Notes from the small pond: We have the right to have rights ... right?
April 16, 2021
Freedom of Speech: We can say what we want, whenever, wherever we want. Except “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
Most of us get that.
Freedom of Assembly: We can peaceably gather when and where we want. Except when we can’t because it is patently against the law and compromises someone else’s rights.
Most of us get that.
Freedom to Keep and Bear Arms: I can have a .12 gauge for a partridge dinner and you can have an AR-15 for … for … what, again? Oh, yeah. Target practice. In case of Zombies.
Meanwhile, while our flags fly at half-staff, a cry of Righteous, increasingly sallow indignation prays upward: “Those deaths are not the fault of an AR-15! The shooter’s to blame! We should fix our societal problems so maniacal murderers don’t exist in the first place. We have the Right to bear arms because we have the Right!”
Fair enough. I’m all for No Maniacal Murderers. I’m all for No Mental Illness. I’m all in for No Bullies, No Insecurities, No Cancer, No Heart Disease, No Diabetes, No Alzheimer’s, No Parkinson’s, No Addiction, No Huntington’s, No Torture, No Child Abuse, No Kidnapping, No War, No Pollution, No Pain, No Sorrow, No Suffering, No Tears, No Plantar Warts, No “The Bachelor” Episodes, No Flat Tires, No Second Guesses and No Peanut Butter That You Have to Stir.
I am for Paradise. Nirvana. Perfection. Heaven on Earth.
But that’s “our” job. And here we are and, so far, we suck at it.
Some of us get that. I think.
There are myriad inherent challenges in not only defining and defending our rights, but in reasonably granting them on the one hand and exercising them, once granted, on the other.
Our Rights are, after all, nothing more than legally, culturally, societally defined tools we’ve canonized to help us, collectively, to sway us, individually, away from the ugliest parts of what it is to be ourselves. We can’t help enacting the darkest elements of being human until we create powerful tools to help ourselves, from the 7.5 billion “myselves” that currently inhabit Planet Earth. Spy on any group of toddlers. Inevitably, they collectively come up with rules in order to stave off the naturally occurring chaos, which simply gets in the way of having fun.
And staying alive.
Ask William Golding.
And powerful tools, we know, in the hands of irresponsible, errant, unknowing, narcissistic individuals are dangerous. Deadly, even. No one gives a running chainsaw to a narcissistic, unknowing, errant, irresponsible 2-year-old.
Most of us get that.
The genius and the challenge baked into our Rights is the foundational premise that those exercising those Rights have a respect for the blood, sweat and tears that went into earning those rights — and let’s keep in mind — our Rights were earned, not given; and depending on your age, most of that earning was done by earlier, better humans than you and I.
So, when we declare “This is my Right!” it’s sort of like when you’re a kid standing at the safe edge of the curb separating your yard from the street, taunting the would-be bully: Get outta my yard! This is my property!
In the immature lexicon of childhood, fair enough. But, in fact, it’s mostly the property of your parents who earned it. You’re just the brat benefactor.
And someday the bully’s gonna find you off your property.
More critically, for American-style Rights to be sustainable, there is an inherently dependent relationship between our rights and the intelligent, informed, reasonable, fair and safe manner in which they are exercised.
And since they are our Rights, we get to/have to define what “intelligent, informed, reasonable, fair and safe” means.
That, of course, in addition to being the genius baked into our Rights, is the challenge. And the danger. Also baked in.
Not unlike the Garden of Eden thing. We’re not automatonic worshippers and followers of what is good. We have the choice. And the flip side of choice is responsibility.
Indeed, we have the responsibility, the curse, even, to be reasonable and, further, to determine, collectively, not individually, what reasonable is. And, wherever there’s an opportunity for interpretation, there is an opportunity for disagreement.
As they say, the devil is in the details.
As the story goes, it was from the Tree of Reason that we first tasted sweetness, and it was sweetness that got us banished when it turned bitter upon our ability to know our nature beyond just living it.
Reason is a verb first, noun second.
Primarily, we are hardwired to reason (verb) — in order to come up with a reason (noun). Not the other way around.
As such, when we find ourselves exercising our rights simply “because we have the right to exercise our rights” we are doing so borne of the “reason” that we Have the Right. That is an uninformed, robotic, inherently unreasonable manner in which to exercise our blood-earned rights.
That’s not much more enlightened than me exercising my naturally given (God-given?) right to beat up my brother and take all his stuff because I am bigger, stronger and physically able/gifted enough to do so.
Or because I have an AR-15.
That’s how the animal kingdom works. Very efficient, in the Darwinian sense.
At the root of it, the Rights bestowed on us are due to the undeserved dumb luck of being born here. They demand that we collectively use reason to define the most universally beneficial definition of “intelligent, informed, reasonable, fair and safe” — all as part of the sacred and endless pursuit of a more perfect union.
Not perfect. Just more perfect than yesterday.
Demanding our Right to exercise our Rights, purely for the sake of itself, is like the kid with the Right to eat his pillowcase full of Halloween candy all at once and not save any of it or, God forbid, share any of it, ever. It’s his Right to keep it all, after all.
Like the kid with the candy, we have the Right to be gluttonous and selfish and fat and lazy. We have the Right to not shower and to scowl at babies. We have the Right to wave flags with the F-Word a block from two schools and shout offensive language, incite/invite violence, sow mistrust, division and chaos, for the sake of stroking some twisted, desperate hunger to matter — because we have the right to do so (the right to stroke, not to matter).
And we have the right to be lonely, miserable, lost, petty and afraid of the Frankenstein’s monster we’ve made of ourselves. Our power, the brutish kind, sparked to life by the Rights earned by those creators before us, “deserves” no part of the formula.
Anyone get that?
Parnell Thill of Cloquet is an author and award-winning newspaper columnist. His book “Killing the Devil and Other Excellent Tricks” is available viat online retailers. Contact him care of [email protected]