To the Editor:

The comments by Mr. Bender in Saturday’s paper about how he was standing up for his personal freedom when he refused to wear a mask at a school board meeting seem to me to reflect two types of misunderstanding about how we should understand personal freedom and rights.

The first misunderstanding is that he (or any individual) is the sole judge of what limits might be justified on his personal freedom and rights. Any functioning society requires procedures for determining when one person’s freedom needs to be limited in some way for the health, safety and rights of others. People are not free to drive at high speeds on city streets because that infringes on the right of others to be safe. I doubt that Mr. Bender would think that I had a right to stand in front of him and cough in his face. Obviously we might disagree on when anyone’s freedom needs to be limited. But that cannot be settled merely by having some people claim that their own freedoms are the only ones which count.

There is another way in which I think the claim of personal freedom is often misunderstood in our society. In my own religious tradition, St. Paul has several statements about how Christians should understand freedom in relation to others. At one point, he tells some of his followers that, while certain actions may be allowable as expressions of freedom, if they create a stumbling block for some others, consider not engaging in such actions. At another point, while commenting on the nature of Christian love, he says that love does not insist on its own way. I do not read either of these statements as prohibiting claims of personal rights and freedoms. But I do think they caution us to be very conscious of the needs and perspectives of others when we consider making such claims.

I wear a mask not because I have to, but because doing so is a way of showing concern for many others who may be harmed physically or psychologically if I don’t.

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Dave Mitchell