, usually paired with the word "democracy" and delivered with religious fervor by an empire building superpower.

In my definition, a true freedom enhances or at least does not subtract in any way from another's rights, freedoms or quality of life. A false freedom is a practice that causes significant harm or restriction of the rights and freedoms of other individuals. False freedoms are typically deeply culturally ingrained and widely practiced traditions that do not get a second thought as to the consequences of the actions. In a mature society, I think it is well worth examining them further.

To most of us, true freedoms are exceedingly boring. That is, until you are held up at the border based on your surname or skin colour, or falsely accused of a crime. The stakes are suddenly very high.

I cannot find any significant false freedoms in the Canadian Charter. However, south of the border you will find the right to bear arms. Theoretically, there should not be any problem with this, assuming responsible gun ownership. In practice, there is great and mounting evidence that more firearms equal more homicide and accidental death. These unintended consequences far overpower the protective value that makes up the argument for owning guns. In Canada, we have recognized this, but so far the proposed solution - the gun registry - is not addressing the real problem of illegal weapons.

More typically, false freedoms are part of our lifestyle and can be found very close to home. For example, think about your yard equipment. Much of it is designed to achieve the familiar ideal of a lush green lawn, no stray blades of grass, weeds, or leaves permitted. Lawn companies call this "healthy", which is a euphemism for totally unstable high-maintenance ecosystem.

What do you need to achieve this? A leaf blower, a device obviously not subject to any regulations for noise. How does the freedom to use this device infringe on your neighbour's right to peace and quiet? Then there is the two-stroke string trimmer, which produces hydrocarbon and particulate emissions equivalent to several dozen cars. Apart from what this might do to lung conditions, it is decidedly unpleasant to smell. As for unsightly weeds, cosmetic pesticide use is widespread on our lawns. At what risk to our children's neurologic development or risk of cancer?

After an afternoon's work of such "gardening", that is, removing all of the Zen-like satisfaction associated with this pastime as it is reduced to the purely superficial result, you sit down by the natural fireplace. Again, there is no thought as to the consequences coming out of the chimney. Several species of aromatic hydrocarbons, made even more complex and potentially dangerous by the addition of bleached paper and plastics, are spewing all over the neighbourhood. Some may find it a pleasant smell, others, a smoky, oily stench. Remember that cigarettes proven to cause lung cancer emit basically similar molecules.

Defendants of the right to smoke in public places defend a false freedom. In this case, the evidence of harm to others is substantial. Then, consider the unpleasantness to those who still have a sense of smell. If that weren't enough, government coverage of medical costs for associated bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease is not trivial. This is anything but an isolated individual pursuit.

What differentiates these examples from other more tolerable sources of noise and pollution is the shameless vanity of what is achieved by the practice and the gross mismatch between benefit and costs. There are, of course, many other false freedoms in society beyond these examples, all easily identified by considering the consequences of your actions on others. Sometimes I believe that some people are intellectually incapable of considering others, given the persistent disregard exposed in their actions.

Advocates of false freedoms have self-interest in mind, without any consideration for others beyond denial and disdain. This is a limited kind of math consistent with our simplified economic system, where only things with a dollar value are considered. All of the many other externalized social and environmental costs are of no consideration.

What is the value of quiet? Of clean air? Of knowing that your neighbours will treat you with respect? These are things of enormous value to us that cannot be purchased for any number of dollars.

The way to eliminate false freedoms begins at home, with rethinking your right to do things like the simple examples I have described. If you need more convincing, consider that tomorrow you will be the neighbour suffering the effects of similar actions.

Ted Mitchell is a Hamilton resident, emergency physician and sometimes agitator who recently completed a BEng at McMaster University. He is fascinated by aspects of our culture that are harmful, but avoid serious public discussion.


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