Lately I have heard a lot of talk about "rights" in political discourse. This is probably just a coincidence rather than a trend, but it is a coincidence that gets one thinking about these issues. What has struck me is the remarkable ignorance of many people and the politicization of the issue by many others.
I don't think one needs to be a legal expert to understand the issue of political rights, particularly at a basic abstract level. One needs only to be familiar with the basic history or the development of Western democracies since the Enlightenment.
One of the occasions that came up in the past couple days was a letter to CBC's The Current over their recent discussion of the resurgence of the Christian Right in Canada. Some evangelical wrote a letter complaining about "liberally" minded people who themselves complain about Christians 'imposing' their beliefs on other people in society. This Christian letter-writer said that they were fed up with liberals who suggest that when Christian's promote their values it is an 'imposition' of the values on others while the liberal values are portrayed by them as somehow 'value neutral.' And predictably the Christian used the example of Gay Marriage as being a value that was being imposed on others by liberals and Homosexuals.
Now I am not really sure if it is ignorance or just politics at work here. Does this Evangelical Christian really not understand the difference? I am beginning to think that there are many out there that are just so incapable of simple reasoning that they really believe this stuff. This ignorant Christian letter-writer just doesn't understand the difference between 'rights' and 'restrictions.' A right is something you can chose to take advantage of or not. A restriction is something that limits your choice. Thus 'rights' do not impose values on people, rather they open an option for people to make certain choices. Gay marriage is such a right. It doesn't imposes gay values on anyone, it gives Gay people the right to live by their values. However, when Christians seek to restrict women's availability to safe, legal abortions, they are trying to restrict the actions of others and compel them to live by certain Christian values. (Smarter Christians have naturally picked up on this distinction and begun to argue for the 'rights' of the so-called 'un-born')
Of course, our society has many legal restrictions and these impose, in a de facto sense, values on people. But in keeping with the basic principles of Western democracies, these restrictions are mostly intended to stop people from doing things that have a direct and detrimental impact on others.I am not arguing here about the rightness or wrongness or the system per se, simply pointing out that this is generally the way it is intended to work.
When Christians seek to restrict the right of Gay Marriage they are directly imposing their values on others. When Gay people (or other supporters) seek to bestow the right for Gay people to marry, they impose their values on no one because if my Gay neighbors marry their actions have no direct and detrimental impact on me.
Thus, what many Christian advocacy groups appear not to understand is that 'rights' groups like thoses that support Gay Marriage, generally are working to extend rights to people that grow out of the fundamental principles in the Constitution and Charter of rights. Christian groups, on the other hand, are usually (but not in all cases), seeking to create laws and restrictions that reflect their values which they claim flow from external religious documents which many of us simply do no believe in.
Tomorrow I will address the way the right-wing talks about 'victim's rights.'