People have been having debates — sometimes arguments — with friends, family, coworkers and strangers about the personal responsibility of wearing a mask and getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Heated conversations are also unfolding around guns following two back-to-back mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado. Opinions emerging from these debates often touch upon personal freedoms, liberty and responsibility as Americans living in a democracy.
These themes continue to surface as Americans grapple with what individuals’ responsibilities are to each other while also enjoying personal liberty, linguist George Lakoff says.
“Liberty comes through legitimate authority, usually through political authority. The question then is, if you have liberty in that way, do you have responsibilities to other people who have liberty? That is, you're not free to limit other people's freedom, and that's a very important idea,” he says.
While Americans have First Amendment speech, an individual can’t yell “fire” into a crowded theater, for example. And with the Second Amendment, Americans have the right to bear arms but aren’t allowed to shoot people.
But personal freedoms and liberty through the context of Amendment rights is a nuanced concept.
“We're equipped to understand it simply, intuitively, because democracy requires empathy,” Lakoff says. “... Without empathy, without the very idea of caring about other people, there can be no notion of democracy.”
That means the definition of liberty is not the same as freedom, he says. Liberty, a political notion, “has to do with a legitimate authority imposing a freedom within a range of the laws given by that legitimate authority,” he explains, while freedom is “sort of neutral.”
Politicians often use the language of freedom and liberty to suit their goals, whether it be masks, guns or many other divisive topics. Republicans in general tend to talk more about freedom than liberty, Lakoff says.
Last month, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke to conservatives about taking a hands-off approach to the pandemic.
“We are in an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns,’' DeSantis said. “We look around in other parts of our country, and in far too many places, we see schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed.”
DeSantis’ use of “oppressive lockdowns” means the governor is pushing a narrative that public health measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus are oppressive to people and companies who don’t care about whether or not they are contributing to the dangers of COVID-19, Lakoff says.
“The effect is to say that a government that cares about its people is not legitimate. That's the effect,” he says. “It says that people are free, independent of what its government says about taking care of the health and well-being of the people at large.”
Liberals approach the language of freedom and liberty very differently, he says.
For example, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer commented last week on legislation that's been proposed to restrict access to guns following the recent shootings.
“We cannot seem to finish grieving one tragedy before another takes place. It's a reminder that we must confront a devastating truth in the United States — an unrelenting epidemic of gun violence steals innocent lives with alarming regularity,” Schumer said.
Schumer is clearly saying no, no one should be able to go out and buy an AR 15-type weapon, Lakoff says. At one time, assault weapons were banned thanks to the work of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 1994, but the legislation expired and wasn’t renewed due to congressional Republicans who were supported by gun manufacturers, he says.
When American virtues such as liberty and freedom were being debated by the country’s founders, semi-automatic weapons weren’t even conceptualized. At the time, rifles had to be hand stuffed with a round, gunpowder-filled bullet that could only fire one shot, Lakoff says.
It seems like no matter the debate, productive conversations on liberty and freedom are difficult to have when contention is sewn into the politics of the U.S. Lakoff says there’s no real way around it when one national party takes such a strong stance in one direction.
This segment aired on March 30, 2021.