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When Rights Become Toxic

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The dramatic turnaround in views about same-sex marriage says hopeful things about Americans' capacity for tolerance, empathy, and fairness, and about our willingness to prize family in all its forms. Moreover, the struggle for marriage equality is the latest chapter in a larger effort to extend equal rights and dignity to all human beings. However, another, more disturbing story about rights is also unfolding in our nation.

As articulated by liberal political philosophers like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, the language of rights was long balanced by interpersonal responsibility and the common good. Locke said we were obliged to help other human beings when one's own survival was not in competition, Kant called on us to treat people as ends-in-themselves rather than as mere instruments for one's self-interest, and Mill based his vigorous defense of individual rights on the broader social benefits of liberty. The struggle of LGBT people for rights and equality, for example, has not just been about freedom from discrimination, but also about being able to carry out social duties like raising a family and serving in the military and about strengthening society's fabric of mutual respect and recognition.

Unfortunately, though, the language of rights has also taken a darker, toxic turn. Three months after Adam Lanza mowed down 20 schoolchildren and six adults, our nation is still struggling to enact even the most minimal new restrictions on the possession of firearms. Even universal background checks on guns have come up against a wall of Second Amendment rhetoric proclaiming the rights of citizens to virtually unregulated gun ownership and to defensive arsenals of firepower to ward off the federal government. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court's notorious Citizens United decision declared that free speech entails the right of wealthy individuals, firms, or labor unions to deploy huge sums of money to influence political campaigns. Federal energy legislation to protect our nation and our planet from catastrophic climate change has been stymied by business and ideological interests who invoke economic liberty and freedom from taxation; similar libertarian arguments are thrown up against proposals to address growing income inequality. Efforts to stem the growing crisis of obesity have met with opposition from a food industry proclaiming rights of consumer choice.

In all of these cases, the invocation of rights is not about protecting the oppressed from discrimination and welcoming all people into a community of equal respect, recognition, and responsibility. Rather, rights have become a means for the offensive or defensive exercise of naked power or intimidation, whether through weaponry, money, control of natural resources, or marketing and advertising. The invocation of rights by assault weapons owners, wealthy campaign contributors, fossil fuel companies, top income earners, and junk food manufacturers is thus qualitatively different from the invocation of rights by women, racial minorities, gay people, the disabled, and other historically marginalized groups.

Unfortunately, this qualitative distinction has largely been lost in public discourse. We increasingly view rights solely as a shield against government oppression rather than seeing them in context as an integral part of a free society bound together by mutual respect and obligation. Rights should certainly provide a check against government, but to view them only in this way forces us to put an oil company resisting greenhouse gas regulations or a gun owner intent on carrying an assault rifle in public on a par with a gay couple fighting for equal marriage rights or an African-American senior citizen seeking to overturn voting restrictions. Rights then become a cover for powerful groups or individuals to speak of liberty while tyrannizing over others.

Furthermore, this conception of rights turns society itself into a zero-sum competition of power and self-interest rather than a realm of cooperation. Tough luck if my freedom to purchase an assault weapon and tote it around in public personally threatens you. If you feel unsafe, then balance my firepower with some of your own. If I spend huge amounts of money to influence the political process, that's my right. If you don't like it, then counter with your own cash.

Thus conceived, rights become toxic to the body politic and to social cooperation itself. Ironically, the ultimate danger here is not the chaos of unfettered liberty. Rather, the danger is tyranny itself, whether exercised by powerful individuals or corporations unchecked by government regulation or exercised by a democratic majority threatened by the very notion of individual rights. To protect liberal democracy, we must return to a notion of rights balanced with communitarian obligation, and we must recognize that not all 'rights' are created equal.