Despite nationwide media attention, I have stayed out of the discussions, on other sites I frequent, regarding California’s Prop 8 and the ensuing Supreme Court battles. The reason has not been due to support or lack thereof, but with the major dis-ease I have suffered over the concept of voting on rights. When rights become the purview of the majority to grant or take away, they are no longer rights but privileges.
Right – noun.
A just claim or title, whether legal, prescriptive, or moral: You have a right to say what you please.
That which is due to anyone by just claim, legal guarantees, moral principles, etc.: (women’s rights; Freedom of speech is a right of all Americans.)
[The addition of “inalienable” to “rights” emphasizes the constitutional concept.]
Privilege – noun.
A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.
Such an advantage, immunity, or right held as a prerogative of status or rank, and exercised to the exclusion or detriment of others.
The principle of granting and maintaining a special right or immunity: a society based on privilege.
The amount of money spent on campaigning to deny the “privilege” of marriage to lesbians and gays was enormous, as was that spent on defending the right of all to marry. Beyond the amount of material possessions given to fight this battle, however, is the grim reality that “rights” in this country can now be bought and sold to the highest bidder for the popular vote. It might seem inconceivable that the “success” of the Yes on 8 campaign could precipitate the conversion of other rights to privileges, but that is indeed the danger. Rights that can be popularly converted to privilege are rights no longer, and they are certainly not inalienable.
If marriage is deemed a privilege as opposed to a right, what other roles in society are up for redefinition? Those things we assume are rights – voting, working, owning, etc. – run the risk of becoming privileges that can be taken away when the majority decides it is in their best interest to do so. This, of course, will only logically happen when the majority is threatened in some way real or perceived. Is this not such a time? Has there been a time in our memories when the majority has been threatened to the extent it is now? This is a time of dis-ease that could promote a social disease of even more stringently restricting the rights of others.
Given that the roles of women that were held up in Obama’s acceptance speech only included wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers and supporters, can we expect the long anticipated change-master to overcome innate privilege and bias to do what is truly right. Missing from the list at the beginning of his speech were women – oh, they were included by inference, just as they are included inferentially in the concept “all men are created equal”, but never mentioned in terms of what women have accomplished. Even the considerable time spent talking about the venerable Ann Nixon Cooper discussed not what she had done, but what she had witnessed. Absent was any acknowledgment of the considerable accomplishments of women, especially women of color, outside of the traditional roles of being supportive of men. This may indeed be an oversight but, as many of us know, oversights give insights into the psyches of leaders.
One of the changes I hope Obama has the courage to make is to bring about a dialogue of the nature of rights. Right now this country has been taught, yet again, that it is the “right” of the majority to ride roughshod over the minority – to vote to limit or eliminate rights. The majority has not exercised its “right”, but rather has shown and used its privilege, granted simply by virtue of being the majority, to extinguish a group of people from the classification so primitively described in the affirmation “All men are created equal.”