The Problem with Rights

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g20There’s an interesting editorial in the NYT today that argues that, abhorrent as they might be, videos depicting extreme animal cruelty should not be banned in the US, because to do so would undermine the right of free speech/expression. The Supreme Court, it appears, is poised to agree with them, in reviewing a recent ruling from an appeal court.

The Times’ editorial staff weasel around the issue of whether the two current exceptions to the right of free speech (“obscenity”, whatever the courts in their arbitrary wisdom choose to define that as, and “child pornography”, including cartoons) are justifiable using the same reasoning — clearly the NYT doesn’t want to wade into the maelstrom over whether the depiction of child abuse, as distinct from the actual commission of that horrific crime, should be illegal.

Even more weasel-y, they bring up the old red herring — if animal torture videos are banned, will PETA ads become illegal if they depict animal cruelty committed by consumer product labs, the military and factory farms. And they suggest that if courts are allowed to further broaden the exceptions to first amendment rights, it’s a slippery slope that will lead to no free speech rights at all.

This is a cowardly act by the Times, and it’s intellectually dishonest. They had an opportunity to grapple with the whole complex issue of “constitutional rights”, which is an important issue that this case directly relates to. They weaseled out, and the only result will be to legitimize violent “entertainment” and obfuscate the truth about what laws, courts and police actually protect.

Although the UN, and most countries, have promulgated whole codes of “human rights”, the truth is that there are no inherent “inalienable rights”. What is called a “right” in any society is an evolving collective judgement, and convention, of what is and is not acceptable behaviour. The invention of “rights”, if you read their history, was designed to protect minorities and the disempowered from the actions of ignorant majorities and corrupt politicians. What they protect today is something else entirely.

If you want to see what a sham the US first amendment and similar “rights” of free speech are, just go and protest against the G20 or any other body with wealth and power. You will see that you have no “rights”. In many cases, so-called charters of rights are actually coopted by the rich and powerful to justify and defend oppressive behaviour. Corporations in most countries now have “rights of personhood” that are used to leverage their already vast power and bully those who dare challenge it. The view of Homeland Security (and many other law “enforcement” bodies) has consistently been that all “rights” are contingent on their judgement of whether they pose any threat to the existing power structure, and can be ignored or abrogated at their discretion.

So, thanks to “constitutional rights”, you have today an “inalienable” right to organize a Nazi goose-stepping march in military uniforms through the communities of oppressed minorities; to bring concealed weapons to public political events; to make and circulate videos of hideous animal torture; to pollute the world beyond the tipping point of climate collapse; to incarcerate and abuse political opponents in secret prisons, compliant adult family members in “the privacy of your own home”, and helpless farmed animals in pursuit of profit; and, if you have enough money or power, to buy politicians and lawyers who will ensure that you get away with any behaviour.

But you do not have the right to protest against any of the above atrocities in any effective, disruptive or “disorderly” way. You do not have the right to a clean or safe environment, free from suffering, poverty or oppression.

It’s time progressives gave up the fantasy that codes and declarations of “rights” are anything other than a sham, a smokescreen to conceal the fact that laws and principles protect and defend only the rich and powerful, and that what is acceptable (to enforcers of the law) behaviour in the world is what the rich and powerful say it is. It’s time the NYT and other organizations that purport to reflect and influence public opinion spoke the truth: there are no “rights”, only responsibilities and obligations, of every individual to speak out and act against all behaviour that causes harm or suffering to any living creature.

Like the abused animals in these videos, we have no “rights”, and the sooner we all realize it the sooner we can start to bring about changes that are needed to make this world livable and humane again. We cannot count on lawyers, judges, courts, police and politicians for support or help — they are lined up precisely against us in this work, in defence of their rich and powerful clients.

And, apparently, we cannot count on the New York Times, either.

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5 Responses to The Problem with Rights

  1. You should take a look at the lead article in the latest Ram’s Horn:

    [Brewster Kneen] cites many other difficulties with the rights approach. For one, a right must be claimed from an authority who is deemed capable of granting the right. The petitioner is immediately placed in a position of subservience to that authority. This clearly makes rights demands contradictory to sovereignty: food sovereignty is an assertion of the intention and practice of a people to feed themselves, not a request to someone else for the right to do so.For Indigenous peoples, this is particularly poignant. In aboriginal languages there is no word for

  2. prad says:

    excellent write on rights, dave!it is unfortunate that the so-called “freedom-fighters” while insisting on personal rights are giving the oppressors better ammunition.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks! David, thanks too for that great excerpt — I’ll have to give Ram’s Horn a read. The etymology is, as always, interesting: “rights” is from the OE = “straight and fair” while “sovereign” is from the Latin meaning “chief”. So sovereignty is about who’s in charge, while rights are about what’s fair. Neither has anything to do, etymologically, with either law or justice.

  4. Spot on, Dave – protest until it’s a threat, and then it’s illegal. A friend of mine talks about there being no such thing as rights, only responsibilities, which I think is a neat way of putting it: we might not have rights, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be responsible.

  5. Brutus says:

    I’ve been puzzling over this for a couple days. The concept of rights is as heady and nuanced as those of other buzzwords such as justice, freedom, and democracy. They’re tossed around and used as rhetorical signifiers but rarely get unpacked and examined. Even those of us inclined to consider the concepts quickly enter a quagmire; forget the general public entertaining such ideas.I followed a debate in another forum over the differences between so-called natural rights and rights recognized and bestowed by some authoritative power. Those powers establish limits on natural rights all the time, or as discussed in your post, interpret rights in light of every possible embodiment as conflicts and issues arise over time.If I were criminal rather than a Boy Scout, I suppose I’d assert that I have a right to do as much as I can get away with rather than submitting to the judgment of some external authority. That’s extreme advocacy in favor of the individual — a very American attitude (and yes, very nearly criminal). Many societies have instead determined that the good of the collective society frequently outweighs individual rights. Cf. the tragedy of the commons. Although we resist that attitude in the U.S., I believe that may well be where the world is headed. If/when we enter a new era of (extreme) austerity, the masses may assert their latent power and determine (perhaps violently) that the profligacy of the elite will no longer be tolerated. It’s very difficult to predict, of course.

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