Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Belief vs. Action

Some people think that freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion give them the right to say or do pretty much whatever they want. However, these freedoms are not absolute. The most common example given is that you can’t yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

But it goes deeper than that.

Freedom of belief is absolute. You can believe whatever you want and no one has the right to make you say otherwise. If you want to believe that people with green skin are inferior to you, no one can stop you. If you want to believe that only those who agree with your religious views will be saved, then go ahead.

The difficulty arises when people begin to act on those beliefs. Speech is a form of action. So is assembly. So are myriad other activities, all of which affect society in some way.

We live in communities and thus must abide by the principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (or the one), unless the many feel the need to harm the few or the one, in which case we are justified in fighting back.

That’s why our Republic is so important. It protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. At least it ought to.

And yet too often we impose our “way” on others. We tend to believe that you’re either with us or you’re against us. We see the world in black and white, yes and no, right and wrong, dismissing the shades of gray, the nuances that make up reality.

Requiring others to convert to your religion harms them. You may not believe it to be harm because you believe they are now saved, but you have harmed them just the same. Demanding others believe what you believe causes damage.

Sometimes that damage is justified. For example, requiring others to enter into democracy when they have endured a dictatorship for decades will cause harm in the short-term because the iron hand is all some of these people know. But over time, most of them will be better off.

So when can we act? When can we be certain we are doing right? The plain truth is that we can’t. That’s why caution is so important. I wish we were a little slower to act, a little more deliberate. We rush to judgment because we seek to understand, but that desire often leads us to a flawed knowledge, an untruth we cling to as if it were absolute.

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