to activists’ voices
In many areas of public debate, we often hear bandied about the phrase “rights that we hold dear as Americans.”
“Constitutional rights” and “fundamental rights under God” are notions that we cherish fiercely as our birthright. But what do these concepts actually mean? Are they a sacrosanct, philosophical blank check that covers a whole range of daily activities, like a “get out of jail free” card?
That is a popular and widely held misunderstanding that often bedevils our system of law enforcement and jurisprudence. And what exactly do you do with a Henry David Thoreau, an Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a Eugene Debs or a Rosa Parks when their notions of conformity and justice run contrary to the existing code of acceptable public conduct?
In retrospect, their motives were pure and their actions much benefitted our society. Yet who gets to determine whether the ideas they espouse are “right or wrong?” How does a society sit in judgment on those rare individuals who march to the beat of a different drummer?
At what level of exercise does our ability to enjoy basic freedoms (liberty) intrude on the rights of others and become oppressive license? These are fundamental questions have long been debated. It usually boils down to who is interpreting the levels of freedoms involved. What can we do and when can we do it are questions that have been asked since society was first formed in caves.
Then, the determining rule was enforced with a large stone ax.
Today, in most countries, the rule of law is interpreted by the courts and enforced by a jail sentence or fine. Still, noted objectors like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. have proved that even the courts can be wrong and alternative opinions upheld if you really want to push the point.
I think age bears heavily upon the issue as well. The younger you are, the more freedoms you insist upon. The older you get, the more freedoms you are willing to sacrifice for greater security and peace of mind.
If you delve into the Hobbesian view of human nature, discussing the fundamental questions of good and evil, then the concepts gets even muddier. The “rule of reason” always appeals to me, but then who defines what is “reasonable?” Perhaps it is a circular argument. Maybe we should just do our best and work things out as best we can as we go along.
In many places a society, through the democratic process of elections and appointment of court magistrates, has established a process of determining who can do what and when they can do it. Like most things, these can become dated and need rethinking as society changes and evolves. But then, that’s the best part. It is up to us, people who care enough to inquire, to work for change if we don’t like something. However frail our democratic legal and governmental systems appear to be, they are relatively fair to most of us. Everything else is a work in progress.
When next a citizen activist stand ups and says, “No, this isn’t fair,” maybe we should pay more attention. The healthy and vocal expression of dissent in America is an “Amber Alert” which signals that something in our society needs to be reviewed for fairness and current applicability. All successful societies need to change and adapt themselves to be relevant to their times. So listen well for the “beat of a distant drummer, however measured or far away.” It is our heritage calling out to us.