Freedom From Compulsion 

Freedom From Compulsion

Prominent in this week's local news have been two notable circumstances -- the primary elections for local countywide offices, which have been accompanied here and there by the usual o tempora! o mores! rhetoric decrying low voter turnout and an apathetic citizenry, and the surprise action by an 8-to-1 vote of the Memphis school board to institute a mandatory uniform policy for all public school students, grades K through 12. We are going to be somewhat out of lockstep on both counts.

First of all, the freedom to vote in America is very much on the same order as our constitutionally protected freedom of religion. Stress is on the word "free." Each of us is free to practice this or that religious creed or not to do so, as our consciences dictate. The electoral franchise is, in our view, quite similar.

The right to be counted on matters of governance and other important public issues is guaranteed to all American citizens, regardless of sex, race, or political persuasion or any other factor save the common-sense ones of age, residence, or felonious conduct. No one, however, is required to vote; the supposition of our forebears, we like to think, was that those citizens who were informed on public matters and interested in the manner of their resolution had the right to influence the shape of them. Let us not deceive ourselves: Not all who vote can be considered "informed" by any stretch of the imagination. It is a fact requiring no labored proofs that votes are often cast on the basis of whims, misinformation, and just plain folly. They are not -- at least in theory and, for the most part, surely, in practice -- cast on the basis of any sort of compulsion.

Voting was mandatory in the republics of the late, unlamented Soviet Union, and failure to cast a ballot there was, presumably, dealt with severely. Those "elections" were sham exercises, of course, and not just for the reason that choices in most cases were limited to a single candidate. By definition, the exercise of free will cannot be made mandatory.

In 1991, Memphis voters came to the polls in record numbers to express their sense of whether the mantle of power should be shifted to a chief executive of African-American origin. That was a huge issue, one calling for a large turnout. All elections since then have summoned much lower numbers of voters, and that tells us something about the choices being made. For example, we find it revealing, even reassuring, that two of the leading prospects to become Shelby County mayor were an African American and a woman and that no large segment of the eligible voting public seemed hot and bothered about it.

Our thinking on the issue of student dress is quite similar. While we are suspending judgment for the time being, we are not quick to jump aboard the school-uniform bandwagon. We rather suspect that diversity of choice and freedom of expression, within obvious and proper limits, are valuable preparations for the active citizens of the future. Yes, it is true that gangs seem to require uniforms of their members. For that very reason, a dress-by-the-numbers code should not be required of students at large. Compulsory behavior and sameness of expression are not qualities to be desired in a democracy.

"As the twig is bent, so shall it grow"? Then we're content to go light on the bending.


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