Funny things, rights. We all think we have them when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The only right we conceivably have is the right to breathe, the right to air. Of course in the future even that right will be severely curtailed when there’s more pollution than oxygen in the atmosphere (here’s a business opportunity you can have on me, gratis; why not start selling tins of fresh air, you can add various scents to it – mountain pine, ocean fresh, stale tobacco…you can even bring out a luxury range for the toffs and call it rarefied air. I’m telling you, you’ll make a fortune.)
Broadly speaking the rights that we like to think we have fall into two categories; legal rights conferred by the authorities that we let run our lives, and other, less tangible ones which aren’t even rights at all; they are simply the result of humanity’s conflating of rights with a sense of its own entitlement. Things like the right to have children fall into the second category, as do more prosaic ideas such as the right to park your car outside your house even though your house is on a public street. Perhaps you should have bought a house with a garage. These aren’t rights, they are merely things to which we feel entitled to .
Our legal rights are slightly different in so far as they are enshrined in legislation and therefore protected. Or so we like to think. Both the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) guarantee the right to freedom from torture. Most western-style democracies are signed up to either the former or the latter (or both) and as such these countries officially neither carry out acts of torture nor condone them. Instead they simply outsource them. Still, that’s progress. In Northern Ireland in the 1970s the UK government introduced internment; essentially imprisonment without trial. What you regard as your legal rights are only ever a government-defined national emergency away from being revoked. These legal rights are not, as we like to believe, set in stone; rather, they are contingent upon political and cultural expediency.
We enjoy our right to freedom of expression. Thirty years ago a comedian could appear on television and deliver a set consisting entirely of racist or homophobic material, but they would never dream of telling a rape ‘joke’. This dubious convention has now been reversed but remains just as dubious. In both situations the comedians involved would invoke their right to freedom of expression. Here’s an interesting exercise for you. Next time you’re at the cinema wait until the lights have gone down and the film has started. Then, as loudly as you can, shout “Fire! Run for your lives!” When you are subsequently nicked for irresponsibly causing a stampede confidently inform the arresting officer that you were simply exercising your right to freedom of expression as enshrined in both the ECHR and UDHR and see what happens.
Politicians are fond of telling us that with rights come responsibilities, but if that is indeed the case then your rights are not absolute, ultimately they are contingent, and it is that contingency which fatally undermines them. Both our sense of entitlement and the ostentatious granting of universal rights to ourselves (universal? What chutzpah!) stem from the same source; wanting to believe that humans are somehow exceptional, unique, different from other animals and therefore deserving of special treatment; unfortunately the only thing that is exceptional about humanity is it’s propensity for self-delusion. We confer rights upon ourselves but deny them to other animals. Why, when we are no different to other animals? The Australian ethicist Peter Singer calls this speciesism, but it is simply human arrogance mixed with fear, because deep down we know we are just another species of animal and that our lives have no more profound meaning than that of an ant.
The blind belief that granting ourselves human rights will somehow make us better humans is just another manifestation of that arrogance, an arrogance which ignores the history of our species which is a history of extermination, cruelty and brutality. All the rights in the world won’t change that. So the next time you hear someone on a bus bleating that they have the right to play shit on their iPod as loudly as they wish, or that they have the right to say what they want no matter how idiotic or bigoted, regardless of who they might offend, just smile… take a deep breath of air into your lungs and smile, because that’s all you’ve got.