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