Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Rights


I recently saw this bit from Rachel Maddow quoted on a friend's Facebook page:

"Here's the thing about RIGHTS. They're not supposed to be voted on. That's why they call them RIGHTS."

... and I had one of those "Hey, that's clever and -- wait a minute... that doesn't make any sense!" moments.

I think Rachel Maddow is generally very smart and funny and has her heart in the right place. This statement of hers, however, is none of the above, and betrays sloppy thinking employed for the ill-conceived creation of a "snappy" quote.

"Rights" are what a majority of our fellow human beings agree upon, and vary by region, state, country, etc.. To put it another way, as a society, we all "vote" on what rights we think we should have. For example, do I have the right to go to someone's house and smash all their windows? No… we, as a society, have "voted" and the majority has decided that it should not be anyone's "right" to do that. 

Do I have the "right" to smoke in a restaurant in Northampton? Do I have the "right" to take the contents of another person's book and publish it under my own name? Do I have the "right" to drive my motorcycle on the sidewalk? Do I have the "right" to dump my bags of trash in someone else's front yard? Do I have the "right" to buy a slave? Do I have the "right" to flatten the tires of other people's cars? Do I have the "right" to prevent someone from voting?

The answers to the above questions are no, no, no, no, no, no and no. (Well, NOW, anyway -- some of the aforementioned things once WERE, sadly, considered "rights".) And that's because as a society, we have "voted" and decided that there are a lot of things that SOME people might like to do, but we don't want to let them have the "right" to do those things, for a variety of reasons.

It goes without saying that we, as a society, have not always gotten this "rights" thing… well… right. It's a work in progress. There is still room for improvement. But pretending that the "rights" we enjoy are simply somehow a part of nature is misguided.

That being said, I do agree that there are a number of things which SHOULD be "rights", but are as yet not considered such. That's unfortunate, but I believe there is room for hope that this situation will change. -- PL

12 comments:

Cornelius Stuyvesant said...

" "Rights" are what a majority of our fellow human beings agree upon, and vary by region, state, country, etc.. To put it another way, as a society, we all "vote" on what rights we think we should have. "

Actually, I have to take a bit of an issue with that as well.

Your definition seems to be more along the lines of "legal rights", which as you say are determined by a society's norms and what is accepted. Rights that are derived from laws are considered legal rights, such as the right to vote.

Rachel's comment I think was derived from what are called "Natural Rights", which are rights that are considered rights you are born with (ie. given by God/Nature). These rights are considered to apply to everyone regardless of law, and can not be taken away. For example, "inalienable rights".

Now, yes, I think that Rachel may not have been clear in an attempt to provide a snappy line, but if one consideres marriage to be a natural right, her comment was 100% accurate.

Granted reasonable people can disagree as to if marriage is a natural vs legal right. However I thought your comment about:

"But pretending that the "rights" we enjoy are simply somehow a part of nature is misguided."

Was actually off base, as yes, the line of thought is that yes SOME rights are part of nature. And this line of thinking is one of the founding concepts that the United States was built upon.

Mark H said...

The story in which Rachel used that line gave it a whole different context. That quote taken out of context, by itself, can be taken apart and brought too many different conclusions. With that being said I remember seeing the “news” story where Rachael Maddow said “Here's the thing about RIGHTS. They're not supposed to be voted on. That's why they call them RIGHTS."
In that piece Rachel was talking about Governor Christie of New Jersey vetoing a bill passed by the New Jersey Assembly to legalize same sex marriage. Gov. Christie’s argument for vetoing the bill was that he wanted to put gay marriage up to the popular vote. The argument from the left is “civil rights protected by the Constitution and not subject to referendum”.
I think the point Rachel was trying to make is that we should not go with the popular vote when it comes to minority rights. We are not all the minorities therefore, all of us voting to give minorities their rights would not be in the minority’s best interest.
She also stated that if we put “African American civil rights up for a popular vote in the South, the people who would have been happy with that were not the people who were sitting in at the lunch counter, if you know what I mean.".
That is a fair argument. What I understood from that statement is if the federal government left it entirely up to the states to vote on minority rights. Some states might still be discriminating based on race, color, religion.
Here is an article that might put Rachel’s statement into a better context. Perhaps in this context you will come to a different conclusion about what she was saying. Or, perhaps I misunderstood and got it all wrong. Either way, it’s fun to have this discussion.

Maddow Article

Shaun M. Coates said...

These are all good points, so much so that I keep switching stances. In regards to the article Mark shared, my question is, what gives us the inherent right to tell others how to live? Perhaps this is what Rachael was trying to say, that we as individuals should be free to live how we choose, so long as we do not negatively impact others.

This right should be a natural right, but we could never establish that without a vote!

Mark H said...

Many times we have established what rights an individual has without the people voting on it. There are legislative and judicial options that can go against popular opinion. In fact we see it happening all the time in the courts. Case and point, the Supreme Court voted that Corporations are people and money is a form of free speech. They guaranteed the right's of a Corporation's freedom of speech in their vote on "Citizens United". We did not put this to a popular vote. Yet those rights where granted to them via the Supreme Court. There are many ways in this country to decide who gets what rights. It is not always voting by the people.

Cornelius Stuyvesant said...

Shaun -

The concept is that you vote to recognize the right, not bestow it. The idea is those rights exist either way, but we recognize them at some point as being inherent natural rights.

And yeah, to Mark's point, that is where the concept "tyranny of the masses" comes from.

Mark H said...

"Rights" are what a majority of our fellow human beings agree upon, and vary by region, state, country, etc.."

That is not always true Pete. As I pointed out with "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" It was only nine "human beings" who decided to give those rights to Corporations via their interpretation of the Constitution.
The majority of human beings do not always get to decide who gets what rights. I'm not saying if I think the Supreme court was right or wrong, that's a whole different discussion, I'm just pointing out that there are occasions where a few people decide what rights people have. It is not always a majority decision.

Mark H said...

OFF TOPIC:
I had a funny thought. Peter Laird riding across my front lawn on his motorcycle, tossing around trash bags. Sorry folks, I have a goofy imagination.
-M

Bookgal said...

You make some interesting points peter, and I can see where you're coming from.
But I can also see where she is coming from, especially when she says "“African American civil rights up for a popular vote in the South, the people who would have been happy with that were not the people who were sitting in at the lunch counter, if you know what I mean.".
It strikes me that there are some things....Rights...that seem to go directly to the basic promises of the constitution and the foundations of the country.
Obviously slavery was once a “right” in America by popular support. It strikes me that it was never right. I think that there is a line between a Legal Right and a Human right. I think the trick is to ask what that line is, and why?

PL said...

"‪Mark H‬ said...
"Rights" are what a majority of our fellow human beings agree upon, and vary by region, state, country, etc.."

That is not always true Pete. As I pointed out with "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" It was only nine "human beings" who decided to give those rights to Corporations via their interpretation of the Constitution.
The majority of human beings do not always get to decide who gets what rights. I'm not saying if I think the Supreme court was right or wrong, that's a whole different discussion, I'm just pointing out that there are occasions where a few people decide what rights people have. It is not always a majority decision."

Mark, I see your point, and it makes me think that I should have expanded on my comment -- reproduced above -- to make clearer my meaning: Yes, nine Supreme Court Justices made the "Citizens United" decision, but in a larger, more encompassing sense, the only reason those nine people had that power is that "we the people" GAVE it to them. The majority of people in this country apparently feel that the system, as it is, seems to work well enough so that a revolution -- or at the least a major re-writing of the Constitution -- is not necessary. Thus, by the actions (or inactions) of that majority, "we the people" have "voted" to allow the Supreme Court to act in that fashion and grant those "rights". -- PL

PL said...

"‪Cornelius Stuyvesant‬ said...
" "Rights" are what a majority of our fellow human beings agree upon, and vary by region, state, country, etc.. To put it another way, as a society, we all "vote" on what rights we think we should have. "

Actually, I have to take a bit of an issue with that as well.

Your definition seems to be more along the lines of "legal rights", which as you say are determined by a society's norms and what is accepted. Rights that are derived from laws are considered legal rights, such as the right to vote.

Rachel's comment I think was derived from what are called "Natural Rights", which are rights that are considered rights you are born with (ie. given by God/Nature). These rights are considered to apply to everyone regardless of law, and can not be taken away. For example, "inalienable rights". "

In my opinion, when people start talking about "natural rights", they are standing on a very slippery slope (ESPECIALLY when the concept of "God" is brought into it).

Think about it -- what rights, exactly, does "nature" grant to human beings? (I won't get into the even more problematic question of "does "nature" grant "natural rights" to ALL creatures large and small.) It seems to me that the poorly-defined concept of "natural rights" really has much more to do with what we BELIEVE to be rights which are reasonable and just and of which we are all deserving… not what "nature" hands out to us.

I think a good argument could be made that the only rights which "nature" endows us with are those things which each of us, as creatures of "nature", CAN do. In other words, if I can overpower my neighbor and take his belongings, that's my right, because "nature" gave me the strength to do so. If I can rub two sticks together and start a fire which burns down thousands of acres of forest, that's my right -- "nature" provided me the physical dexterity and intelligence which which to accomplish that act. -- PL

Mark H said...

“Mark, I see your point, and it makes me think that I should have expanded on my comment -- reproduced above -- to make clearer my meaning: Yes, nine Supreme Court Justices made the "Citizens United" decision, but in a larger, more encompassing sense, the only reason those nine people had that power is that "we the people" GAVE it to them. The majority of people in this country apparently feel that the system, as it is, seems to work well enough so that a revolution -- or at the least a major re-writing of the Constitution -- is not necessary. Thus, by the actions (or inactions) of that majority, "we the people" have "voted" to allow the Supreme Court to act in that fashion and grant those "rights". – PL”

That is true Pete. Our forefathers gave them that power within the United States Constitution. I however think it is not true that the majority of people living in modern day Amercia (sorry typo) feel that the system works well enough. I say that because I don’t think the majority of Americans understand how the system works. If they don’t understand it, how can they know when it is flawed? Case and point, ask a few people out on the street what the three branches of government are. Ask them to name one Supreme Court Justice. Ask them how a Supreme Court Justice is appointed. Ask them to name a Supreme Court case. It is unfortunate but, a lot of people could not answer these simple questions about our government. When I was in high school civics was not a mandatory class. I think not being taught basic civics in school leaves a lot of us ignorant to how our system of government works. I include myself in that lot. I did not take civics and, I did not care about the inner workings of government. It was not until I saw Gore win the popular vote yet not the Presidency back in 2000 that I realized I needed to start paying attention. (I still don’t understand why we do not abolish the Electoral College. Does it go back to my point that most Americans don’t understand or, care about how government works?) I think if you started explaining to folks that the President of the United States appoints the Supreme Court Justices, not the people. The Justices have no term limits and, the most recent Justices seem to be voting with more of a political biased then honest constitutional interpretation. I think most people would be bothered by that. I think the people would want an amendment to the Constitution that, at the very least, would let us vote for Supreme Court Justices. Term limits would be nice too. Again, that is just what I think. It is my opinion and, I have been known to be wrong from time to time.
With that being said, I do think I understand what you where trying to convey in your original post. Something as complex as civil rights, natural rights, can not be simplified into a "snappy" quote. Rights are not this black and white thing. There are many shades of gray and, it is a very complex subject. This discussion, that I think is great by the way, is proof of that. You could not sum up this whole discussion in one snappy quote. Rights are not simple.

Mark H said...

“It seems to me that the poorly-defined concept of "natural rights" really has much more to do with what we BELIEVE to be rights which are reasonable and just and of which we are all deserving… not what "nature" hands out to us. –PL”

That gets to the heart of it. Right’s are a belief more then something one is born with. Here in America we believe women have the right to vote. We say it is their “natural right” or, “God given right”. If that is true than why was it women could not vote here in the United States until the 1920’s? If it is right women are born with then why do they not have that right in other countries? Truth be told, rights are an illusion. We are not born with these rights. They are given to us via legislative and judicial decisions. We say we have the right to free speech. Yet if I go up to a cop and call him “stupid (curse) fat pig” I’m willing to bet that right to free speech will disappear rather quickly. We don’t truly have rights do we? We have privileges.
So you are very much correct, rights are what we believe, not something nature has provided for us at birth. This point is proven just by looking at other societies around the world. How they treat their people. We do not agree with a lot of what happens in other countries like, Syria. We believe those people should not be oppressed and killed by a brutal dictator. Yet, if all humans where born with “natural rights” these things would not happen anywhere. I’m grateful I live in a country like the United States that makes an effort to treat it citizens well. But, to say we are born with natural rights just because of the region in the world we are born into, is just plain wrong. That is not a natural thing; it is more of a luck thing. I have had the privilege of being born in America; therefore I am told I have basic human rights.
On a side note: It is nice to have a discussion about “rights” without it becoming a political mud slinging contest. It seems rare these days to have a good discussion, full of great, well thought out arguments. I also want to say, I’m not always the greatest at understanding things. I try really hard. So, if I misunderstood anything or, I’m just not getting it then I apologize. Have a good one Pete!
-M