Friday, April 24, 2015

Degrees of Freedom

Degrees of Freedom

Part of my engineering education was to learn that objects can be described as having various degrees of freedom.  An ant crawling along a straight wire could be described as having one degree of freedom.  Crawling on a flat surface would give him two degrees of freedom.  And crawling around on a basketball gives him three degrees.  For further degrees of freedom the math gets a lot more complicated, as does our ability to develop a picture of what’s going on.

When we talk about political, economic, or social freedom, things also get pretty complicated.  My grandson asked me, “Why don’t we just give everyone all the stuff they want?”  I think he  was trying to figure out a way to prevent people from stealing.  Sadly, even assuming we had the means to give someone unlimited amounts of money, objects, or resources,  we might find that what they really wanted was to steal something.  I’ve seen stories of very wealthy shoplifters.  It is likely that saving money was not their primary objective, even if they thought it was.

Of course we have laws that we hope will make it clear when someone is free to take something and when they aren’t.  We have other laws to communicate what other sorts of behaviors are o.k. and what aren’t.   I saw a police officer tell a demonstrator that if she blew a soap bubble and it floated over and hit him, that he could arrest her for assault.  Of course it is true that you cannot send projectiles towards police without having a pretty darn good reason.  However, blowing him a kiss instead of blowing him a bubble would be on the safer side of the boundary set by that law.  Tossing a knife could clearly land you in jail.  As for the soap bubble, well the criminal justice system would have to sort out if it was a valid arrest and an offense worth a penalty.  Oliver Wendell Holmes is quoted as saying, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."   I don’t want to nit pick what Justice Holmes had to say, but I am pretty sure that if I swing my fist within a millimeter of a policeman’s nose, I will have consequences to contend with, especially if the context is a confrontation.   Judgment would be required for soap bubbles, near miss punches, or even for a knife that slipped out of my hand while I was slicing a piece of pie for the officer.  That is precisely why we have judges.  It is also why video tapes or credible eye witnesses are nice to have, but don’t necessarily end an argument about what happened and how it should be dealt with.

Unfortunately, simple assault is often one of the easier offenses to judge.   We can up the ante quickly by changing the charge to assault with a deadly weapon (baseball bat, walking stick, hat pin?) or assault with intent to do serious bodily harm ( cracked skull, black eye, or bruised rib?).   Most of us can walk around feeling confident that we are operating well within our freedoms.  Even so, stuff happens.  I changed lanes and passed a police car, well within the speed limit.  However, in the officer’s mind I “cut him off”.  I guess he had intended to change lanes just as I passed him.  Too bad I didn’t guess his intent ahead of time, because he gave me a long, loud earful after pulling me over.  Then he told me I was such a loser that it wasn’t worth his time to write a ticket.  I didn’t follow his logic, but I just kept quiet anyway.

When police yell at you to stop, it is generally a good idea to stop.  However, you might be forgiven if you continued to move out of the way of an oncoming bus, and then stopped.  Beyond that we move into the realm of civil disobedience.  The cop says move, but  you are on public property, like the seat of a bus in the segregated south.  Rosa Parks decided she should not have to give up her seat (in the “colored section” of the bus) to a white passenger who had to stand. That’s civil disobedience. It had a lot of consequences.  These days she is seen far more as saint than sinner.  Sadly, I grew up in a time and place where the reverse was true.

Rosa probably knew she was pushing the limit when she said no to the bus driver that first asked her to move.  She surely knew she was in for a hard time when the bus driver got a cop.  Believe it or not, she was arrested and convicted.  The appeal process dragged on for over a year until  the U.S. supreme court decided that the segregation law she had broken was unconstitutional.  History has been defined as that which happened before you were born.  So for me, this is a current event (I was 5 years old), while for you it might be history.

Going back to my grandson, he might surmise that were we to eliminate all laws, we would eliminate all crime.  I suppose in a sense he is right.  However, crime free and peaceful aren’t necessarily the same thing.  One of my pet peeves is the saying “you can’t legislate morality”.  On the contrary, it is the only thing you can legislate.  What other reason could there be for a law besides an attempt to promote moral behavior?   Not only can you legislate morality, you ought to think long and hard about what is moral before legislating against it.  Passing a law  that black people must give up their seats to white people when the bus is full  would be an example of legislating immorality.  At least by standards these days in the U.S.  I can go along with the idea that one need not always legislate morality.  The problem is that morals change from person to person, but the law is intended to be the same for everyone.  So we need to be pretty choosy about what we commit to law.

Fortunately there are plenty of things that we can agree on as being both immoral and illegal.  Rape, murder, robbery, and a host of others.  Unfortunately, passing a law doesn’t mean that people will stop doing those things.  It only means that they can be arrested and given a penalty for doing them.  Agreeing on suitable penalties seems to be even harder than deciding on what should be against the law.  And again, judgment is required.  No law can spell things out so clearly that the exact same penalty would be suitable for every transgression of a given law.

So back to degrees of freedom.  We have lots of degrees of freedom when we operate way inside boundaries of law, morality, and customs.   How big that space is that we can easily operate within depend a great deal on the time and place where we live.   Fortunately, most of us can discern the safe space most of the time.  But for those who transgress, whether knowingly or not, big trouble can result.  There are a number of things that can interfere with a person’s ability to judge whether their behavior is acceptable.  Simple ignorance of local custom can be a problem.  Having a beer in Saudi Arabia might seem innocent enough to those with little knowledge geography.  Walking around naked is pretty common stuff in some parts of the world, not so much in others.   Even the country may not be the issue. I can get by with a Speedo at the pool, but not in a courtroom.

Degrees of freedom is too simple a descriptor for human behavior.  We are judged on direction, distance, intent, and more.  Americans in particular seem to think in terms of more freedom as better.  However, they are pretty quick to change their mind when the direction, distance, or intent of someone else’s actions annoy them.  A curmudgeon in my neighborhood legally discharges a firearm from time to time (I live in the country).  However, lately it seems that he is much more likely to pop one off when his neighbors walk closer to his property line than he likes.  This is a real, ongoing issue.  Not easily resolved.  And it is only one of many such things that come to mind when I think about people getting annoyed with one another.

I am a big fan of freedom.  But as they say, it comes at a price.
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