“Are you free?”
If someone were to ask you this question, how would you respond? Of course, how one might answer this question depends very much on its context. However, let’s stay within this indeterminate space and consider the various approaches to answering this question.
In common use, the question assumes that the asker is checking your availability. Perhaps they want to have a chat over coffee or celebrate a milestone. Generally speaking, they want to spend time with you. Therefore, the resource they are asking you to avail yourself of is your time.
A somewhat off-kilter way of understanding the question – especially since it is a subject (“you”) in question rather than an object (“this”) – is that the asker is referring to a price. There is a general consensus that human life is sacred and priceless, which makes this question somewhat preposterous and ignorable. However, regarding humans as slaves, who are traded using commodities like sugar, was commonplace until the mid-1800s. Slavery persists today and it is estimated that up to 40.3 million people are held in modern forms of bondage. Beyond the sale of humans, people sell a part of themselves, both literally and metaphorically. In Afghanistan, people are selling their kidneys to feed their families. The idiom “selling one’s body” refers to prostitution, which has been associated with the phrase, “the oldest profession in the world.” Generally speaking, the working class participates in the economy by selling their labor – trading their skill, physical effort, and time for wages. Hence, it is associated with the first interpretation of the question around time. In this regard, “free labor” (as used by Tiziana Terranova) refers to unpaid work (it is important to note that the same term has other meanings historically, including the labor of free people as opposed to slave labor). In summary, the asker can be referring to the price of the askee, their body, or their labor.
Yet another way to read this question (and the last we will explore in this essay), is that “free” refers to liberty. A slave, by definition, “is the property of [and] entirely under the domination” of another person and is “forced to provide unpaid labor.” It is strange that the word “free” can be used in two starkly different ways in the same sentence: A free person’s labor is not free. The earliest meaning of the word that resembles its modern usage started from around the 1300s, referring to “clear of obstruction” and “unrestrained in movement”. The two interpretations we explored earlier are derivatives of this root definition. What began as “free of cost” somehow became synonymous with “free” in the 1580s. In the software world, the distinction is made by using the words gratis and libre. Using a similar logic, we can reconstruct our first interpretation above as being “free of other commitments”. Hence, we can generally think of “free” as being unconstrained and being able to act by our will.
A few online dictionaries define “free” mostly by negation, that is, not something (lexico, thefreedictionary, wordnik). Indeed, in one of the most influential essays on freedom, “Two Concepts of Liberty” by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, he distinguished the classical notion of freedom as “negative liberty” from what he coined “positive liberty”. Berlin defines “negative liberty” as freedom from interference by other individuals or by the state; whereas “positive liberty” refers to the freedom to direct one’s own life, which is associated with the ideas of autonomy and agency. For me, a more intuitive way to understand these two types of freedoms (albeit at the risk of inaccuracy) is to associate “negative freedom” with obstacles external to the self and “positive freedom” with obstacles internal to the self. Personally, the most interesting aspect of Berlin’s idea is the interaction between both formulations. While freedom may not be a zero-sum game, we can imagine two roommates who are delineating the limits of their own space within their shared room – when one takes up more space, the other has to give up that space. To give a crude real-life example, the freedom to own slaves comes at the expense of people’s right to freedom – by negating one’s right to own slaves, previously enslaved people gain freedom and, in the case of America, the unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
In any discussion of freedom, and whenever the eponymous question is asked, attention should be focused on what has to be traded for that freedom and how different freedoms relate to one another. Just as “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, freedom often comes at a price; it is paid for by money, time and labor, or human lives. Ursula Le Guin’s short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” is my go-to metaphor when thinking around this issue of interpersonal, sociopolitical freedom.
Before we wrap up, let’s briefly consider a few contemporary case studies.
Due to COVID-19, prior to the vaccines, many countries had to impose strict rules to save lives. Many saw wearing masks as denying them of their ability to choose what to wear and decide their own health choices. The tradeoff here is that mask-wearing is not just about protecting yourself, but others, especially those who are most vulnerable. By insisting on this personal freedom, many others have lost the ultimate freedom – to live. A similar thing can be said about vaccines.
Elon Musk is trying to acquire Twitter to make it a beacon of free speech. What does free speech really entail here? On the internet, specific groups of people (including women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community) are known to receive a disproportionally high amount of abuse, harassment, and threats. Supporters of free speech may insist that speech should not translate into actual violence, be it verbal, physical, or in other forms. However, we cannot deny that it happens. What do we do when the freedom to say certain things lead to the loss of freedom for someone to participate online, be employed, or live a private life?
There have been multiple news headlines of shootings in the past few weeks. The most tragic of which occurred in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children were killed. In countries with the freedom to own firearms, what happens when that freedom is abused by people who use these weapons against innocent lives? In 2020 in the US, 45,222 people lost their freedom to live due to guns.
In all of these situations, there are important factors to consider. People have to come together to imagine possibilities that ensure the most freedoms and the preservation of other values while limiting the loss of freedom and other negative impacts. The sad truth, however, is that legitimate public discourse and debate seem non-existent in the US, where all of these examples are taken from. Politics seems to be a mud-slinging fighting match, instead of sharing the same set of facts, acknowledging one another’s concerns, and building consensus. In Western liberal democracies, the inability to decide and the widening rifts between citizens who identify themselves as being in diametrically opposed tribes seem to make people increasingly amenable to leaders who are happy to remove freedoms from others in their society.
The question, “Are you free?” is framed in a deceptively simple way, by employing the second-person pronoun “you”. The reality around the question of liberty is never just about the individual, but about everyone who participates in the specific freedom in question. Perhaps this tendency can be explained by classical liberalism’s core principle of individualism, but its limitations are increasingly clear. There is still a lot to be uncovered around the ideas of freedom, including why “liberal” refers to starkly different political traditions across the Atlantic ocean and why there is a distinction between “liberal” and “libertarian”. I think such questions are not frivolous, given that there is an active war right now happening in Ukraine, in which Russia claims it is liberating and “denazifying” its western neighbor. In a heart-wrenching interview, former Mariupol resident Andrii Khludov responded to this claim by saying, “Oh, [Putin]’s liberating us from housing, friends, relatives, comfort, work, home. Liberating us from life. If killing is liberating, then they’re liberating us.”
The question, when applied internally within the self, is a fascination of mine. Are our thoughts ever completely free? Are we free from our past selves? Are we free from history and legacy? I have approached aspects of these questions in the following essays, respectively: