A little over a week ago, I saw this quote by George Carlin posted on Facebook. As a lover of words and Carlin, this quote struck me and I began turning it over and over in my head. Once I had let it churn in my head, it began to churn in my heart and it became deeply disturbing. What is the difference between a right and a privilege? If Carlin is correct and the ability for something to be denied makes it privilege and not a right; then my rights just became considerably fewer. In fact, it became difficult for me to think of what could actually still be considered a right. Do I have any rights – or do I just have privileges that I think are rights?
In order to understand these words, the best place to start is the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary offered the following definitions:
Right: “Legal, moral, or natural entitlement.”
Entitlement: “A legal right or just claim to do, receive, or possess something.”
Privilege: “A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by an individual, corporation of individuals, etc., beyond the usual rights or advantages of others.”
This helped add clarity – a right is legal (from the law), moral (from the self), or natural (inherent) entitlement. The word entitlement makes it really about law – a person may think something should be a right but if they are denied to any members of our society, they are privilege. There has been a lot of talk about privileges. Looking at this quote, I had to realize that there are many things I had thought to be rights but they are privileges. I had to face the fact that I have given the government power to give or take these privileges because I had not tried to stop the government from denying these “rights” to others. Through apathy, I have given these rights away and made them privilege, I now see the error of my thinking.
Our constitution states that our inherent (natural) rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but these are not really rights legally. Legally, a person can be denied life with the death penalty, liberty with imprisonment, and the right to pursue happiness is only a privilege given to those that pursue happiness in accordance to the values of others. The death penalty and imprisonment are thought of as ways to deter crime. Their effectiveness as a deterrent has not been satisfactorily proven for me to think this is an acceptable reason for me to lose life and liberty as rights. However, there are individuals in our society that commit violent crimes and seek to harm others. Violent individuals are imprisoned to protect the nonviolent members of society. In order to keep individuals that have proven themselves to be unable or unwilling to control their harmful desires away from me and the people I love, I am willing to lose my liberty to harm others.
I agree that were I to cause harm purposefully, I should be imprisoned until I can prove to no longer be a threat to others but what about other, non-violent crimes? A person can lose liberty for the inability to a pay ticket, for using illegal (as opposed to legal) drugs, or for the way they parent their child. This scares me because these are all judgement-based crimes. They are only crimes because other people think they are wrong, not because they are harmful or threatening in any way. I don’t mind relinquishing my liberty if I cause physical harm to others but these things are matters of personal choice. What I put in my body, how I raise my children, and how I spend my money should be my right to choose. So many people are fighting for a woman’s right to choose if she wants to have an abortion, something known to cause harm to mother and child. Where is this passion when it comes to a parent’s right to choose how to raise that child? This seems irrational. These things are moral and natural rights but not legal rights. Prisons are filled with people that exercised these rights but found out they were merely privilege. It is evident that inherent rights, our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not legally guaranteed so they are privilege.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not rights. Until all the people of our country can enjoy these privileges equally, they are not rights. This is scary because these things can be taken away at will. Laws that are created to protect us from ourselves really limit our ability to choose how to live. Even an individual that has not committed a crime can be legally imprisoned if it can be argued that they broke a law. It doesn’t take long to look in the news and see cases of personal choice being cause for imprisonment. Parenting is under attack in this country. It is the responsibility of every parent to raise their child in a way that benefits the child and helps them to become healthy adults. The way each parent does this is different based on cultural norms and the temperament of the child. A parent can be arrested and have their child taken from them if someone else decides they do not think the way you raise your child is appropriate and they can convince the law they are right and you are wrong. It is a natural right and a moral right but not a legal right. I am NOT okay with this being a privilege. There is nothing more important to me in my life than my children. The thought that the government can come and forcibly remove them shakes me to my very core and gives me fear. I am afraid to make waves or in any way call attention to myself because it isn’t even my right to care for my own children. The fact that I can be imprisoned, even the fact that I could be killed do not fill me with fear like the fact that my kids could be taken from me and kept from me.
One recent example of parents unable to express their parental choice is the case of the Florida parents arrested for neglect because their eleven-year-old son was left alone playing basketball in his own back yard for ninety minutes. This is the time between when the boy got home from school and the parents got home from work. A neighbor called the police when he saw the boy home alone and the police detained the boy in the backseat of the car until the parents arrived and were arrested. There are so many things here that I thought were my rights but now I realize they are just my privilege. Liberty and the right to parent your child were stripped from these parents in the name of child safety. Neglect is a serious issue but this is not a case of neglect. The child was in no way harmed or in put in any real danger by being home alone until the parents arrived. The only trauma this boy experienced was the legal intervention. For a young boy, sitting in the back of a police car as neighbors looked on was probably scary and humiliating. On top of that, the boy had to watch his parents be arrested and taken away. This must have been incredibly frightening and confusing for the boy – much more frightening than playing on his own in the backyard. In this case, the right to parent was forcibly taken and the entire family made to suffer based off of someone else’s judgement of their parenting choices. When I was younger, kids were often allowed to be alone for short periods of time – it was so common that the term for such a practice was latch-key kids. I was a latch-key kid and I enjoyed the time between getting home from school and my parents coming home from work. I knew if I needed anything, I could go to my neighbors for help so I never felt neglected. It gave me a sense of independence and helped me learn how to take care of myself. Today, my parents could be arrested for choosing to let me care for myself.
Another nonviolent perceived right is our ability to care for ourselves in a manner we see fit. People are allowed to alter their bodies through surgery, tattoos or piercings but what we put into our bodies is not our personal freedom. Choosing to medicate through the legally acceptable methods using over-the-counter or prescription drugs is legally permitted but using other substances is not. Every illegal drug has its legal counterpart but we are not given the right how we want to medicate our bodies or minds. The privilege to medicate is only given to those individuals with health care and financial ability to legally obtain medicines. Self-medication is becoming more popular with the use of homeopathic medicines and essential oils but this is only acceptable because society has agreed to allow it for now but who is to say that this privilege won’t ever be taken away?
My natural rights are only privileges and my moral rights like parenting my children and how I care for my body are only rights when they are deemed acceptable to others – so they are also privilege. What is left? What are my legal rights? This is debatable because with the right circumstances, even a murderer can be legally allowed freedom. Law is a thing of privilege. Depending on the quality of counsel, the judge, the climate of the courtroom, and any number of other factors, a person can get away with breaking a law or they can be convicted even when they are not legally at fault. For this reason, we have no rights legally because once in a courtroom, those rights can be legally taken away.
I am still struck with whether or not I have any rights left. The only thing I can think I can control is my own is my mind and my relationships. My mind could be poisoned, I could be institutionalized and put on medications to subdue my thoughts, so having control of my mind is not my right, it is a privilege. My relationships, my ability to relate to others is my right. Once a relationship has been established, the people involved gain privilege. If someone else cares for a person then that person becomes less vulnerable to having their privileges taken away. It is because a person is cared for that a government has trouble taking privilege. The loss of privilege is noticed and others come in to help regain those privileges. The only right we have left is our right to care about each other and we throw this right away through fear, apathy, and hate. We can only fight this massive lack of rights through caring. Caring enough to create change, caring enough for each other to protect the things that should be rights, and caring enough to risk our own privileges to make sure others don’t lose theirs. The problem isn’t that we do not have lost our basic rights – it is that we do not care enough to realize that we lost never had them to begin with. We need to care enough to claim these privileges as rights so we do not have to live in fear of government or each other.