wholepeace

Posts Tagged ‘Personal boundaries’

On Rights and What’s Right

In Politics on April 29, 2016 at 4:04 pm

What if there are no “unalienable rights?”

The first ten amendments to the Constitution outline some fundamental rights, but we should be clear that those rights are granted by the Constitution. And the idea of those rights, including the idea that our rights are thus limited and unless the right to something is in the Constitution somewhere means that it doesn’t exist (the ninth amendment notwithstanding), is a powerful one. But what does all that really mean?

Rights are a human invention. They are neither natural nor God-given. Rights can only be “natural” if we believe that nature confers rights, but the natural, non-human world depends on neither morality nor ethics for its interactions. In a world of prey and predators there can be no right to life. And the idea that God grants us our rights depends on whether we believe in a god, and what sort of god we believe in. Because humans create and endow rights, they are almost always limited and poorly understood.

There are two fundamental principles regarding rights. The first is that something may be the right thing to do, even if it isn’t a right. The second, its converse, is that just because something is a right doesn’t mean that it is always right.

On balance, I think that we spend too much time trying to define rights and too little time trying to define what is right.

I don’t have to believe that everyone has a right to a basic minimum living wage in order to be convinced that making sure that everyone has the ability to live a decent life and participate in the nation’s economic life is a good idea. . A nation which systemically denies large segments of its people equitable access to and participation in its economic life is headed for more than just economic trouble. If a society genuinely cares about the welfare of its citizens, about the health of its economy, and about the stability of its culture, then seeing to it that every citizen has the means to participate meaningfully in the economy, and to avoid the many ills associated with cycles of poverty, then a living wage makes good sense as a part of that. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe that access to affordable, effective health care is a human right in order to believe that it makes a lot of sense to keep the nation’s (and the world’s) populace as healthy as we can and to make it the work of government to ensure that. With or without a right to it, people clearly have a need for it; and a healthy, productive society is preferable to one in which preventable and treatable diseases waste billions of dollars of both personal and public wealth. Also, a society that cares for the needs of its people is less vulnerable to political and social unrest and more likely to promote not just good physical health, but greater levels of creativity, innovation and productivity over all. It’s the right thing to do.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that universal suffrage and access to the voting booth is a right in order to believe that doing all we can to ensure that every citizen has access to the voting booth is essential to the health of our system of government. When we disenfranchise any of our citizens we cheapen our democracy. A government of the people needs the participation of all the people.

I don’t need to believe that a quality education for all our children is a basic right to believe that having a well-educated citizenry, capable of cultural sensitivity, creative expression, rational discourse, intelligent problem-solving and critical thinking can only improve the quality of our lives.

I don’t need to believe (although I do) that every adult human being has a right to enter into a marriage with another adult they choose in order to believe that a society that marginalizes any group of people and excludes them from the normal life of the community and equal protection under the law is a society that has lost its moral compass.

I could go on, but the point is that we don’t need to reduce every issue to a question of individual rights. We need to decide not just what people have a right to, but what it is right for us to do for them and for us.

And it is equally true that having a right to something is not an absolute guarantee that we will always get exactly what we want. It is inevitable that our individual rights will come into conflict. And when those conflicts occur it is the work of government, through its laws, to balance out those rights. And declaring something a right doesn’t necessarily make everything we do in the name of that right a good thing to do.

We already acknowledge that we have a right to free and open speech and assembly; but we have long recognized that some speech is so harmful that it cannot be allowed. We acknowledge that we have a right to believe as we will, but our Constitution tells us that we cannot impose those beliefs on others or enshrine them in the law.

It is a basic tenet of our culture that one person’s practice of his rights is limited when that practice harms others or when there is a conflict between the rights of individuals with different needs and different perspectives. It is the purpose of law to reduce that harm and to navigate those conflicts so that all our citizens can live together equitably.

In the same way, it is possible to believe that every citizen has a constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms, but also to see that unlimited and unregulated weaponry poses a significant danger to us all. This country did the experiment with an openly armed citizenry in the nineteenth century and it didn’t work. People were not safer; so cities and towns enacted limitations on open weaponry within city limits because they saw and directly experienced the danger. We are seeing that danger again now in far too many tragic and terrible ways. There is no reason to believe that we are more mature, more capable of using the weapons safely and responsibly now than we were then, as individuals or as a society.

It is possible to believe that each person has the right to earn what wealth he can, but to see that great income inequity is not sustainable, and that great harm is done to both individuals and the entire society when there is too great a disparity between great wealth and great poverty, and no strong middle class. Certainly, unlimited wealth is not itself a right.

All my examples ignore, of course, any moral arguments that might be made. But morality implies a common basis for that morality and common understanding of what the moral standards are. A complex and diverse society is going to have trouble finding that much commonality. Moral obligations are best left to the individual conscience, whereas arguments about what might be “the right thing to do” can be made more objectively and with clearer reason.

We sometimes get so tied up in arguments about our rights that we forget to see that all rights have responsibilities of equal power and importance. We are not simply a loose collection of individuals coexisting within defined borders. We are citizens of a community, a nation, and a common culture of great diversity, but with the need to work cooperatively and rationally to solve our common problems, meet our personal and common needs, to share our common resources and to manage our conflicts. Unless we confer our rights on each other, every day, in all our actions; and unless we are willing to allow for compromise and accommodation when rights conflict; and unless we are willing claim no rights for ourselves that we are not willing to grant freely to others; then we effectively have no rights at all, only the privileges that come with power.

 

Take My Advice. Stop Giving Advice.

In No Particular Path on March 2, 2016 at 8:48 am

A response by a friend to a post about advice reminded me of something I used to tell students in my communication classes: it is usually a bad idea to give people advice about their lives. Giving advice can go so wrong in so many ways and go right in only one.

Let’s start with the ways it can go wrong.

It is possible that you may give advice, the other person doesn’t take it and they’re right. It works out well. Suddenly, your advice seems less valuable. Perhaps you experience this as a personal loss of value in the relationship. Do you resent the fact that they didn’t listen to you? Why did they ask your advice at all if they already knew better? Perhaps you feel a little foolish as well as disregarded. What if this isn’t the first time you’ve given advice they haven’t taken and their choice worked out well? Are they trying to make you feel foolish? And what about the other side of it? Perhaps the other person is feeling somewhat superior now; perhaps they’re a little smug that they didn’t take your advice, that it is clear now that they knew better all along.

Or perhaps you gave lousy advice, the other person took the advice and it turned out badly. Now it’s your fault. Having already given you at least a share of the responsibility for their decision, they may now be perfectly willing to give you all of it. “You told me to do that!” they’re angry because the results weren’t what they needed or wanted; and they are angry at you, and resentful, because you own the advice.

Maybe the advice was good advice, but they didn’t take it and the result was terrible. Guess what? It’s still your fault. “Why didn’t you make me do what you told me to?” “You didn’t tell me it would be this bad!” Now you’re not only clearly smarter than they are, you didn’t work hard enough to make them see that. They feel foolish for not taking the advice and they feel inferior because you were right and they were wrong. And how do you feel? Can you resist the temptation to remind them that you gave them good advice that they didn’t take? Do you feel a bit superior and ego-vindicated because they didn’t listen and screwed up?

Let’s imagine, however, that you give the other person some really good advice; they take it; and everything works out wonderfully. But afterwards there seems to be a change in the relationship, subtle at first, but unmistakable. They keep saying how grateful they are, but they also seem somehow resentful. Perhaps they are feeling somewhat in your debt and don’t, really don’t, know how they can repay you. Gifts of all kinds – including the gift of advice – can create an imbalance in a relationship where one of the parties cannot give or has not given equally. There is a sense of sudden inferiority that can come with the sense that the other person was smarter or cleverer or better able to say how to act in your life than you were. Debts and obligations of all kinds can leave us feeling diminished, resentful and in conflict. Are these rational behaviors? Perhaps not. But humans don’t always act rationally. And by the way, the advice giver may also feel uncomfortable with the situation. Other people’s gratitude is nice at first, but can become a burden of its own. Any imbalance in a relationship, even a well-intentioned one, any change, even a good one, can cause stress.

But what about the one thing that can go right? You and the other person might have a strong, close relationship built on years of trust, understanding, perhaps love, and a clear sense of boundaries and personal responsibility. You give the advice and then let it go. You want nothing and expect nothing. The other person either follows it or not, but in either case, however it turns out, you walk away with the relationship intact, supporting each other. If you have this kind of relationship with someone, and if you are the kind of person who can genuinely give without expectation or obligation, then you may successfully give occasional advice.

But this is not the norm. In most cases, giving advice is a risk; one that we are often either oblivious to or in denial about. But there is another way to go. If someone asks for advice, ask them what they have already considered. Really listen. Get them to talk about the problem and the strategies they’ve already thought about. Encourage them to think it through, support them in reaching their own decision. If you think of other possibilities, put them in the form of questions: “Have you considered . . .?” “Is it possible that you might . . .?” Add to their options without advocacy, but help them see the possibilities and risks of all the choices. It is still possible that they might make a decision and blame you for it: “I would never have thought to do that if you hadn’t brought it up!” But the risks for you are less than with straight out advice-giving.

Human beings are unpredictable, contradictory, and emotional. Murphy’s Law (If something can go wrong, it will.) is about us, not about some outside force in the universe that we have no influence over. Remember that and give advice sparingly and with great care.

Or not.

It’s just a suggestion.

It’s your decision.

Really. Do what you want.

‘Tis the Season

In PeaceAble on November 27, 2015 at 12:12 pm

Yesterday I went out for a Thanksgiving dinner to a very nice restaurant (there were a great many open, but this was the only one that said a cancelled reservation would allow them to seat our party of three), where every table was filled with happy patrons, and an excellent chef and kitchen staff prepared some wonderful food, a delightful waitstaff brought out our meals quickly and pleasantly, the service staff kept tables cleared and dishes clean, and the managers oversaw everything with efficiency, good humor, and a warm and welcoming attitude.

On our way, we stopped to fill up the gas tank; and passed doughnut shops where we might have gotten coffee, and convenience stores where we might have picked up a few things for later.  In an emergency, we knew that we could count on emergency services, hospitals, police, or firefighters to be available.  We briefly considered whether we might forego the big dinner and just get a pizza; but were a bit disappointed to find no pizza places open.

We also passed places where some people less selfish than ourselves were providing Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless or impoverished, or for those who would otherwise be alone and without family or friends to share a meal.

And I wondered why there is always so much controversy about which big box stores would be open that afternoon to start their Christmas season sales. Why do so many people care if WalMart is open, but simply expect to be able to find places to get gasoline or some last minute items for their own celebrations? Why do they worry that some people might have to work, but simply expect that others will? How do they sit down to all the things they say they are grateful for, but not understand that having a day off may mean for others that they don’t get a day’s wages or a bit of overtime pay, and that may make the difference in whether they make the bills this month; and others may want to work so that they don’t sit home alone wondering what to do with themselves? Why do they not see that such complaints are privileged, first world problems; that forcing big box stores to close would not do very much to solve the real problems that other people face? Why do we all take so much for granted on a day when we are proclaiming our gratitude?

Is it simply because if we don’t need or want something then we assume that it is unnecessary for everyone? Is it because we assume that if we don’t desire something, or dislike it, then that feeling must be universal, or at least the norm? Do we assume that if we have something, like a loving family and plenty of food, and we value those things, that we can speak from our position of privilege for the needs of everyone else? Or is it even more selfish than that? Are we afraid, perhaps, that we will miss out on something? Someone else will get the really big deal, save some money on something we might have to spend more for later if they go to the stores and we don’t. Someone else will beat us to the punch somehow. Are we afraid that if the stores are open we might somehow be unable to resist their siren song?

Like so many things we argue about, the arguments about shopping on Thanksgiving are really about choices: what choices are available to us and to others; who decides; who’s in control; and what difference does it all make? Is my Thanksgiving made less enjoyable, less festive, less meaningful because someone else chooses to keep a store open or go shopping; but not affected at all by the knowledge that I am consuming in excess of what I need while others starve, holding court in a warm and comforting home while others struggle to survive, enjoying the pleasant company of family and friends while others huddle close to keep fear and violence and despair at bay?

There is nothing wrong with celebrating our gratitude for what we have. We have no need to feel guilty about that. For all the things we have that we know are not guaranteed us, we should be thankful; and setting aside a day to make that thankfulness manifest is a good and honest and even honorable thing. So do that. Make it real. Make it your own. Choose to spend the day however you wish. And let the rest go. In your gratitude for what you have, why inject unnecessary outrage about things that really aren’t about you? Maybe spend at least a few moments contemplating what you might do to make things better for those who do not have nearly as much to be grateful for.

All through the long fall and winter holiday season, we see all kinds of pointless complaints and imagined controversies erupting. Halloween celebrates the Devil. People might have to work on Thanksgiving. There’s a war on Christmas. People are saying “Happy holidays.” Everything is so commercialized (When is it not in our capitalist economy?). When is Hanukkah, anyway; and what the heck is Kwanzaa? Why can’t we put a cross or a crèche anywhere and everywhere we want? And once we’ve spent weeks in anger and outrage and spewing violent rhetoric, we will all proclaim our desire for peace on earth.

Maybe instead of looking for things to get in a twist about, we could begin to celebrate the season by actually doing things that promote that peace we say we so fervently hope for.

If FB is a Marketplace, Why is Every Aisle Filled With So Much Junk Food?

In PeaceAble on December 10, 2014 at 12:29 pm

Now let me say that this is not intended as a rant. It is more of an observation, a public service message if you will, about the impact of Facebook, Tweeter and other social media platforms on the erosion of our sense of personal and social boundaries and appropriateness in our daily communication with others; and vice-versa.

Allow me to illustrate.

Suppose you were in a public place with a lot of people, some of whom you knew well, others you knew only slightly, and a whole lot of others who were strangers to you but friends and acquaintances of the others in the gathering. Now suppose that someone suddenly, without any provocation, stood up on a soapbox and loudly announced, “Jesus is the only path to salvation! If you agree, raise your hands and repeat this. 99% of you won’t have the guts to repeat it, but I’m proud to be one of the 1% who are real Christians!”
What would your response be? Would you think, “Wow, that’s really inappropriate”? Would you feel embarrassed? Would you think the speaker was some kind of egotistical nutjob with a bad case of verbal diarrhea? Or would you think that this was clearly a sincere believer expressing his devout belief; and good for him?
Before you answer, take out “Jesus” and “Christian” and insert “Allah” and “Muslim.” Does that change your reaction any?
Now imagine that two people in the crowd began a discussion about some current issue of concern or interest; let’s say the minimum wage. Suddenly everyone within earshot began shouting about libtards and repugs, and making derogatory statements about lazy welfare moochers who should get a job and greedy rich people who are trying to destroy America. And let’s imagine that the discussion begins to spread throughout the whole crowd and turns into a shouting match in which every extreme position on every conceivable issue is turned into an obscenity laced rant, even though the obscenities are cleverly muffled just enough so you know what was said, you just can’t hear them clearly.
Now imagine that you are invited to return to the same place with the same people the next day and every day after that with the expectation, even the promise, of more of the same.

This is not to say that no one should ever talk about religion, money, politics or sex on Facebook. All of these are legitimate topics of public discussion, and it is through this public discussion that we all engage in a great ongoing cultural conversation that helps us to understand who we are.
But who are we?
Are we a civilized society capable of engaging one another about our diverse perspectives, experiences, beliefs and opinions? Are we a people who value the importance of honest, informed discussion of the issues that confront our society and require workable well-thought-out solutions? Or are we a nation, a world, of foul-mouthed, bullying, self-righteous, arrogant boors; who want everything our own way or not at all? If our democracy were a sport, would it be more like golf, or more like professional wrestling?
Social media have the potential to be a wonderfully liberating, truly democratic place. But they are also a distillation, a reflection, and an encouragement of all that is the worst of us. When we begin to break down the social boundaries that help us to work together and engage each other in peaceable ways, then the fabric of society gets unraveled a bit more every time we cross a line that our social conventions used to keep us from crossing. And we can see these things happening all around us, not just on line. Our social behavior is becoming less reasonable and democratic, and more confrontational and violent.
Sometimes these boundaries need to be crossed, of course; no fabric exists forever without some fraying, some normal wear and tear; and even the necessary regular laundering and ironing out of the wrinkles can do some damage; but these kinds of things develop the character of a nation, increase its value for us, and give it its history. The danger is that everyone has stopped caring about the fabric itself and we are instead just tearing it apart as we each try to claim it as our own, refusing to share any part of it. We are taking the scissors to it as we try to get rid of all those parts of the pattern we don’t like, as if it were a photograph of friends that includes our ex — to mix my metaphors some more.
Look, the point is this: engagement through social media, like our engagement in society itself, requires that we respect one another’s boundaries, show some restraint and personal discipline in our behavior, and treat others as we would like to be treated. So before we post something, or get caught up in the latest viral reposting of whatever is the latest outrageous meme or pointless hoax someone has decided to drop in our news feed; let’s take a moment to breathe, check our prejudices, check our facts, consider what sort of persons we want to be and what sort of society we want to have; and maybe not hit post or share quite so quickly.

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