Spirited Democracy?

In a recently recast episode of an On Being podcast, philosopher Jacob Needleman shared insights from his research into the spiritual underpinnings of the U.S. democratic experiment. At several points in the podcast, Needleman’s comments sent me scurrying down new lines of thought: about rights and responsibilities, individualism versus individuality, and the question of what freedom is for.

Rights and responsibilities. This is the point where Needleman got my attention:

A democratic citizen is not a citizen who can do anything he wants; it’s a citizen who has an obligation at the same time. And just to give you an example, if I may, the freedom of speech, what is the duty associated with it? Well, if you ponder that a little bit, you’ll come to the conclusion very clearly that the right of free speech implies the duty of allowing others to speak.

The connection of rights and responsibilities, freedoms and obligations, seems to me so right on that it threatens to teeter over into truism: an assertion to which we shrug, “Duh.” But let’s stop right there, and issue an imaginative challenge: we may have a Bill of Rights, but we do not have a Bill of Duties, and isn’t that what we have been arguing about for lo these 200+ years as a nation?

What would a Bill of Duties look like? We probably wouldn’t want to try to codify it, because as soon as we did it would need to be expanded (and maybe that’s what the legislative and judicial branches spend their time doing). But let’s give ourselves the starting point of the challenge. What would you put it in the blanks?

Freedoms and duties

I found it difficult to imagine what the duties should be; this probably says as much about me as it does about the national ethos — or is it telos — that has shaped me.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s complicate things some more. As Needleman puts it:

If I have the right to speak, I have the duty to let you speak. Now, that’s not so simple. It doesn’t mean just to stop my talking and wait till you’re finished and then come in and get you. It means I have an obligation inwardly — and that’s what we’re speaking about, is the inner dimension. Inwardly, I have to work at listening to you. That means I don’t have to agree with you, but I have to let your thought into my mind in order to have a real democratic exchange between us. And that is a very interesting work of the human being, don’t you think?

Set this into our current political context; or, imagine this ethic in play in your most recent exploration of difference or disagreement. “I have to let your thought into my mind.” I have to take a piece of you into me … ruminate on it … give it a chance to have an effect on me.  That’s a far cry from what listening usually entails; and remember, we are talking here about the duties attendant on freedom of speech.

What would I have to take on from you if what we were talking about was freedom of religion? What are my duties as a U.S. citizen who is a Christian toward U.S. citizens who are Muslim? Do I have to take on praying five times a day? Wearing a hijab? Fasting through Ramadan?

Well, I don’t have to do any of these things. We are talking about duties, not laws: actions undertaken from the moral sense in our highest, best selves, not legal requirements. But I find this striking, on two levels.

One, I am struck by the connection between rights and responsibilities, that all rights come with attendant responsibilities. This is not how we think in our society today; if there is a loop from rights into responsibilities and back around again, we are living on half the loop. Small wonder our society is short-circuiting into individualism (more on that shortly).

Two, if we take seriously the idea that every right we hold comes with responsibilities, then we have some thinking to do, because I would argue only the bare minimum of these responsibilities have been identified — usually under the duress of ending significant injustice, conflict or violence — and then those responsibilities only become widely adopted if codified into law. In many cases, arguments are made against responsibilities in the name of greater freedom for some. (Tea Party, anyone?)

But who says freedom is about escape from responsibilities? Which raises another question: most of our rhetoric around freedom focuses on “the freedom to … “. But what is freedom for? More on that in a minute. Let’s come back to the question of individualism vs. individuality.

Individualism vs. individuality. The over-reliance on rights discourse without an attendant discourse on responsibility contributes to our society’s individualism, which Needleman usefully distinguishes from individuality:

Individualism and individuality have to be separated. Individualism can take a turn where it’s a kind of egoistic, selfish thing: Me, me, me, me, and what I want and what I care, what I think and what I like. Oh sure, we need to have the liberty to express all that, but a real individual is a different thing. And to be truly one’s self is to be truly in contact with this great self within, this divinity within. And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are. And that’s why I say we need to bring back the obligations that go along with the rights in order to understand the depths of what the human rights really mean.

I love how Needleman puts this, and where we end up. Individualism is to individual what racism is to race; it’s the downside. There is nothing inherently wrong with being an individual; as a Christian, my worldview tells me that we are created as individuals, and — as such — are intended to express our unique individuality. (Hmm … I am remembering the circle; if I have the right to express my individuality, then I have the responsibility to enable you to express yours, do I not?)

Christian belief also teaches that each individual is made in the image of God, a God who Godself lives in community, and so we can and should understand ourselves as human beings who are also intended for life in community. Indeed, we are incomplete expressions of ourselves without this connection to larger humanity, and to the Sacred which is the ground of our existence.

As Needleman puts it, “the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are.” We are made for love; made to live in community; and our lives are incomplete without those connections.

And now I want to come back around to freedom; we make much of being free to … (fill in the blank). But what are our freedoms for? I have grappled with this question before, and was happy to see Needleman engaging it:

It’s become so trivialized, freedom. It’s wonderful to be able to go where I want and do what I want and buy what I want, buy and buy, and get and get, and talk and talk, and I have no constraints. We certainly need external liberty. God knows that’s one of the most precious things this country has to offer the masses of humanity who have come here. I don’t mean to put that down in any way. Without that, without that, the rest is just academic. But without the inner meaning of freedom and liberty, we have to ask, “Well, what is this freedom for?” It’s not just a freedom to get a big house and a big car and a lot of goods.

Freedom to vs. freedom for. My thought is this: I believe our freedoms are for enabling us to — yes — live as individuals in the communities for which we are made.

This makes much more sense if we understand freedom to be made up of the full circle Needleman has drawn for us, of rights and responsibilities. I have rights and undertake responsibilities as an expression of my God-given freedom to live in human community. I come full-circle as a person — and become a full human being — only when I embrace the responsibilities attendant on my rights.

Needleman approaches the question by identifying a quality many of us are missing, without which we do not engage the entirety of freedom: he refers to this quality as inner freedom.

So inner freedom is an idea that has gone out of our conversation. Inner freedom means inwardly to be free from these egoistic, selfish cravings, which make our life turn around into chaos. It’s an interior freedom which maybe you can say is mystical or certainly spiritual, but without that dimension to the idea of freedom, the idea of freedom becomes purely external and eventually selfish.

This is critical, of course, because inner freedom can’t be legislated into existence. To get free from the “egoistic, selfish cravings” that create inequalities in our world is a spiritual discipline. Most major religions have something to say about how to inculcate freedom from excessive material desires; some even point out how a focus on material gain can inhibit our freedom to love other people and build community with them. You know: what we’re made for.

Needleman points out that this fundamental human purpose is itself enshrined in our country’s founding document, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, Needleman argues, we have misconstrued the task:

Well, feeling good, having nice things, it ain’t happiness …. Happiness — a better translation of the word is “well-being,” and well-being doesn’t mean continual or lots of pleasure. It doesn’t mean egoistic satisfaction. It means being what you are supposed to be as a human being. … Happiness implies a relationship to a truer self within yourself …  And I think if you look in the nature of the great spiritual traditions, how they look at and understand human nature, it’s part of the essence of a human being to love, to feel care for others.

This seems to me to be the calculus of what Needleman is talking about: that we as individuals are free to live into the fullest expression of humanity that we can — i.e., a community of well-being — and that living into the full circle of rights and responsibilities is how we do that.

I am happy to be reminded, and challenged, and given new thinking tools for the task. This, too, is part of the fuller human life … and, as Needleman says, we don’t think enough. Thinking is important.

Because out of good thought will come right action.

So, what does Needleman want us to think about? Specifically:

What are the duties that are implied by our rights? We know the rights we have. We know their words. What duties do we have? That is a question I would invite people to think about without any political agenda in their mind.

Okay. I’m thinking. I’ve identified a few responsibilities in this post.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to Spirited Democracy?

  1. Jan hutton says:

    Just a quickie, Tammerie, but as I read your deep, querying, essay, I was struck by this short sentence from Needleman:

    “And the paradox of true individuality is that the more you are in touch with what all human beings have in common under God, the more you are uniquely what you, yourself, are.”

    I was reminded of a quote I recently copied from Henri Nouwen, the essence of which, is, how do we build bridges to the human-ness of the ‘other’:

    “We become neighbors when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics.”

    “There is a lot of road crossing to do. We are all very busy in our own circles. We have our own people to go to and our own affairs to take care of. But if we could cross the street once in a while and pay attention to what is happening on the other side, we might become neighbors.

    In “being a better neighbor,” I’m s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g my heart open, open to my own woundedness which impacts my judgments of those different from me, and working to find a faithful place where I can still feel whole in spite of significant differences with others. Yep, a growthful paradox, and a spirited democracy?

  2. Pingback: Listening as revolutionary behavior | Day At a Glance

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