19 July, 2021 will forever be remembered and celebrated as Freedom Day, the day all COVID restrictions were lifted in England after 16 months of unprecedented constraint on public freedom. However, for many people, this ‘freedom’ comes with mixed feelings, as numbers of COVID cases continues to soar, as reflected in newspaper headlines this week.
‘Freedom Day is here — see you on the dancefloor?’ - The Times
‘England’s ‘freedom day’ marked by public restraint’ – The Financial Times
‘Boris Johnson’s ‘freedom day’ isolation tells us the virus is everywhere’ – The Guardian
Here in the UK, we live in a free country. According to Freedom House, the UK has a Global Freedom Status Score of 93/100. Pretty good, huh? For many years, we’ve taken that freedom for granted. However, on 23 March, 2020, that freedom was taken away in a way we could never have imagined. Suddenly, the whole country was in lockdown. We were not allowed to leave our homes, apart from in exceptional circumstances. The whole country went into shock. We can all remember where we were and who we were with when we heard the announcement.
Over the last year and a half, we’ve all had the opportunity to reassess what freedom really means.
Are we actually free to do whatever we want?
Have we ever really been free to do whatever we want?
Yes, as human beings, we have free will. We have the freedom to decide to do whatever we want whenever we want to. But that level of freedom has consequences – for our own health and safety and the health and safety of others; for the emotional health of our friendships and relationships; for society as a whole. That level of freedom leads to anarchy and anarchy leads to chaos.
- a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems.
- absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal.
You see, as human beings, we also have a responsibility to one another. To live in a stable society and healthy communities, we have a responsibility to live by the law of the land with respect for one another. Sometimes, we are called upon to put the needs of others before ourselves. Sometimes, we are called upon to do things that inconvenience us and we don’t want to do. Sometimes, we are called upon to make sacrifices for the greater good.
So how can this be described as freedom?
As I have got older (and wiser!), I have pursued my right to be free with a passion. Free to be me. Free to be the person I was created to be. I have strived to break free from the constraints, labels and expectations that society, the media, friends and family and that little voice inside my head have laid upon me over the years about what it looks like to be a good woman, a good wife, a good mother, a good friend etc. We’re told how to look, how to behave, how to spend our time, how to fit in, how to become the same as everyone else. I look back and wish I’d had the courage to make my own choices as a teenager. I wanted to be a writer. I dreamed of being a professional violinist. My parents put me off and steered me towards becoming a teacher. I allowed myself to become conventional. I got married, got a mortgage, had kids, settled down.
But enough is enough. We only get one shot at this thing called life.
‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ - Mary Oliver
Well, thank you for asking, Mary. I plan to continue to explore what it is to be me. I plan to celebrate this unique wild and precious life that is mine. I plan to have the courage to reject convention and instead embrace compassion for all living things.
My life may not look like freedom to others. I work full time. I’m involved in many projects that require personal sacrifice for the greater good. I’m a vegan. I exercise a lot of self-discipline. There’s never enough time to fit in all the things I love doing. And yet I feel more aligned now with the person I was created to be than I ever have done before in my life. And for me, that is freedom.
I’ve learnt that it’s not actually that easy to be yourself. It’s hard to think for yourself and make your own decisions. It’s hard to learn for follow your heart after years of trying to please others all the time. And when being myself involves standing up for people and planet, I’ve discovered that the powers that be, the media and some other people I meet aren’t happy with that level of personal freedom.
The new proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 that is being considered in Parliament at the moment is aimed in part at taking away my freedom to protest. The language of and premise for the Bill seems on paper very reasonable –
‘Over recent years, certain tactics used by some protesters have caused a disproportionate impact on the hardworking majority seeking to go about their everyday lives.’ - Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet
However, if this Bill becomes law in this country, as a climate activist striving to raise awareness of the climate emergency and bring about change before it is too late for the good of the planet and all people, in fact all living beings, my freedom to speak out and speak up and protest will be greatly reduced – for how can a protest have any effect if it is constrained by law to cause minimal disruption to the public, even with regards to noise levels?
I know, it’s complicated. These things always are.
By all means, read the Government’s Protest Powers Factsheet, but do also take a look at this article from the Big Issue, ‘How Priti Patel’s new policing bill threatens your right to protest’ to see the other side of the debate. Because one day, you may discover a cause that you feel so passionately about that you are willing to take to the streets for.
If this Bill is passed, I wonder what the Global Freedom Status Score for the UK will be in 2022. I fear it will have dropped significantly.
Until then, may you discover the freedom to be yourself, whatever that may look like for you.
‘The freedom to be yourself is a gift only you can give yourself. But once you do, no one can take it away.’ – Doe Zantamata