Freedom with responsibility

A greater, shared sense of individual and collective responsibility would definitely allow us to better enjoy our freedoms. If anything, this pandemic has revealed how weak we are when it comes to exercising such responsibility

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

As Britain took its ‘biggest step yet out of lockdown’ yesterday, with ‘pubs and restaurants reopening indoors in England and Wales and further relaxations in most of Scotland, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, urged Britons to enjoy their new freedoms with “a heavy dose of caution”.’

“For our own sake and for the common good we cannot yet throw to the wind all the precautions advised to prevent spread of Covid, and hence the justified, reasonable call of the UK Prime Minister for the heavy dose of caution…”

I rather liked that phrase when I read it, an idea which I have re-framed as ‘freedom with responsibility.’ The admonition of the British Prime Minister was surely premised on the fact that the Covid pandemic is far from over as, in their turn, ‘ministers warned they could not rule out regionalised restrictions or the reversal of moves towards normal life,’ given the presence of more infectious variants that are surfacing.

‘You give an inch, and people will take a mile’ could be taken as another way of putting across this leap to liberty after a period of limiting it severely, when as a reaction people really tend to go to the other extreme of giving vent fully to their pent-up desires and feelings. In this euphoria they may well be forgiven – briefly – for gay abandon in the enjoyment of the routine activities that had been temporarily denied to them, as this denial began to become a heavy weight they were raring to get rid of.

But as we know, the circumstance is at present different, and for our own sake and for the common good we cannot yet throw to the wind all the precautions advised to prevent spread of Covid, and hence the justified, reasonable call of the UK Prime Minister for the heavy dose of caution. A similar approach has been adopted in the US following the new advisory of the Centres for Disease Control to the effect that people who have had their two doses of vaccine can henceforth not wear their mask in public.

However, in an interview on CNN Dr Fauci the infectious disease specialist advising the American President, qualified this advisory. He pointed out that although the federal government has not made it mandatory to be vaccinated or imposed vaccination passports, probably the states and individual institutions (e.g. universities) and organizations (e.g. airlines) would take the call on that as well as the wearing of masks and apply their own rules. Hence, as a general rule, he advised people to still be careful, since everybody is not yet vaccinated. In other words, enjoy their freedoms, but with responsibility – by implication towards themselves and others.

At a broader level, the right to several freedoms (of speech, religion, association, etc.,) forms part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document was supplemented in 1998 by the proclamation of The Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities (DHDR), which was written for reinforcing the implementation of human rights under the auspices of the UNESCO and the interest of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Its Article 2, reads as follows: ‘As the holders of human rights and fundamental freedoms, all individuals, peoples, and communities in the exercise of their rights and freedoms, have the duty and responsibility to respect those of others, and a duty to strive for the promotion and observance thereof.’(italics added)

The italicized part is normally less emphasized, and in fact often forgotten, in this world of liberalism where individualism rules – that means, as an individual I have the right and freedom to do anything I like. We can clearly see the danger that this attitude represents, especially when it is those in or with power who make this claim.

Perhaps that is why sages and philosophers in ancient times who had examined in depth their societies and offered guidance for ethical living to their fellow human beings had at the same time defined the contours of what an ideal society should be like. Among other things, they said that the common people tend to mimic the behaviour of their leaders. And that for this reason it is a paramount responsibility of leaders to give the good example in all that they undertake. Today we say simply: leaders must lead by example, implied of course is good example.

Visitors crowd together on Bournemouth beach in June 2020. Police and crime commissioners had previously branded it ‘madness’ to alter lockdown rules. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

We can appreciate these wise words better when we lament the paucity of the role models that we can recommend to the youth and future generation. On the local scene, as we have often had the occasion to witness, they are to be found neither in the highest forum, the National Assembly, where examples of gutter language and cheap jibes are regularly reported by the media, and which prevent debate at a level which would do Mauritian citizens proud. Nor are they to be found amongst those whose underhand and criminal dealings are concealed by the veneer of their educational and professional backgrounds, an element that would lead the youth to expect from them a standard of behaviour that they would wish to emulate.

The tragedy is that such people are found, as elsewhere in both the developing and developed world, in the key sectors of our society, from the liberal professions, the banks and companies to providers of the multitude of public and private services on which the foundations of a smooth-running and just society depend. They are people who have allowed themselves to be ruled by greedy calculations and superegos in the power games at national and international level to exploit, dominate and control others at whatever cost including territorial expansion, violence and ultimately war.

A greater, shared sense of individual and collective responsibility would definitely allow us to better enjoy our freedoms. If anything, this pandemic has revealed how weak we are when it comes to exercising such responsibility in a sustained manner, preferring our freedoms to predominate without caring for the risks that this attitude brings. The implication is that with great freedom comes great responsibility – just like with great power comes great responsibility.

In speech and in action – but in thought too! Because thoughts begin in the mind, which can be a devil’s workshop to make thoughts catch fire. And since words and actions follow thoughts, the latter also need to be guided by the light of responsibility.


* Published in print edition on 18 May 2021

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