WHAT IS A “RIGHT?”
In medieval literature, brave knights came from across the land to be considered for membership at the Round Table. King Arthur designed its circular shape to democratically arrange the knights and give each an equal position. When a knight was granted membership at the Round Table, he was guaranteed equal stature with everyone else at the table and a right to be heard with equal voice.
Today, one understanding of a “right” is a legalistic, human construct based on some sense of moral privilege. Although a right in a democratic system of government is created by people and defined and guaranteed by law, access to a right may not be equally distributed across society. Conversely, a right does not apply to any person outside the select group unless that group purposely confers such a right on a specifically recognized individual, such as the disenfranchised.
In a true democracy, the whole protects all of its parts, and the parts give obedience to the will of the whole. Ostensibly, therefore, a right in democracy gives everyone equality by sanctifying and impartially protecting certain socially acceptable behaviors while controlling unsanctioned ones. There is, however, a price exacted for having rights, even in a true democracy.
Rights have responsibilities attached to them. Thus, whenever a law is passed to protect the rights of the majority against the transgressions of the minority, everyone pays the same price—a loss of freedom of choice, of flexibility—because every law so passed is restrictive to everyone. Put succinctly, we give up personal freedoms in order to gain personal rights.
The problem is that rights, as granted by humans to one another in daily life, including in the United States, are based on access—not equality. Access is determined by some notion that one race, color, creed, sex, or age is superior to another, which means that differences and similarities are based on our subjective judgments about whatever those appearances are. In American society, for example, men are judged more capable than women in most kinds of work because society has placed more value on certain kinds of products, i.e., those demanding such masculine attributes as linear thinking and physical strength as opposed to those demanding such feminine attributes as relationship and physical gentleness.
With notable exceptions, the stereotype holds that perceived differences in outer (superficial) values become social judgments about the inherent (real) values of individual human beings. Superficial characteristics are thus translated into special rights or privileges simply because the individuals involved are different in some aspects and either perform certain actions differently or perform different actions. The greater the difference I perceive between another person and myself, the more likely I am to make black-and-white judgments about that person’s real value as expressed through my notion of that person’s rights.
Such judgments are made against the personal standard I use to measure how everything around me fits into my comfort zone. I thus judge people as good or bad, depending on how they conform to my standard of acceptability, a standard taught and reinforced by my parents and later by my peers and teachers. Such judgments are erroneous, however, because all I can ever judge is appearances. In addition, my standard is correct only for me; it’s not validly imposed on anyone else. Nevertheless, I use socially constructed, hierarchical couplets of extrinsic differences (white male versus white female, white male versus black male, human versus Nature) as a basis for judging the equality of such things as one race versus another, men versus women, secular versus spiritual, right versus wrong, good versus evil, and so on.
The most extreme example of personal judgment is the use of superficial differences to justify a social end. One group of people thus declares itself superior to another group because it wants what the other group has. The “superior” group tells to the “inferior” group that they have no rights, and through this denial of rights justifies its abuse of fellow human beings.
When, for instance, the invading Spanish conquered the Pueblo Indians, they could not accept, let alone acknowledge, that they and the Pueblos were equally human. Had they acknowledged that truth, they could never have justified the wholesale murder of the Indians and theft of their land. In turn, when the invading Anglos conquered the Spanish, they could not accept, let alone acknowledge, that they and the Spanish were equally human. Had they acknowledged that truth, they could never have justified the wholesale murder of the Spanish and theft of their land. As modern conquests continue, so does the cycle.
The same principle holds for the indigenous peoples of the South-American tropical forests. If the cattle barons ever admitted that the indigenous peoples living in the forests were their equals, they could not clear-cut and burn the forests to gain pasture for their beef herds. In creating the pastures, the cattle barons destroyed an ecosystem and stripped the indigenous peoples not only of their current livelihood but also of their future options and those of their children. If the cattle barons were to admit that the indigenous peoples are in every way their equals, then they would have to treat them as their equals. And that, in turn, means sharing control of their mutual social destiny.
In the final analysis, it’s not a question of who is better than whom. Rather, it is a question of who is more afraid of whom. It is a question of who has internalized all the assumed differences and therefore perceives another human being as an unknown entity. It is a question of who is so afraid of losing control of their perceived rights that they will do anything to keep control, regardless of social and environmental consequences. In the end, therefore, it becomes a question of the equality of differences.
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Text © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.