Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Facts and myths about your rights

What is it about the word "right" that turns people on both sides of the political aisle into raving lunatics? Whether the discussion is about gun rights, religious rights, marriage rights, or speech rights the errors people make are the same. So here's a post dedicated to dispelling some of the more pervasive myths and mistakes.

Fact #1: Rights are man-made Our rights are not a gift from the universe nor are they written anywhere in the sky. We have a right to [whatever] because, over time, people came to agree that it would be better if the particular right was established and protected. Speaking generally, "we" decided that "we" have a right to carry a gun or curse the president using the same process that "we" used to decide that the word "ain't" doesn't belong in formal writing. (though see Fact #3 for more) Now, some claim the existence of something called "natural rights" which are believed to devolve from human nature or from a divine edict, but I think that's just rhetoric. Even if there are such "natural rights" they only matter if human beings choose to recognize and protect them.

Fact #2: Rights are NOT inalienable The idea of "inalienable rights" is a brilliant and beneficial fiction, but a fiction all the same. Though we're all much better off if we pretend that our rights can't ever be taken away, the reality is that rights are always taken away. Nothing in the world stops a new ruler from invalidating our rights aside for the general belief and agreement that "rights are inalienable ". We pretend that rights are inalienable because this serves a very valuable purpose. But, it isn't so.

Fact #3: Some rights are more important than other rights Though the process used to create rights is similar to the process used to create the rules of formal writing, or the rules of wearing a tuxedo, or whatever, the results of that similar process are not equally valuable. Human progress doesn't depend on how or when you wear evening wear or whether or not you use the word "ain't" in a college essay but it does depend on freedom of speech. If we can't say what we like or argue and bring proofs against ideas that are bad we won't go anywhere as a species. We protect freedom of speech, not because protecting freedom of speech pleases the universe or because it makes liberals happy, but because we want to promote human progress. This is not true of all rights. The right articulated in the "Patient's Bill of Rights" are certainly important but not in the same way freedom of speech is important.

Fact #4: Rights can become more or less valuable over time Once upon a time, the right to carry a gun was essential to freedom. If we establish and protect a right to carry a gun, went the thinking, it becomes hard to impossible for a tyrant to impose himself on the people. A good idea, but it no longer adheres. If the current president were to lose his mind and successfully mobilize the military against American citizens, he'd have fighter jets and tanks at his disposal. Nothing you can purchase at a gun fair would stand a chance against that kind of fire power. So unless we broaden the right to bear arms to include a right to own tanks and set up private armies, the second amendment doesn't do too much to protect our freedom. Thanks to advances in technology, the second amendment no longer serves its purpose and has become a relic.

Fact #5 Democracy won't die if rights are narrowly defined or if rights are abrogated This isn't true of all rights. Without freedom of speech, Democracy can't flourish. But neither would it disappear if we were to drop the right to trial by jury in civil cases (Amendment 7) or the right to no double jeopardy (Amendment 5.) It serves a very valuable polemical purpose (a purpose I support) to insist that all of our rights are equally valuable to democracy, or to claim that America will vanish overnight if any of the Bill of Rights were to be canceled  but it simply isn't so.

Fact #6 The Bill of Rights are not permanent. The authors and ratifiers of the Bill of Rights were not prophets. They were just men. The Bill of Rights is nothing but a set of things they happened to agree were important. There's nothing stopping us from disagreeing and in the Constitution they wrote, the Founders created a process for us to cancel the rights they established or to create our own. Superstitious people believe that something horrible will happen if alter the Bill of Rights, but that's magical thinking. In fact, events of last Friday seem to suggest that horrible things will continue to happen unless we make some fundamental changes in the way we think about the out-dated, no longer very valuable right to bear arms.*

*Correct, I'd never say the same thing about the right to free speech, but this isn't because I have superstitious ideas about the origin, purpose or effects of that right. Without freedom of speech, human progress ends. We protect it because we value human progress. The same can't be said about gun rights. 


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