I have followed the latest culture wars over the appointment of Sarah Jeong to the New York Times editorial board.  When I first heard about the appointment, I was upset about the apparent double standard and Ms. Jeong’s tweets about white people that would be judged racist or worse if any other race group were to be substituted for “white.”  But then I read what she said and realized that, very often, her writings were in response to even uglier words hurled by her detractors.  Not a great strategy for a response to ugliness, but understandable if you are not a member of the dominant power group in North America that is white.

In the aftermath of her appointment, the Huffington Post ran an article saying that she had “every right to be angry.”  And they were right.  But maybe that’s the problem.  Conflicts today end up in the swamp of “my rights” versus “your rights.”  I have a right not to vaccinate my child but that ends up contributing to the harm of other children.  My aunt had a right to the lovely view of the Rocky Mountains out her kitchen window in Boulder until her neighbors built a three-story McMansion next door blocking the view she had enjoyed for 60 years.  Your right to own guns of enormous power stored loaded and accessible to children will inevitably lead to a tragedy.  We have defined rights for fetuses and corporations and basic human rights for everyone on the planet.  But we don’t do a very good job adjudicating between my rights versus your rights.

Saying that someone has a “right to be angry” is fine.  Rights are abstract things.  It might be helpful to list some synonyms; goodness, righteousness, virtue, integrity, rectitude, propriety, morality, truth, honesty, honor, justice, fairness, equity.  Conflicts occur when these different qualities of rights oppose each other.  As long as we remain stuck in the swamp of rights, there can be no progress. 

Rights are nouns.  They are the names of things one can possess or control.  What if we paired up things with actions?  What if we developed a Bill of Responsibilities?  That way, if you possessed an inalienable right (let’s say to privacy), then you would have a concomitant responsibility to do something (for example to respect the privacy of others).

I Googled “Bill of Responsibilities” and came up with quite a few.  The ideas are generally spot on.  Here is one set of responsibilities

  • To be fully responsible for our own actions and for the consequences of those actions
  • To respect the rights and beliefs of others
  • To give sympathy, understanding, and help to others
  • To do our best to meet our own and our families’ needs.
  • To respect and obey the laws
  • To respect the property of others, both private and public
  • To share with others our appreciation of the benefits and obligations of freedom
  • To participate constructively in the nation’s political life
  • To respect the rights and to meet the responsibilities on which our liberty rests and our democracy depends.

I am beginning to understand that rights, in themselves, have no meaning unless people are responsible with them.  If only the framers of our Constitution had included a Bill of Responsibilities we might have fewer pointless arguments about who owns what right to something and better discussions about what needs to be done to fix things.