Okay, it’s been a ranty kind of month . . . what can I say? I alluded to people thinking that a college education is a “right” in this country in my last post, and yesterday, I’m listening to the morning chat on the radio station, and Lo! we have a “right” to dress as we please in this country. Someone pass me a copy of the Constitution because I’m darned if I can remember reading that. Apparently some woman (pictured above) boarded a plane in a mini-skirt and was asked to leave and/or cover up. Well, I think that’s just about the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a good while (and I hear ridiculous things all the time, some of them coming from my own mouth), but do I think that this woman has a “right” to wear what she wants? Er, no. And it’s not just semantics here, folks, believe me. People are truly and deeply confused about what constitutes a “right” and what constitutes a “privilege.”
We have The Bill of Rights (in America) and we have the U. N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other than that (and maybe state laws) we have no others. We have certain rights that we may or may not take for granted: the right not to be held in slavery, the right to vote, the right to bear arms, the right to a nationality, the right to peaceful assembly, the right to a speedy trial before a jury of our peers, the right to speak freely, and the right to worship as we wish. We also have certain rights outlined in the Miranda warning, should we ever be arrested. These are rights. It is not a right to drive a car or to live a smoke-free existence or to attain a college degree; it is not a right to watch what you want on television or to dress as you like or to have electricity in your house.
Americans, in particular, seem to bandy about the word “right” and its fellow heavy-hitter “freedom” with extreme and wanton abandon. As an American, I find this somewhat embarrassing, though I do understand where it comes from (or where I think it comes from). Watch the news for a week, and you’ll undoubtedly hear people claiming the right to all manner of things from the right to go to a baseball game to the right not to be harassed by telemarketers. Do I love going to baseball games and hate being called by telemarketers? Yes! Do I feel my rights are violated if I can’t or if I am? Um, come on, what planet do you think I’m from? Heck, I don’t even think I have a right to end a sentence with a preposition if I want to; I just happen to know that it’s acceptable to do so.
So this morning’s radio show consisted of a bunch of callers whining about how they, as Americans, have the right to dress as they wish. How absolutely silly is that? Are we permitted by law? Probably. But that’s hardly a right. We’re also permitted by law to cross intersections on the crosswalk (zebra crossing), but that’s not a right, either.
There’s a difference between things that a society permits, either by law or understood social agreement, and things that are our rights as citizens of a given country or of the world (or at least of the parts of it overseen by the U. N.’s human rights declaration). Something once permitted by law may be outlawed (such as smoking inside public buildings), but no rights are violated. They couldn’t be because it’s not a right to smoke inside public buildings, and it never was. Likewise, something once illegal (women voting, slavery) can be a violation of someone’s rights, and that, I think, is where the grey area comes into play for many Americans, in particular. But there is a big difference between holding certain people enslaved or denying the vote to women and being able to watch your favorite television show. (Okay, that’s a bad example—I’m calling my lawyer if someone tries to stop me watching Lost or Supernatural.)
Maybe one of the indicators of a distinction between a right and privilege is whether or not some people are protected by law, while others are not (as in the case of Civil Rights and enfranchising women). For instance, maybe it is a right that people be allowed to marry legally (if not in the church or religious institution of their choice). Maybe because heterosexuals are given legal protection and social, even the health and longevity benefits of marriage, homosexuals should be, as well. Denying these privileges by denying the right, then, becomes a true question of one’s rights. It is, I think, a totally different kettle of fish to suggest, demand, or wish to be married in a religious ceremony if the religion doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage. But religious laws aren’t civil laws, and in this country, the state cannot govern the rules of any religion and (most thankfully) vice versa.
Marriage (gay or straight) as right or privilege is an interesting question, though, and one that is (obviously) being asked and answered and asked again in our country’s courtrooms and around water coolers. Whether or not Sassy Sally can wear a tight-fitting or barely there outfit on a plane . . . well, that’s got nothing to do with rights, freedoms, or much of much besides personal matters of (lack of) taste, (im)modesty, and/or (in)decency. All fun stuff to talk about, but let’s not get carried away and confuse this with a rights violation; frankly, flying in an airplane (fully dressed to meet anyone‘s definition of modest) is not a right.