Open Éire Editorials: Vaccine Passports and the Nature of Freedom
“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”
The famous line, almost cliché, commonly attributed to Scottish knight and freedom fighter William Wallace. Though much quoted, it was more likely dreamt up by the scriptwriters of Braveheart than actually being Wallace’s last defiant battle cry before leading his men on a charge into an almost certain death at the hands of the English forces.
Nonetheless, it’s a line that says a lot in only a few words. Freedom, though we think of it in terms of wide open fields and happy smiling people, is really a state of mind. We view it as where we are and the possibilities open to us, but it is more what we are. If you have made a decision to live as a free human being, even death cannot take it away.
The issue of freedom is perhaps more important than at any other time in living memory. The world has been for the most part placed under severe restrictions for over a year now with the stated purpose of managing the Covid-19 pandemic. We face a future full of uncertainty, with daily news pumped out containing a barrage of various different graphs and figures, as well as warnings from figureheads in the worlds of politics and science about “variants”, “surges” and a myriad of other ominous threats.
There is of course the promise of a return to freedom, a way back to normal and a route back to the lives many people crave and miss via the introduction of a “vaccine passport” or as it has been rebranded a “Covid status certificate” or even “freedom passport”. Like many other phrases that we have seen plastered throughout headlines over the past year such as “social distancing”, it may be worth considering if the definition of the word “freedom” is being changed, or at least redeployed in a much different way.
Though the term “freedom passport” may conjure up the image of a person using a document to step out of the darkness, through a gate of some sort and into a wonderful bright world full of peace and possibilities, one must stop to think for a moment of the inherent contradiction it seems to contain. Though it is not quite as blunt as some of the examples Orwell gave in 1984 such as “freedom is slavery”, there seems to be an element here of Doublethink, the idea that you can put two diametrically opposed concepts together in one idea and have the listener accept it as valid.
After all, the nature of a passport implies that you are restricted in some way, that you will need this document to gain permission to pass, to reach another place or access a certain service. If you do not have this permission without the document you do not have full agency and ability to move without the blessing of a third party, you are not “free” in the truest sense of the word.
Of course, in some ways this is nothing new. In our daily lives we have always conformed to a number of legal and social contracts. A person cannot intentionally cause physical harm to others simply because they feel like it, without fear of the legal consequences. However the difference in this concept rests in the fact that it functions as an unwritten agreement, a general understanding that there is an obligation to live peacefully within society and that there will be consequences if this obligation is ignored.
The idea of “freedom passports” seems to turn this concept upside down. In this version of freedom we start off as unfree, limited by the fact that our human bodies and respiratory systems make us potential disease-carriers. In order to change this status we must prove that our health status is up to a standard determined by a third party. It flips the script: we are not born free to roam within the commonly accepted boundaries of society, but have to meet a certain standard of compliance to exist within it at all.
To better understand the problems associated with this, we must think of it in terms of boundaries. Though boundaries are undoubtedly healthy in any form of relationship be it personal, familial or societal, we must consider very carefully what boundaries are being offered to us by others in order to have these relationships, and if they can align with our own ideas of acceptable boundary.
Though a degree of compromise is equally important to these boundaries, it cannot be accepted without some kind of balance being achieved through negotiation. When this negotiation does not happen and one or both parties feel hard done by and not listened to there is usually only one outcome possible: one party dominates, the other submits to being told how to act, and resentment builds.
Though Mel Gibson’s quote in Braveheart may be fictional, there is a quote on a plaque at St. Bartholemew’s Hospital in the City of London, near the site of William Wallace’s execution at Smithfield. It is written there in Latin: “I tell you the truth. Freedom is what is best. Sons, never live life like slaves.”
It may be added to this statement that freedom is not only best, it is necessary for our relationships with each other, our society and, ultimately, ourselves, to survive and thrive.