Freedom's just another word for I can do whatever the hell I want… and it's a pretty popular concept in these parts.

Isn't that what all those fights for human rights over these past centuries have boiled down to? Our sense that each of us, as distinct individuals, possesses some divine right to lead our lives however we see fit?

I am a proud recipient of this freedom my historical predecessors have defined as a right. Just moments ago, I voted in the mid-term election at my local polling-place. Now, I sit at my computer in my home and relay my personal thoughts to you via the written word. This is one mere part of the larger career I've built for myself, all creatively-entrepreneurial-like, with no prior model of path-to-follow to follow. I am not stuck in an inherited caste, bound to reprise the same footsteps of my parents' parents' parents. I can basically come and go as I please, the main limiting factor being that thing we call money. Except for that pesky marriage-equality issue (which, if history is any indication, should eventually be resolved in favor of social justice), I'm privileged to lead a rather free life.

Freedom holds a particularly central role in the national imagination of my home country, the United States, where we have deployed this cherished value both as a unifying rallying-call in internal politics and a justification for our involvements (diplomatic and militaristic) in foreign matters. We Americans have often taken pride in how we proactively spread freedom (and its partner, democracy) to the far corners of the globe. Every citizen in the world should bask in the proliferation of free-choice we are blessed with, we tell ourselves. And thus many Americans, when they fear or suspect any smidgeon of this much-revered freedom is being impinged upon in the slightest, react with a rebellious call to 'protect our freedom!' at all costs.

But freedom to do what we want definitely does not mean we won't face consequences to our actions… and there are plenty of good reasons why we might voluntarily give up certain freedoms in order to reap other benefits which only arise from restraint and regulation, such as interpersonal respect or social programs that serve the broader collective good.

Freedom of speech, for instance, has gotten a lot of recent press from Tea Party folks who indignantly claim their right to speak out freely is being violated. Honestly, this one's had me scratching my head. I sincerely don't get it. If those Americans believe that freedom of speech also includes not being publicly disagreed with or criticized, they're obviously misunderstanding how it works. Expressing a viewpoint out loud automatically enters you into the marketplace of ideas, where others are equally free to pass judgment on you based upon what you've expressed. And if certain people find your viewpoint offensive or repellent, you might discover they no longer want much to do with you. Bridges may be burned, or trust lost.

So bearing that in mind, are you still free to speak out as you wish? Of course. However, if you are only concerned with espousing your beliefs or steering conversations where you want 'em to go—without pausing to consider who your audience is, how their unique life-experiences may have formed their ideas, and whether you are demonstrating due respect to them—then you're bound for a big surprise when you visibly piss somebody off (or, just as likely, turn their private opinion of you to 'negative'). Maybe it's not such a surprise, if you never really cared about them as fellow humans.

The ramifications of our communicative attitudes affect everything from explicit political dialogue (if two sides shouting over each other with talking-points already determined in advance by think-tanks as a 'dialogue') to the perfunctory social exchanges of our everyday life. And increasingly, in this country at least, our pervasive sense of entitlement to such freedom ('fuck you! I can do or say whatever the hell I want!) is wearing away the frayed threads of our social fabric. When opinions (on all sides) are permeated with ugly prejudices or factual untruths, it is much harder for those who are feeling attacked or misrepresented to enter a discussion likely to build respectful mutual understanding. Hell, we can barely ask somebody politely to take their cell-phone chats outside or to not dump their trash on the ground without risking some sort of indignant retaliation. Yet, we share this society with the service-workers we barely acknowledge or look down upon, the idiotic drivers we cut off or curse at, those so-called crazies who lack the education or political sophistication or faith we congratulate ourselves for.

When push comes to shove, when emergency strikes or bad economic times worsen, are we supposed to be looking out for our fellow citizens who couldn't bother to look us in the faces as they denigrated our race or gender or sexual orientation, who couldn't muster a 'please' or 'thank you' as we sold them their morning coffee or $300 pair of sunglasses, and who flat-out told us, through the words or actions their precious 'freedom' allows, they didn't give a rat's ass how their behaviors affected us?

Those who cry out against government's involvement in its citizenry's health care ('socialism!') are correct in identifying its implementation as an infringement on their freedom to buy or not buy health insurance—if , that is, they have the money to cover the ever-soaring premiums—as they see fit. As I understand it, the Obama 'compromise' makes it compulsory for Americans to purchase a health plan… much in the way that state laws require drivers to carry proof of current auto insurance. Nobody's been railing about the imposition on drivers' freedom to operate a potentially deadly weapon without the proper protection. That's because we all know that somebody has to cover the costs from possible accidents, and we rightly acknowledge it's the individual's responsibility.

Similarly, there are costs incurred as our bodies breakdown, temporarily and for good, more or less quickly or dramatically, as a result of our lifestyle choices, our economic lot-in-life and/or the divine hand of fate. None of us will escape intact. But to argue that government deserves no role in organizing how its citizens care for their health—while at the same time expecting it to step in to cover those who are uninsured or over a certain age—is to deny the fact that what individuals do in their own freedom-loving lives absolutely does impact the collective. And that the very suggestion government actually provide this care for everyone, a long-overdue and much-needed new benefit for American citizens, was twisted into the propagandist idea of something being taken away from us… well, it's a clear demonstration of how deeply blinding this unquestioned ideological deference to freedom can be.

Though we typically advocate on behalf of the opportunities it affords us, freedom, as an unchecked absolute, can be a dangerous impediment to successful relationship- and society-building. We cannot chase our own interests and gratifications all day long, unless we essentially check out of the relationships, personal and professional, civic and neighborly, that connect us to the larger group welfare. We inherently know this, or else we wouldn't accept the enforcement of laws or the collection of taxes. I for one don't mind paying my fair tax share, as long as it legitimately buys me some collective benefit, like roads and schools and social services. (No, trillion-dollar wars in far-off lands for corporate-profit purposes do not count.)

We casually refer to our most important familial, social and societal relationships as 'ties that bind'… a term typically used to attribute high value to those 'ties', though anything that 'binds' simultaneously restricts full freedom. In respect of these ties, we hold ourselves back from thoughtless selfishness, considering the impact on those we care about before proceeding. We might moderate or altogether avoid certain behaviors out of respect for our relationships, willingly sacrificing a personal liberty here or there on behalf of something we revere even more—the solidity of trustworthy connections with other people.

At my least patient, I fantasize about 'being left alone'… no more obligations to fulfill, hoops to jump through, or people to get along with. Even in the relationships that matter most, the negotiations required to ensure all parties' needs are met can be exhausting, the necessary compromises a burden. I resent the imposition on certain personal desires. Then, I think more deeply about what 'being left alone' would look like—nobody to laugh with or cry to, nobody to divide responsibilities or talk out ideas with, no collaborator or friend or lover or fellow aficionado to share life with. I would be free all right, only without the supportive safety-net of other people to lift me up when I'm down for the count, free to flail in my failings unassisted.

I guess we really do need each other… even if we have to give something up to get something better in return.