Wikipedia uses an idea first put forth by John Stuart Mill to define liberty in two ways – the concepts of negative liberty and positive liberty. The former is the liberty from something, such as being protected from captivity, whereas the latter is the liberty to do something, such as the liberty to own property. Dictionary.com uses mostly the definition of negative liberty, which is how it is mostly used in every day language. And when I think of liberty, I know that’s what I normally think of – freedom from captivity, from coercion, from control, from confinement, from restraint.
When I really get into considering the idea of liberty, I realize that we Americans are incredibly lucky. For a lot of us, our biggest complaints are that our iPods aren’t charged, that True Religion jeans cost too much, that the government is spending too much money in one state and not enough in ours, that gas prices are too high, that traffic sucks. Some Americans (I hesitate to say “less spoiled Americans” or “more aware Americans” because that’s not necessarily the case) complain about how we’re destroying out environment, how gay marriage is illegal, how we’re relying too much on nonrenewable resources, etc. And I will admit that I’ve complained about those things, especially the illegality of gay marriage, the environment, and bad drivers. But, now that I’m out of the little bubble I spent my formative years in and out in the almost-real-world (as I call college – let’s face it, it’s still not “the real world”), I’m becoming increasingly aware that the reason that those are our biggest complaints is because of how lucky we are. We have so many freedoms in America that we don’t have to complain that the government is oppressive, that we’re being held in captivity, that we have to dress a certain way, that we’re limited to only one child, that we’re segregated by gender or race, that we’re not allowed to practice our religion in peace. We have all those things so we’ve been able to move on to other issues. But there are so many people out there in the world that don’t have that option – there are the cases of genocide going on in Darfur, the “honor killings” of women in the Middle East, the trafficking of humans from China, Thailand, Iraq, India, Nigeria, Guatemala, and other countries to be used as prostitutes, slaves, child soldiers, beggars, etc all over the world. It’s disgraceful that we can live in such a “forward-thinking society” and still think human trafficking, and genocide, and oppression are things we can afford to ignore.
So, I know we’re lucky as Americans. And we do have our problems at home to take care of – but, I think the American definition of liberty needs to become having the opportunity to help out the millions of people suffering all over the world. After all, they deserve the same liberties we’re already fortunate enough to have, right?