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Community / Althing debate tackles concept of freedom

Saturday's Althing debate heard Ryan Taylor and John Smith (left) speaking for there motion and Moraig Lyall and Donald Anderson (right) arguing against. The debate was chaired by Stephen Leask. Photo: Sarah Cooper for Shetland News

APPROXIMATELY twenty people gathered at Lerwick Town Hall on Saturday evening for a philosophical and spirited debate run by Althing Social Group: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

The topic comes from the song Me and Bobby McGee written by Kris Kristofferson and originally performed by Roger Miller. However, its most famous iteration was sung by Janis Joplin, released posthumously in 1971.

Councillor for Lerwick North and Bressay, Stephen Leask, chaired the evening while John Smith and Ryan Taylor spoke in favour of the motion. Moraig Lyall and Donald Anderson were against.

Smith opened the evening, going into the history behind the song, and also discussing the idea of freedom itself, saying: “Freedom is an incredibly powerful concept.” It’s been a hot topic of discussion for centuries.

His argument took us through philosophical meanings behind the word freedom, posing the question: “Is freedom inside you, or all around you?” He quoted Socrates and Aristotle, and the various definitions of freedom through the years and how society’s version of ‘freedom’ has changed through time.

Smith stated: “All we ever do is exchange one set of arrangements for another – becoming more encumbered in the pursuit of freedom.”

However, Smith also highlighted that freedom could mean different things to different people. For some, it comes in the form of security and stability, while in others it can mean pursuing and achieving goals. It’s a subjective concept that also comes with its own set of limitations.

Lyall, a councillor for the Shetland Central ward, spoke next, taking the floor to argue against the motion while she demonstrated that freedom comes with negatives too, saying: “In exercising freedom there is loss. An employee can walk out of a job, but lose their income. A prisoner getting out of jail regains freedom but loses security, a bed, and three meals a day.”

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Her argument primarily focused on freedom at a global and national level, going down the political route, arguing that instances like the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit votes were examples of different people viewing freedom differently, as both arguments split the country down the middle.

Lyall also drew attention to US president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘four freedoms’ speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

She highlighted that freedom of speech came with negative consequences too, and at points in history could have meant death for treason. Bringing it round to current world events, Lyall added: “How do you condemn the current actions of the Israeli government without being accused of antisemitism?”

Moving on to freedom of worship, Lyall drew attention to the fact that not every country has the freedom to worship their own religion, and that being a Christian in North Korea is “effectively a death sentence”.

For the final two points ‘freedom from want and fear’ Lyall brought up climate change, political instability, and highlighted Roosevelt’s own hypocrisy as he set up Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War Two that held around 120,000 Japanese prisoners.

Looking at personal freedom, Lyall stated: “People have the choice to hope or despair, perhaps it is choice and the freedom to make choices that makes us human.”

Finishing up her argument, she said: “Freedom is invaluable, essential, and must be held in high-esteem. Let’s have none of this nonsense that freedom is just another word – freedom matters.”

Shetland Times deputy editor Ryan Taylor spoke in favour of the motion next. He opened by discussing the very fact that this debate was not about right or wrong, it was not black or white, but rather a multi-faceted philosophical topic. He said: “History has shown us a whole host of stories where people made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom.”

Taylor drew inspiration from The Shawshank Redemption in which character Brooks Hatlen’s life fell apart after leaving prison leading him to take his own life, quoting the film: “In here he was somebody, out there he was nothing.”

He added: “Freedom was all he had to lose.”

Continuing, Taylor stated that everyone in the room had the freedom to choose which side to vote for, and also questioned what people do with their freedom. He said: “Freedom may bring liberty and equality, but it also brings hardship.”

Finally, Anderson closing the debate for the evening, stated that he felt Lyall’s arguments were so good he “felt free to leave”.

He argued that as part of modern society we trade in our freedoms in exchange for being provided for by the government, choosing to work and contribute to society. He drew attention back to the song Me and Bobby McGhee and highlighted that some of the lyrics in the song reference having nothing means being free.

Anderson gave, what several audience members said was the most compelling argument of the night, stating: “If you have freedom, even if you have nothing else, you can still lose that.” Arguing that the inherent act of having freedom meant there was something to lose.

He brought attention to the colonisation of the Americas, stating how the native populations lost everything – their culture, their way of life – when the colonisers arrived. He finished by saying: “Even if you don’t have freedom, you have your life.”

After the interlude Anderson took to his guitar for a small musical interlude singing a rendition of the famous song which had audience members joining in.

The floor opened up for questions, with some audience members discussing Nelson Mandela coming out of jail and being called ‘a free man’, while discussion also turned to Rosseau’s concept of the social contract, a theory that states people are free when governed by their own laws.

At the end of the evening eight people voted for the motion, nine against and four remained undecided, giving Lyall and Anderson the win with just one vote.

The next Althing debate takes place on Saturday 16 March, with the topic: “The school year is too short”.

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