On this Memorial Day, somewhere between the parade and the burgers, many are taking time to observe those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms. The fundamental freedoms - speech, conscience, religion, the press, expression, association, and assembly - are the bedrock of our society.
Or are they?
In the United States and around the world, our democratic values of "life, liberty, and justice for all" face direct and dire threats. Millions of people fear persecution, discrimination, and degradation for their religious beliefs, their race, their sexual orientation or gender identity. In some states, women are denied the right to reproductive health care. In others, books are being banned and curricula is being censored. In some countries, authoritarian governments deny the right to protest or a free press or freedom of thought. Some fear for their lives because of gangs or poverty. Others fear for their lives simply because they look or think differently.
Consider the rise in antisemitism. Beyond the deadly synagogue attacks, it is not hard to see the frightening proliferation and normalization of anti-Jewish hate - from anonymous antisemitic tropes to white supremacists marching openly through the streets. More dangerous than Nazis carrying torches and proudly chanting, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ is the incognizance and indifference to it.
Wunderman Thompson, an international research firm, found that more than half of Americans "don't think Jewish hate is a major issue," and 45% believe Jewish people are “more than capable of handling issues of antisemitism on their own.”
While it’s easy to dismiss antisemitic expressions as insensitive or inappropriate, it’s important to remember that the Holocaust wasn’t created in the camps. It was conceived in the hatred of words, stereotypes and prejudice – and fueled by the collective indifference to them. This is the same indifference that normalizes and perpetuates xenophobia, racism, homophobia, bigotry, and sexism.
The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference. In the words of Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, “Indifference is the most insidious danger of all.” Silence encourages the haters, emboldening them with implied permission.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt crafted the State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress. In this address, he laid out the Four Freedoms, which read:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression— everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
In these words, President Roosevelt did something so simple and yet so profound—he asked Americans to assume the responsibilities of freedom. “We the People” means that my freedom depends on your freedom. Protecting my freedoms requires that I protect yours. In other words, we implicate ourselves in the discrimination of our fellow human beings.
The freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to listen.
The freedom of belief comes with a responsibility to accept.
The freedom from want comes with a responsibility to give.
And with the freedom from fear comes with a responsibility to act.
So, as you think about those freedoms you hold dear, I urge you to take inventory of the responsibilities that come with them. And the next time you witness prejudice, discrimination, degradation, or hate, what will you do? Will you stand by with indifference? Will you be complicit in your silence? Or will you stand up and defend "we the people"?