The Tricky Rhetoric of Rights

Over 200 years ago, in a stuffy brick building a few blocks north of my apartment, a bunch of white dudes got together and ratified the Constitution of the United States. Western Civilization has been messed up ever since.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Constitution. It’s provided a nice bit of structure for these past 200+ years, and is full of fun little rules like Article I, Section 9, Clause 8. And those first ten amendments they eventually added – the Bill of Rights – sure do come in handy sometimes. I like it when the government promises that I can say and write what I want, and that I can practice whatever religion I want and even get together in public with people who are like me. All of that is fine and good. What I don’t like is how we’ve established a weird culture around these rights, which has affected how we think about ourselves, others, and our society.

This culture and its accompanying rhetoric – which some scholars call “rights talk” – is fairly ubiquitous here in the United States. We celebrate rights. We fight for and defend them. We use our rights, real and/or perceived, to justify actions and behaviors. People are compelled by rights, and they get really riled up about them. But I’ve noticed that a lot of the language around rights has become tricky, if not entirely clouded and confused.

We talk about rights as if they’re fragile – and maybe they are. Within recent memory, women had few rights. In even more recent memory, people of color had even fewer rights. And the gays literally just got some of their rights. A weird thing about rights is that despite what our founding documents might say, they really aren’t inherent or inalienable – at least not in the way that we talk about them. We speak of rights as things that are fought for and earned. Which suggests – though it hasn’t happened yet – that they could also be lost or taken away. Perhaps we talk about rights so much because as a society we subconsciously realize that they are ultimately quite delicate, and if we don’t constantly remind ourselves and each other of them, then they could be trampled upon.

We talk about rights like we don’t know where they come from. You know that thing of when Facebook or Instagram removes a picture for whatever reason, and people get upset and post stuff like “they’ve violated our freedom of expression! We have a right to free speech!” What those people don’t seem to understand is that the free speech that Americans enjoy is granted to us by the Constitution, which means that only the government and its agents need to uphold it. Mark Zuckerberg can do whatever the hell he wants, because as of this writing, Facebook is not a government agency. In our rights-culture, Americans have come to expect our Constitutional rights to be ubiquitously upheld throughout all realms of society, even where they’re irrelevant.

We talk about rights as ends in themselves. Sometimes I also get the sense that our rights culture views rights as an end in themselves, and not means to greater ends. In reality, rights are simply tools that enable us to do things like speak publicly, and I’d love to believe that what I have to say is far more important than my mere ability and freedom to say it. I particularly notice this in media coverage of protests or demonstrations: there’s often some soundbite about how great it is that people have gathered to “express their freedom of assembly” as if that’s the most important thing about what they’re doing. Which can undermine/distract from the greater issue, by the way.

We talk about rights as if exercising them makes us better or more free. I think this is the most twisted bit of rights-talk logic. People will often fall back on rights – those fragile, government-owned, sentences on a sheet of paper – to justify serious actions, as if they are doing something simply because they have the freedom to. (I assume that these people have much more substantial reasons for said actions. I just wish these reasons weren’t obscured by rights-talk). The Atlantic’s James Hamblin wrote a clever and haunting article last week that touched on this, particularly about how it applies to the current conversation around the second amendment. The other odd thing about this logic is that it suggests that expressing my Constitutional rights makes me more free, and abstaining from doing so makes me less free. Fallacies galore.

So here’s the kicker: I think we should talk about rights less. Way less. Again, I’m grateful for them, and am thankful to have been born into a country where a lot of freedoms are basically guaranteed. But we need to re-shape our cultural rhetoric (and by extension, our way of thinking), so that we begin speaking of rights as a set of nice tools, instead of a way of life.

Re-shaping this rhetoric could give us a much better, deeper, and more robust view of human beings. What if our society cared for its members not because of a thin set of rights, but because they’re simply worth caring for, all the time, insofar as they’re people? This is one of my favorite parts of the Christian narrative: that people have value because they were created in God’s image. Thus, dignity is part of the human ontology – it’s not something that’s granted by an institution, or earned, or fought for, but part of who we are. Dignity-talk allows us to simply value people in themselves, regardless of legal mandates.

And, in a strange way, unclouding rights-talk could allow us to be more honest with ourselves and each other. We use rights to justify a lot of things, and even though that might work legally, it’s not terribly convincing rationally, or even emotionally. Let’s think for a second about how our public conversations would sound if we took rights out of the mix:

I went to that protest because I want to fight injustice.
I care for the poor because the poor are worth caring for.
I own a gun because I’m afraid to die.

See what I mean? Real reasons, not rights-reasons, open the door for a much fuller, honest, and presumably more productive conversation.

When it comes to rights, let’s re-frame our mentality and refresh our dialogue. Somewhat ironically, I suspect that putting all that freedom on the back burner could actually open some doors to better conversations and a fuller understanding of people and society.

[Image: Howard Chandler Christy. “Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States,” 1940. District of Columbia.]


  1. You’re right about what gets wrapped up in rights language, but it gets even trickier with basic human rights. There is a collapsing of the good with necessity and often times this then gets packaged as a form of justice. The question is, shouldn’t rights represent the ends of justice, and in actuality never should be a means to anything because that’s where the distortion can take place?


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