On Freedom and Responsibility, via a Parable

I settled on this topic in March, but did not begin it until May, and it is now August.  Life intervened.  This time in the form of extended travel – first to Eastern Europe on a fact-finding mission, then to the west coast for a memorial service and time with dispersed family and friends.  These, however, were quickly followed by the throes of organizing and planning the flow of content for a business conference in Eastern Europe to be held in September – thus the urgency and re-focus (“Squirrel!”) – which just a couple of weeks ago, not unanticipated, was postponed until next year.  At least much good preparation was accomplished, with a possible broader impact. Only now are calendar and mind free enough to go back, reread the blog draft and try and remember where I was and where I was going with this.  In the meantime, also not unexpectedly, interesting and pertinent news events continue to surface.

Now, back to the post.  Sometimes complex concepts are best demonstrated simply and in the form of a parable.  (Note: or ‘parabolically’ as I almost wrote, before accepting that, while correct, the word is still rather obscure…)  The parable (which you can read on multiple levels, but try and keep it simple):

“Call the Master of the Mint!” cried the Emperor.  “I want new coinage!”

The Master of the Mint was hastily summoned and meekly presented himself before the throne, “Yes, Your Highness.  How may I serve you?”

“These old coins are too big and cumbersome.  They need to be lighter, but not smaller.  And I want my image to be the only image visible!  The solution I have thought of is very simple – make me coins that are only one-sided!  Then only my image will be visible and the coins will be less cumbersome!”

“But, your Highness…!” whimpered the Master of the Mint.  “Enough!” retorted the Emperor.  “Have some new coins to me by tomorrow.”

The Master returned to the Mint and pondered his assignment.  Then he had a sudden insight, “I’ll simply cut off the back side of a coin!”  His apprentice cocked his head in disbelief, but held his tongue.

The Master took old coins and tried cutting them in half between the front face and the back.

Alas, no matter how careful he was, each cut left him with thinner and thinner coins that still had two-faces.  What was he to do?  It was nearly dawn, so in trepidation he returned to the palace.

“Have you succeeded?” demanded the Emperor.  “I have done my best,” replied the Master of the Mint.  “But every time I cut off the back side of a coin, another side appears! Perhaps if I cut them thin enough there will be no second side!  Give me another day to finish.”  “Very well. Return with your success tomorrow, or there will be a new Master of the Mint,” said the Emperor.

The Master returned to the Mint in despair.  The apprentice listened quietly, and then humbly suggested, “Perhaps the Emperor doesn’t realize that there will always be two faces to a coin.  But, if you hammer and stretch out the gold until it becomes thin enough, then only one image of the Emperor needs to be put on it, as this image will be able to be seen looking to the left on one side of the coin, and to the right on the other… Perhaps that will make him happy.”

The Master again went to work and hammered and stretched the gold until it was so thin you could almost see through it.  He carefully embossed the Emperor’s image on a coin, and lo and behold!  The image appeared on the backside looking in the opposite direction.  “Ah-ha! This should please him!” regaled the Master.

The next morning the Master took a few coins and went to the palace to present them to the Emperor.  “Well, let’s see your handiwork!” exclaimed the Emperor.  While inspecting the coins he marveled at his images, raised and boldly looking right on one side, and indented and looking left on the other. “Marvelous!  There’s just one of me, but doing two things at once!  I love it! Proceed to issue these from the Mint as soon as possible.”

The Master did as he was instructed, “striking” as many new coins as he and his apprentices could manage.  They bagged them and began to circulate them.

Very quickly but very quietly there arose a problem.  The merchants, left with no other choice, found it difficult to count out the coins, or to verify a count upon receiving them, but persevered.  Citizens, on the other hand, were much more realistic.

“Look at these ‘coins!’  They certainly aren’t worth much because they have no weight to them.  They are so thin they crumble and tear, if I can ever find them in my purse.  These Two-faced Emperors are worthless as currency.”

The shrewd, however, collected enough coins to melt into more substantial black market currency, while the not so shrewd simply shoved them in an old crock.

The Emperor never knew.

Now, back to reality and the point: some things just cannot be separated without major difficulties.

Often when we selfishly want something we choose to ignore the surroundings and the obvious.  And the unintended consequences.

It is an interesting and informative exercise to ask the following questions:

What do you call the backside of a coin or paper currency?

Most likely you will hear answers such as, “backside,” “tails,” or “reverse.”

Then ask,

What is the front side called?

You will most likely hear, “front,” “face,” or “heads” (for a coin), as typically there is someone’s face (or head) printed or embossed on it.

Finally ask,

That is the common name, but what is the original and technically correct name for this side?

Usually you get a long pause and the scratching of heads.  Few people know.

While we easily recognize the backside of a coin or bill as the Reverse side (easily remembered because that’s also what we call the gear that makes a car (or any vehicle) go backwards), we don’t recognize the true name of the front as the Obverse side.  (Many people might assume that this word is a synonym for Reverse that has fallen out of usage.)

And perhaps we should be grateful at that, because with the advent of motor vehicles we have also changed reverse (a noun, the backside of a coin or other object) into reverse (a verb, to drive a vehicle backwards, or change directions).  Consider the oddity of sticking to the original Latin terms and having to put the car into Obverse to go somewhere (a verb, to go forward).

How does this relate to freedom and responsibility?  Very glad you asked.

Freedom and Responsibility are inevitably bound, like the two faces of a coin.  You cannot separate them, cannot have one without the other.

Our cultural issue is that we’ve put the emphasis on freedom so much that we’ve begun to ignore the responsibilities that must go with it.

After all, it’s foundational to our values.  “Life, liberty (i.e., freedom), and the pursuit of happiness” is in the Declaration of Independence.  THAT we remember, without fail. That American citizens would take up the duties and responsibilities for the common good that go with these values is assumed by the authors.  The word itself does not appear.

So, the unintended consequence?  The word Freedom has become so frequently used (and misused) that it in fact has become just like the legacy word “Reverse,” which became the most commonly recognized label that, consider this, actually describes the back-or least important side of a coin.  By usage we’ve made Freedom, which is the desirable result of practicing Responsibility, the more important thing, standing alone, forgetting its obverse.

The inseparable “obverse” for Freedom?  That’s Responsibility.  The front, first, and most important face of the duo.  In other words,

First demonstrate Responsibilities, and then enjoy Freedoms.

Choice is a gift, and Responsibility is a choice. It comes first.  Having demonstrated one can handle Responsibility appropriately, freedoms can follow.  Not the other way around.

With that in mind, it should be easy to recognize some consequential cultural behaviors that scream this ‘reprioritizing by omission’ loud and clear:

  • Adolescents who boldly proclaim, “It’s a free country, I can do what I want.” (Yeah, been there, done that, and subsequently had to deal with that.  It’s parenting.)
  • Supposed adults who proclaim the same thing, and then behave like it (see below).
  • On a specific cultural note, our aversion to taxes –
    • While we remember that one of the motivations for founding this country was “No taxation without representation,” we actually only remember the first part, “No taxation.” We have de-emphasized the importance of representation (the more important obverse or first part of the demand) to mere insignificance.  We do have representation* now, we just still complain about taxes being too high.
      (*but only if they agree with our views);
    • We ignore that the actual US tax rate per capita is among the lowest among all developed countries;
    • As one consequence of this attitude, a recent investigation showed that it would take about 80 years to fix the neglected bridge infrastructure (~48,000 bridges) in the US, if tax monies were allocated. (Remember the 2007 Interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis?  By the way, 80 years is longer than it took to originally build them.)

A few other observations about Freedom and Responsibility:

  • For a bit of irony and backhanded support, Australia’s new (2019) $50 banknote has a typo. The yellow denomination, which had 46 million notes printed before the error was discovered, misspells the word, “responsibility.”  (Apparently they will still circulate them, figuring no one will notice.)
  • The Internet was envisioned as a neutral platform to be able to disseminate facts and information. How did it get so broken and misused?  How did the web become a force for extremism, fake news, corporate greed, and tyranny?  Crazy/Genius, a podcast series from The Atlantic, “probes these questions, beginning with the “shape-shifting concept of privacy” in which we ponder the realization that privacy apparently used to mean to a lot of people the guarantee of acting in freedom w/o responsibility (unless you were mature), and now this acting has spilled over onto the Internet.”  (It will be enlightening to pursue in a later post just why we do this.)
  • In a related situation, the apparent disconnect between freedom and responsibility also pops up here: White House declines to back Christchurch call to stamp out online extremism amid free speech concerns.  (The reasoning, apparently, if that it will interfere with the Freedom of (irresponsible) Speech.)
  • I realize this might be touchy (and some might say condescending and over-generalizing, but I didn’t write the linked article): Here’s how many millennials get help from their parents to pay rent and other bills.  The common observation is that they “Can’t afford their current life-style w/o help,” which then begs an inquisitive person to inquire, what’s the missing obverse of this life-style?  Why does it sound like there is more valuing Freedom (to live) over Responsibility (to live responsibly)?  But then,
  • Consider, that the de-emphasis on societal responsibility versus “freedom to maximize earnings” on behalf of everyone else in society has led to the economic conditions experienced by the millennials above (and a larger swath of society).

I wonder if all this naturally flows from the human condition of default (lazy) binary thinking (i.e., either/or): we grab a hold of the outcome, freedom, forgetting there is the connected ongoing process to retain it, responsibilities.

The progress of this mode of thought seems clear enough: freedom is something for me; responsibilities I have to perform for someone else.

All this leads to a greater emphasis on Individualism (which we also recognize is a strong if not dominant American value, but which actually originated during the Renaissance).  In Individualism, we lose, abandon, or abdicate focus and strong accountability to a utilitarian greater good and in its stead substitute accountability to a special interest good (often self), for which the benefit to the greater overall good is either negative or zero.

A subsequent unintended consequence is that when we, as social beings, necessarily choose to create social organizations and systems to permit us to mingle together for mutual and common benefit, the only choices we have to mingle with are other people (many of whom exhibit the behaviors described above).

Then we end up with a situation where our organizations and systems are neutral but screwed up by a minority of people.  How much flak have politics, government, the church, capitalism, socialism, business, unions, and even families and marriage directly taken while ignoring the inadequacies of certain people involved?

Finally, what is more interesting and potentially more worrying, is this is an apparent underlying shift in the central focus of our societal values.  The shift is there, but it is unarticulated because it is not fully recognized.  Or it is just simply politically incorrect.

About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 04: Games People Play, 10: Integrity, 12: Character, 13: Values & Self, 14: Behavior, 16: Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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