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Freedom and Responsibility

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: October 2016

The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. –William Arthur Ward

As we speed closer to the finish line of the presidential election of 2016, are you still paying attention to the news? I admit that I don’t want to miss a minute of the excitement and insanity. I grew up reading the newspaper every morning and it is still a favorite activity…or obsession, depending on your perspective.  

According to the Pew Research Center, I am part of a dwindling minority of Americans, just 2 in 10, who still read print newspapers. I continue to have the paper delivered every day, and just in case I have missed something, there are the online versions readily available on my desktop or mobile device.

Online news is convenient. The Pew researchers discovered that 38% of us read or watch the news online. Not surprisingly, the percentage is higher in younger age groups, with 50% of 18-29 year olds preferring this platform. Prior to the availability of news on the web, one of my favorite things about libraries was the ability to read multiple newspapers to get different perspectives on the same stories. Today, news from all corners of the globe is readily available at the click of a mouse or the swipe of a screen.

Like many other news-curious Americans, part of my routine also includes daily television news.  I almost hate to admit it, but I remember the days of Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. He is still remembered as the “most trusted man in America” and I’m not sure how many in the news business are held in that high esteem today.  Although I really miss Walter some days, the evolution of network news, cable news, and satirical news is a current event addict’s dream come true. I am glad to know that I am not alone, as 57% of Americans prefer to get their news from television.

To me, the 2016 presidential campaign has been a news gold mine: crazy, cringe-worthy, unpredictable, and at times, unbelievable. Yes, we live in a free and democratic society, and it is a beautiful thing. We also have a responsibility to exercise that freedom wisely, including our freedom of speech.  Sometimes that speech is inflammatory, and the exchanges are heated, angry, and divisive. How can that be good? Well, in a democratic process, shouldn’t we all continue to have a voice? Sometimes we may have to speak loudly in order to be heard. If the system works, as it has done for over 200 years, the people of this country have the final say on Election Day.

I know people who no longer follow the news because this presidential race, in particular, and world events in general, are too polarizing and upsetting. The news can be difficult to watch. Many heart-breaking and horrifying things in this world can make us feel anxious and powerless. Then there are two presidential candidates who make us shake our heads, wondering if this is truly the best leadership our country has to offer. At the same time, our representative democracy gives us the power to participate if we choose to do so, and to have a say in the process.  

Paying attention to the news gives us knowledge and perspective. I was taught to question what I read, or see on television, or now read or view on the internet. If we take in the available information, learn all we can about things that interest us and have an impact on us, and then form our own opinions, perhaps we have taken the necessary steps toward becoming informed citizens. The privilege of freedom to think and choose comes with a responsibility to inquire and learn.

In the last couple of weeks, I have been enjoying some of the fringe news outside of the daily political craziness. Have you read about Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature? The story initially caught my eye as a curiosity. Dylan is the first musician to be selected, and many are questioning the artistic value of his song lyrics. I am no expert on Bob Dylan, but I do know that his songs seem to speak to the human condition and he has long stood as a symbol of protest and social dissent. In that way, he is no different from the social commentators throughout history who wrote epic poems and novels rather than songs.

Here’s what Dylan has to say about freedom and responsibility:

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom. -Bob Dylan

This is from the man who has reportedly not responded to the Nobel Prize Committee, and one member has referred to him as “impolite and arrogant” for not publicly acknowledging the honor. Hey, the guy is 75; maybe he doesn’t read the news! Would it surprise anyone to know that social convention is still not “his thing”? Ultimately, he has the freedom to choose. The extent of his responsibility regarding the Nobel Prize is the subject of some intense online debate.

A couple of other news stories that you may have heard about from our local Maine outlets were things that you just cannot make up. For example, I am sure there is a good reason why a man dressed as a tree and obstructed traffic on Congress Street in Portland. Of course, these days, you can’t be too careful about intent. Was he a possible sniper? Protesting climate change? Campaigning for the Green Party and just being all clever about it? Too clever for me, if that’s it. And also for the Portland police, who arrested him in the interest of public safety, and I’m guessing, to keep him from harm. Ah, the beauty of a free society. Go green; just stay out of the road.

Then there was a woman in Falmouth who was recently arrested for stealing the political signs of one of the major party presidential candidates. Apparently, her rage and frustration over the presidential race got the best of her. This woman thought there were too many signs on Route 1 in Falmouth, and they made her angry.

The story was all over social media. Depending on your political leanings, the opinions of her actions differed drastically from heroism to treason. I don't know what the answer is, but stealing political signs doesn't seem like the responsible thing to do in a democratic society. Maybe she could, oh, I don't know, ignore the political advertisements that so annoyed her and try casting the vote to which she is entitled. Just a thought.

Ah, freedom and responsibility. If you want the first one, you really cannot ignore the other. Yes, you have your rights. And so do others. Self-righteousness and adult temper tantrums make people annoyed and uncomfortable. So what do we expect from each other in an inclusive, thoughtful society?

How about respect and accountability? Civil discourse, perhaps? These are all things that matter in our work and home environments as well. Netflix, for example, has built a corporate culture on the concepts of freedom and responsibility. Employees and citizens who feel empowered to make decisions and feel a sense of safety and hope will give their best to their organizations.

Children who grow up feeling heard and valued are more likely to grow up to be confident adults in control of their emotions. I really appreciate those who can entertain both sides of an argument without resorting to name-calling or vandalism. In fact, I am much more likely to consider a viewpoint that may not coincide with mine if it is presented rationally and thoughtfully.

As organizations, nations, and people grow and change, civility is never out of place. We will form our opinions, speak our truths, and agree to disagree. We can make our mistakes, laugh or despair at the other party's candidate, celebrate whom and what we love, cheer for our favorite teams, cast our votes, and still happily co-exist and keep moving forward. In fact, I believe it is our responsibility to do so.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at