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The most challenging part about the concept of freedom within a democracy is not the freedom we demand for ourselves, but the freedom others demand from us.

Total freedom is the ability to live without restrictions. But total freedom does not exist within a democratic society. Freedom within a democracy is a team effort and requires us to be as respectful of the rights of others as we want others to be respectful of our rights. Thus, the freedom to play music as loud as we want is fine as long as our loud music doesn't cancel out the freedom of our neighbors to live in peace and quiet.

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A statement of freedom from an unknown source states that "Freedom may be enjoyed by individuals but only in and through the community." Indeed, unless you live alone on an island, you can never be totally free to do what you want. Living within a community requires us to be considerate of the rights and freedoms of others. Living within a democratic community requires even more: that we respect the opinion of others, even when their opinion is different from ours. We can agree to disagree and we can voice our disagreement. But in the end, we have to respect the rights of others to disagree. Building community within a democracy is hard work and requires compromise.

Our nation was formed as a grand experiment testing the limits of freedom and liberty within the structure of a democratic society. That experiment continues today as our freedoms and liberties are tested over time, change, and sometimes — if we are lucky — expand.

Marriage equality, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, expanded our freedom and liberty. Recent decisions by the Boy Scouts of America to end the discrimination of Boy Scouts and Boy Scout leaders who happen to be gay, expands our freedom and liberty. All of us benefit when the rights of others is expanded. Each of these decisions, while targeted directly to specific groups, expands the horizons of freedom for all Americans. When justice is applied to one, we all benefit as this adds another stone to the foundation of our democracy.

Freedom expands for all when women are treated equally. When minorities earn the respect and dignity they deserve, we all enjoy the fruits of a more diverse and functional community. We are, after all, a better nation when we are united, not divided. And we are a stronger nation when we all participate, equally, regardless of our differences.

People who live in fear, who want to limit the freedom of others to make themselves feel more secure, end up restricting everyone's freedom. They stunt the growth of democracy. They hold back America's progress toward a more perfect democratic society.

Those who wish to return to the past will be disappointed; history seldom goes backward. When it does, the consequences are usually disastrous. Dozens of leaders over the course of the world's history have tried to reverse the natural course of history by holding back the rights of others, by demanding supremacy over others, and by thinking of themselves as somehow special in the eyes of their Creator.

They have all failed, but their attempts have caused great harm to the world and great suffering for millions. But they have failed.

We can live in a gated community or a gated nation, but the result is less freedom for all, most especially for ourselves. Instead, we should embrace those who advocate for the weak, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those who are different from themselves. Embrace those who seek to expand the rights of others, thus creating a more perfect democracy for all of us. These are the people who will move our nation and the world forward.

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Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. His column appears Wednesdays. E-mail him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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