Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The perversity of “rights”

Justin Surgent/Collegian

The language used in the student walkout protesting the “right to education” last Thursday is a pitiful display of just how language can be perverted to no longer be a channel of discourse. For them, language is a tool for political maneuvering, with little care being given to the truth of its content.

The protesters took terms that once corresponded with significant concepts useful for political dialogue and abused them to the point of making them meaningless. Though they stand in a long tradition of embracing such perversity, said tradition has become rotten from within.

One such term is the concept of a “right.”  There was once a time in politics when a “right” had clear meaning signifying those aspects of life that could only be interfered with in accordance with the rule of law. These rights – life, liberty and property – were first made famous by John Locke in the 17th century and later became central in political discourse, from the American Constitution to the English Liberal party.

They were things that were free to first men and then human beings by the dignity of their creation. No one else could tread upon them. The concept limited the use of coercion within society. Everyone could pursue their own ends with the knowledge that coercion used against them would be as predictable as a law of nature.

Many argue life, liberty and property are entitlements no different than the bastardized concept of a right to education. This is false. If one walks by someone being mugged on the other side of the road, one is not violating another’s rights by not protecting their life and property. While the action may be disgustingly immoral, it is not violating anyone’s rights; to do that one would have to be doing to mugging.

Indeed, in DeShaney v. Winnebago County, the Supreme Court ruled that even though a government agency failed to prevent child abuse, there was no violation of rights as guaranteed by the 14th  Amendment. For there to be an encroachment on individual rights, there has to be a violation of those rights, and not just a failure to secure.

The abuse of the concept of “right” can be vividly seen in the chant used by the recent protesters: “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white.”

In their contention they have a right to education, the protesters continue an all-too-long tradition of taking whatever one’s desiring, and turning it into a right that others must provide for you. Rather than a defense of each human being’s dignity as people capable of managing their own affairs, the notion of a human right has been transformed into an assertion of an entitlement. Accomplished individuals once demanded to be left alone with the words “Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même!” which translates to “Let do and let pass. The world goes on by itself!” Now we are left with indignant adolescents yelling: “Free ride or bust!”

This equivocation of rights with a misplaced sense of entitlement only serves to obfuscate political dialogue and to make the concepts necessary for that dialogue unclear. The purpose of the concept of a right is not to identify free giveaways, goods everyone is entitled to, even at the expense of others. To the contrary, they identify the borders of each citizen’s private sphere, only to be interfered with after much deliberation and in accordance with the law.

We can understand how far the term “right” has been debased when we realize the phrase “education is a right” asserts that one has the right to coerce the taxpayers of Massachusetts to sacrifice a portion of their income to pay one’s own bills. All of that money coming from Boston, as little as it may be to the judgment of many, does not come from a black box in Beacon Hill; rather, it is taken from the pay checks of citizens, and those of all walks of life, not just the rich or white.

To claim a right to money from any government financed by forcible taxation is to assert that one has a right to exact a toll from the income from every citizen within the state. To take money from another person so one could purchase a desire, say a new personal library, when it does not benefit the other person would be considered common theft. However, when it is done through the instrument of the state, when the act is gilded in the rhetoric of human “rights,” then it is no longer considered serfdom.

It’s comical how far the concept of “right” has been abused, but it’s also testament to how befuddled issues become when the political language is corrupted. Whereas the Nazarene turned water into wine, the protesters turned a call for serfdom into an exhortation for a right. They didn’t even require divinity to do so. Their method was debauched language that did not provide a clear and distinct description of the concept they were referring to but rather provided little more than a rallying cry.

Instead of trying to use the term within its proper use in the English language, the protesters brandished it as little more than a weapon, an attractive sounding term to be used at their discretion. Of course, a casualty of this abuse of language is that it rots our political language from within. No longer can we be sure that when we use “right” in our speech that it pertains to something meaningful, and as a result we lose the ability to seriously discuss it.

There can be no clearer instance of this than those who have taken up the issue of contraception as a human right. These advocates prove that as long as something can fit in an Amazon shopping cart, there will be cries – especially from those who benefit from it – for legislating it as a human right. There’s no need to consider the situation of those people who don’t use contraception when they are paying an artificially higher rate on their insurance because they are obviously all men who don’t understand the plight of women.

Before long, gamers – who believe they cannot enjoy life without knowing Commander Shepard’s fate – will be demanding that the government subsidize “Mass Effect 3.”  Perhaps our expectation for a person’s exercise of self-constraint will diminish even lower to such a point that to say that one can simply live without “Mass Effect 3” would be an insult to the dignity of gamers.

For all the talk about “enlightened sexuality” and so on, many moderns find it difficult to accept there is nothing special about sex. It is just yet another trait of human life and so is subject to valuation. Like anything else, if sex does not fit into one’s budget, one must either revalue the objects contained in the budget or accept that one cannot afford it. And believe it or not, it is possible to be happy without intercourse just as it is possible to be so without “Mass Effect 3.”

All of this aside, calling for serfdom of the many for the few would be political suicide. To suggest on the public square that students have an entitlement to money in other people’s pockets is not a winning strategy. The same is the case for saying that a celibate somehow has an obligation to pay a higher price for her health-insurance to ensure that a woman across the country need not worry about fitting her sex life into a budget.

Anyone can thus be able to sympathize with the plight of those who would like to participate in theft “en masse” but don’t have the courage to call it what it is. It is thus of no surprise that instead the supporters of such a program turn to corrupting a concept, one that is enshrined within the ideology of the West’s liberal democracy, bending it to their will, in order to ensure they would not have to say such things openly. After all, a criminal cause is always more tasteful to rally under when it is flying the banner of justice, and theft is always more genial when it is done by the state.

Harrison Searles is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].


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  • D

    Dirk NowitzkiMar 7, 2012 at 10:41 am

    The concept of a ‘right’ has been butchered beyond belief. How can someone have a right to another person’s labor? TINSTAAFL.

  • B

    BenMar 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    You didn’t mention other rights which are also entitlements, but which most people might find less frivolous: the right to food and the right to housing. I assume your position is the same on them?

  • H

    hmmMar 6, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    the only perversity is that the collegian continues to publish this kind of pseudo-intellectual objectivist swill. it’s a slap in the face to everyone who’s suffering from not just the bad economy but the government’s failure to help regular people like us in the interests of protecting the rich. Searles comes off like a prematurely-aged version of one of those rich idiots in suits going “what’s wrong with these greedy kids? why don’t they just invent some new computer thing so that the whole economy will be magically fixed?” put down The Fountainhead and go outside, Harry, and you might actually learn something. serfdom of the many is already here. although rather than in the form of forced labor it is the mass exclusion from employment and being left to fend for oneself in a society we never asked to be born into while every avenue of help starts to grow up. that’s what austerity means to us.

  • R

    Real WorldMar 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Well said! Not everyone should go to college. Fix primary education, and stop worrying about secondary education so much for now.