Throughout my professional life, beginning as a classroom teacher, finishing as a school district CEO, I always believed in the wisdom of allowing people the freedom to make their own decisions, their own choices. It was difficult at times to put that belief into practise, and it did not always lead to happy outcomes, but I never lost faith.
The corollary to this belief was that those making the choices had to accept the consequences of their actions. Students who chose not to study generally received lower grades than those who did; employees who chose not to pursue professional development opportunities generally languished in comparison to their peers.
With both students and employees, I had to make hard decisions as to how I would grade their effort or evaluate their performance, and I, too, had to accept the consequences of my choices. Reluctant students received a failing mark—although always with the opportunity to try again, to learn from their poor choices. Teachers disinclined to improve of their own volition were instructed, provided assistance, and given time to do so; in cases where they proved unable or unwilling, their employment was terminated.
As a parent, I endeavoured to allow my own children to make choices along the way, but always stressing their responsibility to accept the consequences, and holding them to whatever those might be.
I was influenced in my thinking by the writings of Alfred Adler and John Stuart Mills, and Rudolf Dreikurs. This brief essay cannot give even a rudimentary outline of these men’s theories, but the effect of their thinking on my own actions was significant. Let me give an example from Dreikurs—
Dreikurs espoused that children behave inappropriately and make poor choices for four main reasons: a desire for attention; a need to obtain and hold power; a desire for revenge; to compensate for perceived inadequacy, the feeling that they are unworthy of anyone’s affection. All four are legitimate human emotions, but the behaviours by which they are manifested through the choices children make are often problematic.
Misbehaving children are discouraged children.
It was my job as a teacher to provide opportunities for every child to pursue socially-appropriate activities that would gain them positive attention and praise, that would allow them to feel some semblance of control of their environment, that would re-direct them from activities designed to ‘get even’ for real or imagined wrongs, and to ensure they would come to believe they were loving and capable individuals in their own right. And those opportunities had to encompass the academic, physical, social, and emotional needs of the children.
Today, many years into retirement, I have witnessed adults behaving in ways I consider socially-inappropriate during these long months of pandemic restrictions. It seems to me that many of them are seeking attention for themselves and their views—perhaps in the only way they know how—by pushing themselves loudly and forcefully to the front at every opportunity. We know our rights!
Others, I think, are looking to seize power from those they believe are currently wielding it, a power they view as compelling them to certain actions they believe it is their right to refuse. Power to the people!
Others, probably fewer in number, might be seeking payback from authorities they feel have done them wrong—big government, unfair employers, the radical lefties, the lunatic right-wing, the fake media, or any other perceived enemy. We’re not gonna take it anymore!
And some, I’m sure, are there simply because they have nowhere else to go but to a crowd that, if not understanding of them, is at least tolerant of their presence. Look! I’m one of you!
Mill wrote: The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. There are three key points here, I think. First, he was referring to a ‘civilized community’, which might be defined as one which has a well-developed system of government, culture, and way of life, and which treats all people living in it fairly, with due regard for the laws and customs of the community.
Second, Mill’s stance is that power resides by default with the individual in a community, but may be overridden when that individual behaves in a manner deemed harmful to others.
And third, there is an implicit understanding that the decision to act against an individual’s will is to be made by the community itself—i.e. the majority.
As I witness the current unrest in our land regarding various pandemic restrictions, it seems to me there is a need to exert the primacy of the common good over the various claims of disaffected members of the community, not as a primitive display of the power of the state, but to ensure the continued well-being of the community itself.
For example, perhaps the government should not mandate vaccines for all, even in the current climate. Not doing so would allow people to exercise their right, as they see it, to avail themselves of a vaccine or not. Free choice for every individual.
But the government should ensure there are consequences for the choices people make—logical consequences. I don’t believe a person who has the right to refuse to be vaccinated (a right which I support) should also have the right to attend in-person, congregant venues and events, or to partake of non-essential services, where their choice might place others in danger. That impinges on everyone else’s right to a safe, healthy living environment.
It is entirely logical, I submit, that such venues and services should require proof of vaccination from those wishing to take part. For everyone, then—those folks who choose not to be vaccinated, and those who do—the consequences will be clear in advance. Choice A leads to Consequence B; Choice C leads to Consequence D. Informed decisions are almost always better decisions.
[I note, as an aside, that in jurisdictions where such proof of vaccination rules have already been put in place, the number of people who choose to be vaccinated has risen—surely a benefit to the entire global community.]
In any case, absent a mandate for everyone to be vaccinated, people desiring attention will still get it by proclaiming their decision to their family and friends, and on social media. Those in search of power will still find it by exercising their inalienable right to make their own decision about vaccinations with no coercion either way. Those who would seek revenge of some sort if forced to be vaccinated can still remain unvaccinated. And those who feel inadequate, incapable of making such a momentous decision, can prevail upon family and friends to help them decide.
The concept of free choice has never meant freedom to do as one wants without consequences. As surely as night follows day, every decision a person makes has an impact on someone—somehow, somewhere. And that consequence, if it’s logical, can be a force for good.
The nascent teacher in me still believes it is possible to help people learn this quaint notion.