A recent Facebook discussion got me thinking about human rights and exactly what they are and where they come from. When I was in college, I was labeled a fascist for saying that you cannot possess a right that you cannot defend. See, I was speaking from my experiences growing up on the streets of Philadelphia not from the ivory tower theoretical viewpoint of those who have never had their human rights threatened or trampled. My response at the time was to ask, "What does it mean to say that you have the right to speak your mind without getting physically abused for it if I kicked the shit out of you for saying something I didn't like? I don't because the police would throw me in jail if I did. The government defends your rights. But, absent the police, where would your rights be? Where I grew up, you would definitely get your ass kicked for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. You may even get shot or killed and, in most cases, no one would do a thing about it. That's why I say that rights in this country are unequal between races and economic classes." That did not, obviously, convince anyone that I was not a fascist but my point was that rights are not inherent. They are not something that you can just sit back and claim that require no action on your part and take no effort to maintain. You are not born with them. They are given to you and at great cost.
Every human right you now possess came at the price of someone's blood and is maintained at the price of someone's blood. Be it that of our millitary, our police force, or protestors who marched and often martyred themselves for it. To smugly sit back and claim that you were born with these inherent human rights belittles the sacrifice of those who fought and died to give you those rights and those who are suffering and dying right now so that you may retain those rights. It does another thing too, it puts those rights in jeopardy and causes people to take foolish actions. When people do not realize the cost of their rights they are quicker to give them away or to do things to weaken them, vote for laws that conflict with them, or for political agendas that threaten them. They even put their own lives in danger.
Back in the early nineties, when I worked as a bouncer at several nightclubs in the Bay Area, it was a common sight to see women stagger out of the club drunk and walk to nearby parking lots or down side streets or even pass out drunk on the curb. Invariably, when I would comment about how those girls were just asking to get assaulted, someone would chime in that "A woman has the right to walk anywhere she wants, drunk or otherwise, without getting assaulted." Did you catch the flaw in that logic? It lies in the word "has" as oppossed to "should have".
There is no argument that a woman should have the right to walk down any street in America in whatever state of inebriation she desires without fearing for her safety. She should have that right. The question is does she? Is it a fact that she can walk down any street in America, drunk off her ass, and not get assaulted? Of course not. So, obviously, this right is theoretical rather than literal or actual. But what's bad about statements like the one above is that it puts people in danger. There are very different behaviors associated with the woman who says she SHOULD have the right to walk down any street in America and the one who says she DOES have this right.
The woman who says she does have this right acts very much like the women who staggered off drunk into the night. They take no precautions, confident in their god given right to be an idiot without suffering for it and they often pay for their foolishness. The women who say they should have this right take precautions. They carry pepper spray or a gun. They take self defense classes. They avoid certain streets. They walk with a buddy. They lobby local government for more street lights, more police patrols, tougher sentencing for criminals who assault women. They make sure that those rights are secured, defended, and enforced rather than assuming that they are some inherent property of humanity like opposable thumbs.
In the discussion on Facebook, the word "inherent" was debated. I, of course, said that there are no inherent rights. Rights must be fought for and defended. Period. Others, argued that you are born with rights. Here was my reply:
"Not to argue with you, but what do you mean by inherent? If you mean the true definition of the word, as I do, i.e. "Existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute" then human rights simply are not. Something inherent cannot be taken away. As I said, a casual glance at the world would quickly prove that human rights do not meet this description. My right to think is inherent because I can actually do it. I could do it since birth and I will do it until I die. The right to live free of oppression is not inherent because many have never and will never do it from birth to death. That's what I mean by getting past the poetry. Rights aren't inherent or else they could not be so easily given and taken away. That's why we need to fight to gain and keep them. Calling them inherent, to me, fails to spurn the same call to arms as a recognition that they can be taken from you and that governments should be fighting against those who would take them away rather than being the very ones usurping those rights."
My point was that, like the girl staggering drunk down a dark street, when we don't realize the cost of human rights, we do not fight hard enough for them. We loosen miranda laws and search and seizure laws in order to "Catch those damn criminals!" not realizing that we have given away our own rights against invasion of privacy and illegal searches in the bargain. We give the government the power to send American citizens to foreign countries to be interrogated and then are shocked and appalled when innocent people wind up at Guantanemo Bay on flimsy evidence. We take rights for granted in this country, insulated against the true cost of those rights until they are slowly taken away.
Society's and governments are formed to defend our rights as citizens. We give power to the government and in exchange they are supposed to defend our rights. Somewhere along the way this has been forgotten and governments now exist for their own sake. We are assaulted and abused by police officers, illegally detained, our homes searched and practically vandalized if we happen to be the wrong color and living in the wrong neighborhood. Worse if we are the wrong color and driving through the wrong neighborhood. So, we sue and we march and we protest but, in the mean time, we take precautions, recognizing that our rights are fragile in this country. Human rights are not inherent despite all the poetry and hyperbole. Where they are not defended they do not exist as even a casual glance at the human rights abuses around the world would quickly attest to. So, why do governments exist that do not defend our human rights when that should be their sole purpose for existing? Answer that question because there in lies the answer to world peace.