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Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Today is the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, arguably the most foundational event in American history. Just mere blocks away from our campus, the Founding Fathers of the United States codified the principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” into the establishing framework of our nation.

Inspired by the work of John Locke, the Declaration tells us that those are inalienable rights we are granted by virtue of being human. Locke’s fundamental reasoning was that society can only function due to the collective and implicit social contract that every human being is subject to. If all of us are entitled to security, then we cannot be given the right to hurt another human being, because that right infringes upon another’s right to safety. My liberty ends where your begins. In other words, “your freedom ends where my nose begins.”

Throughout the course of American history, the idea of personal liberty has become co-opted by many different groups of people to mean different things. Arguments involving personal liberty often transcend the traditional right vs. left divide and are invoked in tandem with ideological, religious, or other political ideals. For example, a recent Supreme Court ruling extended civil rights protections to transgender individuals, citing that firing someone based on their gender identity is discriminatory and wrong. For decades, America’s sexual minorities have been marginalized and discriminated against — often legally — due to the idea of personal liberty. Many claimed that someone else’s existence as a gay individual infringed upon their religious liberty, which punished homosexuality.

Lately, debates over personal liberty have been, sometimes violently, occurring on the issue of face masks. Several months ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the use of face masks to curb the transmission of COVID-19, and what ensued was a vicious and uninformed response from individuals who see face masks as a symbol of oppression and a threat to personal liberty. Ultimately, however, it isn’t really about the mask or even about personal liberty. Personal liberty is the argument used to hide the crux of the issue, which is that individuals unwilling to wear masks simply don’t value the lives of others around them as much as they value their own.

One of the great accomplishments of the human endeavor is our ability to collaborate on incomprehensibly large scales. Together, humanity has cured diseases and innovated on unimaginable scales, but every uninformed and unthoughtful decision is a step backwards from what we’re capable of achieving. While this time it’s a senseless argument about freedom and mask mandates, that attitude bleeds into the fabric of American consciousness and corrupts our worldview. Right now, we’re setting the wrong example for our children and poisoning our reputation amongst the global community, signaling to the world that in the United States, we value ourselves over others.

VARUN SARASWATHULA is a rising College junior from Herndon, V.A. studying the Biological Basis of Behavior and Healthcare Management. His email is vsaras@sas.upenn.edu. 

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