Getting rights right

Protests grow violent and lawsuits run rampant because something is skewed in our society. From the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court to our very own campus in Suburbia U.S.A.,  a subtle shift has occurred. What is the source of the discord and destruction? A faulty perception of legal rights.

There are two main areas we tend to neglect: the purpose of our rights and the precedence of certain rights.

The tragic death of Trayvon Martin four-and-a-half years ago sparked a series of protests that have continued up to this very month. Peaceful protests are a sign of a healthy society, but when they become violent, it is a telltale sign that we understand neither the purpose nor the precedence of our rights.

We read in the Declaration of Independence that all mankind is bestowed with “certain unalienable Rights” including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (in that order of significance). The purpose of each of these rights is to guarantee us the freedom to perform the duties required of us.

Each of these rights is like a tool in a carpenter’s tool belt; they are all different and have different functions. Some turn screws, others measure materials and still others give a straight cut. None of the tools, however, are valuable unless they are utilized properly.

If you try to drill a screw with a hammer, you won’t get very far in building that plus-sized mansion of yours. Similarly, if our rights aren’t used to perform our inherent duties, the fabric of our society inevitably crumbles. Each right has an associated duty to be paid, whether to our family, our community or our government.

For example, if we didn’t have financial means (property), we could not provide for our own. If we didn’t have liberty, we could not protect our own. Each right, whether it be that of free speech, fair trial or faith, is given to us with a distinct duty.

But, unlike mankind, rights are not created equal. Some take precedence over others.

If someone were to kidnap a child off the streets of your neighborhood and drag the child into his or her house, would that person be protected from the law because the child was now within the privacy of his kidnapper’s house?

No. We understand naturally that certain rights trump others. In this case, the child’s right to life and liberty supersedes his kidnapper’s right to privacy. So, too, the right to assemble and peacefully protest is circumscribed by others’ rights to life and property. 

Our country is not headed in the right direction and it is blatantly obvious. Real Clear Politics, the gold standard for polling, estimates that 65 percent of the country believes we are on the wrong track.

Hope is not yet lost for our country, but if we are to be effective in leading change, we must exercise our rights in the way they were intended to be: bound and checked by the freedom of others and the duties we ourselves are bound by.