The Illusory Nature Of Rights.
Our rights only mean something if we behave as if they do.
Elephant handlers employ a pretty devious trick to prevent their elephants from running away. When they’re young, the handlers tie a rope around the elephant’s leg and tie the other end to a tree or a post that’s been driven deep into the ground. The young elephant will, of course, try to escape, but they’ll find that they can’t. After a while, whenever the rope is tied around the leg of the elephant, it will recognise that it can’t move freely, and so it stays put.
The interesting thing is that this continues to work long after the elephant is big and strong enough to uproot a tree. In fact, once the elephant has been trained in this way, the handler doesn’t even need to bother tying the other end of the rope to anything. The elephant is constrained by the idea that the rope represents.
It might not seem like it at first, but our rights operate in a similar way. When we’re young we learn what we are entitled to. We learn how we’re expected to treat others, and that they’re expected to treat us the same way in return. As we get older, we begin to believe that these rules are immutable. That they’re not the result of a fragile collective agreement, but that they’re tangible, immutable realities of our experience. This belief makes it tragically easy to take these rights for granted.
There’s a video on YouTube which illustrates this particularly starkly. It shows an altercation between a Romanian woman and a police officer. The video opens with her shouting at him about something and as he tries to move away she delivers an impressive backhand slap to his face. Time seems to stand still as the echo from the slap fades. A strange vocalisation of disbelief escapes the officer’s lips as he tries to process what has just happened. Then, after he repositions the glasses that have just been slapped off his face, he retaliates with a short, sharp slap of his own.
I’m not going to discuss the merits of the officer’s actions here. There’s a lot that could be said about whether an officer should hit a civilian, or whether a man should slap a woman. Of course, we could also ask whether a civilian should hit an officer or a woman should hit a man. What most interests me about this video isn’t the slap itself, but the woman’s reaction to it.
After her own brief moment of shock, the woman bursts into tears. Her reaction doesn’t seem to be because she’s in any great pain, but because she can’t believe that being slapped was even a possibility. “How can he slap me?” she repeatedly asks a woman who is standing nearby. Even though she had slapped him just a few seconds earlier, the possibility of the officer responding in kind didn’t seem to have occurred to her. In her mind, she had a right to hit him which he didn’t share.
This is the funny thing about rights. We presume that they exist as real tangible things, but in practice, they’re only as real as we and the people we’re interacting with believe them to be. There’s no way for us to assert our rights unless the society around us agrees that we have them. Rights are granted not held. They are man-made not divine. They exist because the members of a society come together and agree to respect and defend certain standards of behaviour. But as the lady in the video found out, this consensus is more fragile than we often assume it to be.
There are only two ways to maintain rights within a society. The first we’ve already covered; that the members of a society come together and agree on rights that will be held and shared by all. The other option is violence. Violence doesn’t work out so well for most of the people in a society of course. In a violent society, which people benefit from which rights is decided by the person or group that can hit the hardest. This doesn’t need to mean actual physical force of course. It just refers to whoever has the greatest ability to exert some form of power over the other members of society.
Those wielding the power, can reserve certain rights for themselves, whilst denying them to others. In fact, this is always the way that rights are apportioned in a society based on power; there is always an imbalance in the rights of those with power and those without. This is true in the west too, but it’s less true than anywhere else in the world. This doesn’t make this imbalance acceptable, but it means that the fight for progress here is a fight to continue improving this balance, to work our way closer to a point where rights are truly evenly distributed, not to shuffle around which people hold sway.
The best way to protect our rights is to do our best to ensure that they are available to everybody. This includes those we despise and disagree with. This isn’t easy to do. This isn’t appealing. But rights can’t be maintained by consensus unless everybody has something to lose by trying to diminish them. As long as one group holds power over another, even if that group is convinced of their righteousness, the group who feels they have nothing to lose will eventually rise up and overthrow them. This is the principle behind every revolution in history.
The truth is that there are no righteous tyrants. There is no justice in denying others the rights you would want for yourself. There is no decency in retribution. Principles matter, laws matter, rights matter. It matters that everybody is protected by them. Because as illusory as they are, as imperfect as they can be, as frustrating as it is that they sometimes protect those we despise, they’re the only things standing between the world we know and a world where the person who hits hardest gets to decide everything.