In common use, the words LIBERTY and FREEDOM are used nearly synonymously to suggest a state of being self-directed, and absent bondage. It engenders a sense of having the right to choose one’s own beliefs, actions, and path. The words themselves give a charged idea of being free from the yokes of oppression and control.
Freedom is used in language to describe all manner of escape, however temporary from circumstances which are undesirable: Freedom from worry; freedom from care; freedom from boredom, or hunger, or oppression. In fact, the word Freedom has become a mantra we use when we want to express our own resistance to practices, or changes in policy and law which have a limiting effect of our choices.
Recent examples include the use of Freedom as an emotional background in debates over gay marriage and the second amendment. As a result, in the United States, our perspective of Freedom is frequently relegated to discussions of whether we can do, “as we want.” In that context, Freedom is a posh and elite word, lofty in principle, but anemic in practice. It all too easily becomes a cloak used by the “haves” and egocentrics who deploy it as a veil or barrier against judgement from others offended by their relentless pursuit of “more”: more money, more power, more choices, more, more, more.
For example, most people would agree that in a free market economy, the Freedom to compete is a cornerstone for economic health and vitality. But how quickly such freedom becomes economic despotism when such competition destroys or limits the freedoms of others by stealing opportunity–think Walmart and the effect of huge mega-chain stores on small shops.
Even the 2nd amendment debate provides lively examples of how one person’s cherished freedom can impact, and even limit the freedom of others. Consider my decision to have firearms in my home. That decision places a firearm in the midst of not only my family, but other families as well. My neighbors, fellow citizens and even others across the State must now deal with the reality that I possess a tool that can be taken from me, and horribly, tragically misused, even against them. Now I’m a second amendment supporter, and fully defend those rights. But those rights come at a cost to my neighbors and fellow citizens. My freedom can cost other’s theirs.
It’s clear that in our current understanding, Freedom is individual and largely independent of collective principles. Our Freedom to “do as we want” is a function of several factors including how much money and power we can access, and what geographic latitudes we occupy. Freedom is typically, and sadly about me, rather than us.
Which is why I like Liberty. Liberty does not bear the encumbrance of “me”. Liberty is the collective principle blindly distributed across all those who make up a populace. It exposes a belief that it is about something great, even transcendent. It is shared, it’s application is vast, and it is permanent if not as practice at least as a guiding philosophy. Liberty evinces an enduring status, rather than a circumstantial one.
In Liberty, we imagine life devoid of oppression, not because we were able to escape it, but because we stand collectively above it. Thus, Liberty is the property and obligation of all. When the least of us remains in bondage, under the precepts of this collective, transcendent philosophy, we are all in bondage. We all have Liberty, or none of us do.
The enemies of Liberty are clear: Hunger, poverty, slavery, social disenfranchisement, exploitation. When one of us stands outside Liberty’s protective shield, then Liberty itself is lost since it is, by its nature, all or nothing.
The reasons to include this in an essay about commercial sexual exploitation are probably many, but I have a very particular one. Among the greatest personal biases that people confront when dealing with victims of trafficking and exploitation are questions of choice. People want to know how much personal “choice” contributed to their circumstances, and whether they are free to leave, free to escape. Whether they are free, “not to be trafficked.”
This is a vexing problem for a couple of reasons. First, it neglects the experience of the victim by diminishing it to a set of observed actions that play out on a two dimensional field, devoid of context. And context, as we’ve seen in countless cases and heard repeatedly from victims, is the key to understanding and combatting trafficking. An understanding of context exposes the critical risk factors, allowing us to reach the vulnerable and endangered. Context allows us to maintain the fight for justice despite a victim’s tragic re-victimization post rescue in that we appreciate how the context that led to the initial tragedy still remains. And context assures that the targets of our fight–those predators willing to oppress and enslave, those institutions and policies which stand between the victim and their liberty, and the pornification of children in our culture and world will remain squarely and clearly in our sights.
The greatest problem with focusing on the victim’s “choices”, though is the sea of separation it creates between them and us. It’s an insidious process, and one that can turn even the most well intentioned of us away at the time we are needed most. As a rule, when I’m teaching about trafficking, I use some focused imagery exercises to get people to imagine–to a very limited extent–what it means to be a victim of trafficking. At the end of it, they generally come to the conclusion I’ve been hoping for: We have no earthy idea what such trauma would be like, or how we would fair in similar circumstances. But wait, I just said that creating separation between us and the victims was a bad thing, right? I did, and I meant it. But it would be naive to think we can find common experiential ground with the victims, unless we have experienced what they have. And most of us have not.
Consider this: As a white, upper middle class man who grew up in the country, was never raped or abused, has never runaway, has never had to trade sex for food, drugs, or shelter, and who has never had a gun put to my head as a means to force me to do something, or been choked into unconsciousness I can never, ever sit across from a victim and say the most tragic words I’ve heard people use in such interactions, “I know what it feels like.” I don’t know. And they know I don’t know.
Instead, if I can condition myself to use other words, words so powerful that they can collapse the greatest distance in a moment, I can go from a man separated to an impossible distance by unshared experiences, to a partner with shared purpose. Those words are, “I care.” I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve had an interview with a victim turn 180 degrees from bad to good simply because they understood that I cared.
When I start to care, factors like “choice” are no longer in focus because I am not emphasizing individual actions. Instead, I am seeking a common purpose. That’s when I start to seek liberty rather than freedom. At that moment I finally recognize that I cannot rewrite someone else’s experience in the context of my own life, and I instead cherish others for the beautiful, intricately designed differences they add to the mosaic of liberty.
But most of all, I can finally accomplish what God intended of me, and Jesus so perfectly demonstrated in his time on this earth: That our hands were designed to be joined together, and that a burden to one is a burden to all. That’s what liberty is all about.