Amid varied visions of freedom, believe the best about other person’s motives

Especially during this election season, we hear how one group or another is trying to maintain our freedoms. The group that is making this claim often quotes a great constitutional scholar or Founding Father. And before long one person’s freedom is another’s imprisonment. This can go on for a very long time with no resolution in sight.

One frequent example of conflicting freedoms is the discussion around immigration. Those who fear the destructive power of a rogue immigrant who may choose to do our country harm may argue that all immigrants must be thoroughly investigated before being allowed into the country. And because this cannot be a guarantee that no immigrant will try to harm U.S. interests, many argue no immigrants should be allowed into this country if they come from certain countries or regions. The immigrants’ freedoms are restricted to ensure those already living here are free from worry about being attacked.

On the other hand, there are those who argue the immigrants’ rights to freedom do not necessarily mean people in this country are in danger. There are those who argue it is important to allow as many immigrants into this country as possible because we already have sufficient safeguards to protect ourselves. Even if one or two terrorists slip through, this is the price of freedom.

What about local conflicts about freedom? There is the conflict between a person’s right to mow his lawn as early in the morning as light will allow and a person’s right to sleep undisturbed. What about an organization’s right to mark some event with noise that is potentially disturbing to people in the area? And should demonstrators have the freedom to inconvenience others as they show their support for an idea or organization?

As you will note, freedoms often collide with one another. In a free society this is inevitable. So what makes it possible for such a society to function and not get gridlocked by these conflicts over freedoms? I believe there are a few basic tenets to working through such conflicts. Many of these have been forgotten in our contentious society.

First and foremost, assume the other has the best intentions. Then make an effort to see what the needs of the other are based on his or her expression of his or her freedoms. Begin and continue to discuss how the two or three conflicting freedoms can be resolved. Be ready to compromise. None of us gets everything we want.

Do not use name calling or calling into question the other’s intentions. Even if the other is not honest or has hostile intentions, calling this out will not allow continued discussion. Simply being aware of these issues will allow you to focus on resolution.

There was a tenet of nuclear disarmament negotiations that was important to achieving resolution of disputes when both parties did not trust the other. It was called trust and verify. The idea was to trust what the other was saying but have mechanisms in place to verify what was promised.

Most everyone’s freedoms are valid. And we need to accept this if we are to more easily resolve conflicts internationally and locally. Our current way of resolving conflict is going to lead us into worsening deadlock.

So when you feel the need to adopt a winner-take-all attitude or you distrust what another group or individual intends, remember to know others’ freedoms can be different from yours and they are valid just the same. Let freedom ring.

Jim Matthews is a long-time resident of Greenfield. You may share your comments at