Positive freedom vs. negative freedom: what are your dreams on Martin Luther King Day?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, and by now hopefully most of us have heard the famous speech where he explained that magnificent vision. We have dreams, too, every one of us. Not all of our dreams are lofty and worthy, though. Not all of our dreams make the world a better place. Some of our dreams are shallow and selfish, and unfortunately we share this planet with too many whose dreams are hateful, destructive, evil. This is one of the reasons why MLK Day is so important: it’s one day each year where we are reminded of the enlightening, uplifting, ennobling power of a human’s ability to dream.

Today, Scholars & Rogues honors the memory of Dr. King by asking our readers to reflect on their own dreams. What do you dream of? Why do you have this dream? What impact do your dreams have on your family, your friends, your community, your country, your world? If you had a magic wand and could wave it only once, what principles, what morals, what ethical codes would shape the pictures in your head as you formulated your wish? If the circumstances of life afforded you the opportunity to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and address 200,000 of your fellow citizens, what would you say to them?

If you feel so led, I hope you’ll share your answers to these questions in the comments. Meanwhile, here’s how I’d answer.

I have a dream that one day all children born in America will have the opportunity to achieve to the fullest extent of their ability, unhindered by the constraints of class or socio-economic status. I want everyone to have something like the chance that I had, only more.

When I was three years old my parents divorced and I was handed off to my father’s parents to raise. Samuel Linville and Helen Marshall Smith had grown up through the Great Depression and knew what it was to have no opportunity. They knew what it was to work long, hard hours for not much money. The fact that my grandmother was a polio victim who spent her entire life on crutches or in a wheelchair didn’t make things easier. Their reality was straightforward and closed-ended: you worked, you saved, you scraped by, and you accepted your lot in life. You may have been born with the innate intelligence and capability to be a doctor or a university professor or a business leader, but the realities were that you probably weren’t going to get much past foreman or secretary. There were exceptions, but they were just that – exceptions.

Sam and Helen knew that their three year-old grandson’s chances in life, his chances at a better life than they had known, hinged on education. In truth, our cultural context dictates our sense of what is possible, so while they knew what a doctor was, obviously, they had no tangible insights into what precisely went into becoming one. And they certainly had no concept of “marketing consultant” or “Vice President of Communication.” They just knew the struggle of their own lives, and they didn’t want that for me.

So they made sure that I understood how important school was. They forged a home environment where things like playing and sports and watching TV happened if, and only if, the homework was done and I was making good grades. In my house an A- led, as predictably as a lightning flash foretells thunderclap, to the following words: “why didn’t you make an A?”

When people asked me about the future when I was five years old, I told them that next year I’d start school at Wallburg Elementary. Then I was going to Ledford High School. And then I was going to college. A year later I was even more specific – I was going to Wake Forest. Right – a snot-nosed little working class kid from the North Carolina outback had college as an ingrained assumption before he began first grade. (Grand)parental support? You bet.

I did well in school. Along the way I encountered a couple of opportunities that made earth-shaking, life-changing differences. One was debate, which taught me information processing and rhetorical skills that provide me an edge literally every day of my life. The second was an English teacher who helped me understand a faculty for literature and words that I didn’t know I had. Some of you know this teacher – S&R’s very own Dr. Jim Booth.

Still, support and hard work only take you so far, and Sam and Helen didn’t have the money to send me to college. The money they had been setting aside each month since I was three wouldn’t pay for a semester at a good school. But I managed – because I had worked hard and profited from things like debate and English – to earn a scholarship from the George Foster Hankins Foundation to attend Wake Forest. This was augmented by awards from the Federal government (this is now known as the Pell Grant program).

At Wake I had spectacular professors, like Dr. Edwin Wilson (for “Blake, Yeats and Thomas”) and Dr. Jerry Burger (a Social Psych superstar who let me work with him and be second author on a study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin). Dr. Hamrick’s Old Testament class was a tsunami slamming into my understanding of what religion was. Medieval Drama, Modern Drama (and English Comp) with Dr. Nancy Cotton built on the foundation that Dr. Booth had poured in high school. Research Methods with Dr. Beck was a hateful three hours a week, but when I was through I by god knew how to evaluate statistics and claims about research results. And on and on. I also made friends who continue to be among my closest confidants in life even today (hi John, Jeff)…

Nobody in my family had ever earned a Bachelor’s, but my Wake experience propelled me on to an MA and eventually a PhD. My grandparents didn’t live to see it, but I can’t help thinking they’d have been proud.

My career has been more successful than it was possible to imagine growing up – I have literally accomplished things in areas I didn’t know existed. I haven’t come anywhere close to fulfilling my ultimate potential, though, and I know it. The combination of smart genes, a homelife that prioritized education, financial support (including government programs) and a string of teachers and professors who were committed to changing the equation of student lives added up to a real shot, the kind of shot that almost nobody in my old neighborhood had. I have fallen short at times due to bad decisions on my part, or a lack of effort and focus, and frequently because for one reason or another I failed to effectively make the case that I deserved a particular chance more than the other guy did. I accept my share of the responsibility for my shortfalls.

That said, my dream statement above notes “the constraints of class or socio-economic status” for a reason. While I have not fully capitalized in places, it is also true that our society (like most societies) awards and denies opportunities based on criteria that have nothing to do with ability. The poor can’t afford the cost of opportunity. Women are closing the gap, but continue to fight discrimination that restricts their ascent in any number of professional environments. Blacks, Latinos and working class whites lack the old-boy connections that are often needed for platinum access to America’s serious opportunities (many of us probably know people who were born on third and live life thinking they hit a triple). There is no question that I have lost jobs, for instance, to less qualified candidates who had better connections. There is nothing about my case that makes it special, either – the dynamic I’m describing is the rule for countless millions who spend their lives dramatically underutilized by their society.

This is a tragedy for them and it’s a tragedy for us, because when someone with the potential to be a brilliant scientist winds up further down the food chain, we all miss out on the innovations that person might have effected. We the People are less than we ought to be.

Americans love talking about “freedom,” and we all think we know what the word means. In truth, though, freedom comes in a couple of types and the type we focus on here in the US sells our dreams short as a matter of design. The sort of freedom that we’re so proud of is also known as negative liberty. In a nutshell, negative liberty means nobody is overtly stopping you from doing something. If you want to be a doctor, the government isn’t telling you that you can’t. The rich guy across town isn’t expending any effort trying to keep you out of grad school. Etc.

Positive liberty focuses on your capacity for actually achieving your goals, though. If you want to be a doctor and you can’t afford medical school, and there are no programs that can assist you, are you really free to be a doctor? Another analogy: say you’re in the water. Nobody is trying to drop a cinder block on your head to drown you – that’s negative freedom. You’re free to swim. You’re free to climb out of the water. But not trying to drown you is a very different thing from throwing you a life preserver and helping you out, isn’t it? As Erich Fromm pointed out, there is a distinction between “freedom from” and “freedom to.”

Today in America vast numbers of people revel in their freedom because nobody appears to be directly interfering with them. However, their lives are shaped by a variety of political and economic structures that systematically dictate what is, if not possible and impossible, then what is likely and what is unlikely, plausible and implausible, probable and decidedly improbable. In point of fact, these people have precisely zero positive liberty. (More detailed analysis of positive and negative liberty are available from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Thanks to the factors I describe below, I found some positive freedom in my life and have been grateful for the opportunities that emerged from it. I can’t stress enough, though, the one critical element in the mix: that scholarship money. Without it, I have no idea where I’d be right now or what I’d be doing. But I assure you, I cold not have afforded a top-flight education without it, even if I had worked my butt off to raise the funds (and I did work all through college, even as it was).

So my dream, as we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., is that America will someday be a land of equal opportunity, of vast, boundless opportunity. In this land of positive liberty, we will be free to pursue our limitless potential as a culture and we will be free from those who twist our definitions of freedom in cynical ways designed to keep us in our place serving selfish interests to the exclusion of the society’s best interests.

Happy MLK Day. We’ll conclude with two speeches that every American ought to know.


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