If I could abolish one word, it would be the noun “right.” As in Bill of Rights. Right to life. Right to privacy. Gun rights. Reproductive rights. Calling something a right is too absolute. A right is non-negotiable. We don’t like it when someone tries to take one away. It’s hard to even talk about it.
All rights share the road with other rights. We have the right to free speech, but not to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. I had a law professor who put it this way: there are no rights, only interests. When individual interests conflict with each other or with broader societal interests, someone has to weight each in the balance.
That job has largely fallen to the Supreme Court. On their scale, an individual “fundamental right” is outweighed only by a “compelling state interest.” Sometimes it seems that a faction on the Court has its thumb on one side or another of the scale, but overall I think the Justices do a better job than many of us at recognizing the legitimacy of competing interests.
Outside the courtroom, in social and political discourse, too often our arguments sound like this:
“I want an abortion.”
“You’re not the one who has to raise the unwanted child.”
“Murder is murder.”
“I want to marry my same-sex partner.”
“That’s just wrong.”
I own a shotgun. I used to shoot skeet and the occasional dove. I’m giving the gun away. After Newtown, I just don’t want it around anymore. I was raised in the south on hamburger and bacon. I took that kind of food for granted. Now, though, when I think about how animals are raised to support those food choices--pigs and calves spending their entire lives in crates--my interest in eating ham and veal doesn’t seem so compelling.
My metamorphosis on these and other issues has been gradual and organic. No one has pushed me. But sometimes events bump up hard against us. When that happens before we’re ready, we’re likely to dig in. Fearing that if we don’t stand our ground we might lose a way of life we cherish, we stop making an effort to understand the other guy’s point of view.
I love religious freedom, not least because implied in that term is freedom from religion. I don’t have to abide by another’s beliefs. The Obamacare contraception controversy is a good example of “rights” being swung like cudgels. Some business owners say it offends their religious beliefs to provide health-care coverage for abortions. What if they were Christian Scientists who didn’t believe in medical care at all? Could they refuse all health coverage for their employees?
The things we call rights are like coats. They keep us warm. They protect us from all but the most extraordinary conditions. They are not swords. They are not meant to slay heathens. It has been a long time since infidels were burned at the stake, but in many debates over things like abortion and gay marriage we are no less intolerant. It seems to me we have more to fear from becoming the kind of people who turn away from empathy than we have to fear from two men who want to live peacefully together or a pregnant teen who isn’t ready to be a mother.