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Op-ed: Millennials get this wrong about freedom

(Photo Credit: Michael Nigro)

This weekend America is celebrating our freedoms in a wholly new way of not being free to leave our homes even for the time-honored tradition of 4th of July fireworks. This unique situation makes you think about freedom. As a Gen Z myself, I look to the generation a step ahead — aka the Millennials — and see what they have to say on the matter. 

Short of an elected representative, the author’s take on this article is still timely, especially coming from Arizona, whose governor just updated the Stay at Home mandate in response to a recent, record surge in COVID-19 cases. You don’t have to bother reading the whole article, but scroll down to the last paragraph about freedom being all-encompassing, and how limiting people’s opinions is anti-democracy. 

How about this definition: Freedom is the human capacity that unifies all our other capacities into an orderly whole, and directs our actions toward the pursuit of happiness and goodness understood in the noblest sense: the union of the human person with the absolute good, which is God.

No dig on the University of Arizona, but I’m going to go with this second one as it comes from Thomas Aquinas, who was so smart that he used to dictate to 3 or 4 secretaries different texts at the same time! And never mind the fictitious Mike from “Suits,” as Aquinas was the real deal with a photographic memory. Would you mind if I hereon compare the two definitions, calling the first one millennial, and the second one perennial?

What’s worth pointing out is that Aquinas’ definition of freedom assumes a positive extension of a free will that’s reaching for an objective good. In contrast, the millennial definition is so subjective and relative. For instance, what if freedom of speech for me is that Black Lives Matter and freedom of speech for a Millennial is all about White Power? As we see in news headlines these days, those two so-called freedoms can’t coexist peacefully. Rather, far from it.

No issues here in reciprocating retweets as our speech are equally ordered towards the objective good of human life, regardless of color or any other secondary quality. Now that’s what I call freedom of speech!

Most people can agree that intrinsic to freedom is a lack of coercion. This is worth emphasizing based on all the haters in social media, who are also bleeding into the mainstream press. Passion for your convictions sours when it runs into hate speech, and where the border between freedom of speech and hate speech lies is a question that Zuckerberg needs to figure out pretty quickly as Coca-Cola and other big advertisers boycott Facebook for what they deem hate speech.

Look up “millennials and freedom” and most of the search results are content that confuses true freedom from carte blanche license. License without guardrails shackles you to vice though. Whereas perennial freedom liberates you despite the most oppressive of circumstances. Take Maria Goretti for example (who at the age of 11 would’ve been a contemporary Gen Z) had the interior freedom to forgive her murderer even while she was viciously stabbed. This supernatural fortitude was instrumental in changing her assailant’s life for good.

We are in a tumultuous time in the USA for sure: entertainment and sports celebrities are burning the flag, publicly disregarding the Pledge of Allegiance, and questioning the need for policemen and women who put their lives in harm’s way every day for our safety and freedoms. The specific freedom that comes up a lot is the freedom of speech and the right to bear arms (recent spike in gun purchases is scary high). One freedom I wish would come up in headlines a lot more often is religious freedom.

Let’s be clear that religious freedom is different from freedom to worship, as it’s a lot more fundamental to my being than where and when I choose to go pray each Sunday. Going back to Aquinas’ perennial freedom, this unifies all our human capacities, which means that every choice I make and every action I take every day are directed by this pursuit. Freedom is the core of my being. Just as I don’t have a right to force anyone to believe as I do, no one else, including the government can force me to believe differently.

I assume the majority agree to that last statement, but what if I believe marriage is a covenant and sacrament between a man and a woman? How does my religious belief work with people forcing a conflicting belief? How does conflicting viewpoints of homosexuality, abortion, bioethics, and morals work in practice and daily social interaction?

For that, I look to Pope St. John Paul II and ecumenism. As the leader of the Catholic Church, he invited to converse with the heads of other religious institutions. And as busy as he was at the Vatican, he always made time for his Jewish friend-Jerzy Kluger.

So it is possible to have people of different religions coherent with their convictions. To do so is the polar opposite of relativism, which introduces silly lingo like, “your truth” vs “my truth,” and makes everything relative, and so nothing is absolutely vital. It’s possible to have a calm dialogue starting with what we agree on, and foster a genuine curiosity on where we differ, without coercion, without judgment, and all in the spirit of reaching for what is objectively true.

But let’s speak. An unfortunate consequence of the American misperception of tolerance is that speaking of what’s the core of our beliefs is somehow an affront to others. I won’t be offended if you wish me Happy Chanukah, because I know that you are wishing me the best. If we continue to avoid religious conversations, then the youth will think that God is inconsequential and that the only social posts worth sharing are pictures of eating and drinking. Because to speak of what’s at the core of our hopes is an exercise of our freedom.

And if freedom is a value we Americans – millennial and other age groups united – celebrate since the founding of this magnificent country, then it’s safe to say that part of being patriotic is to defend true freedom.

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