Rights and Wrongs

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The American Declaration of Independence

The American Declaration of Independence is based on the premise that we all have rights just for being members of the human race. (Mind you, even after this uplifting statement was made it took some considerable time to ensure that the state supported and protected those rights for women and its Afro-American citizens.) But this was a monumental change from previous times when the Divine Right of Kings prevailed and Emperors and potentates ruled autocratically.

Under these conditions citizens were only exercise such rights as the autocrats allowed. The power of the few was reluctantly dispensed to some of the many citizens under their authority. The trickle down of power and consequently rights was often influenced by nepotism, religion and personal indulgence.

Despite the acknowledgment in the Declaration of Independence of certain innate rights, in practical terms rights are enabled and dispensed by social and political circumstances.

With the development of democracies the rights equation has changed. Whereas in the beginning rights were granted by a powerful minority to their favoured minions, with the onset of democracy and universal suffrage, rights are now more often granted by the majority to select minorities.

The purists would argue (as per the American Declaration of Independence) that our basic rights are inalienable and come with our humanity but the only rights of any importance are those we are able to exercise. It is futile to argue that those living in North Korea, Communist China or Myanmar have exactly the same rights as we do when demonstrably they have no opportunity to assert or exercise those rights.

Seventy years ago, the German-American philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in the American socialist journal Modern Review, wrote about “the right to have rights”. She explored the subject again a couple of years later in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism. The two major developments that spurred Arendt to think about “the right to have rights” were the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the disintegration of Europe’s political order after the First World War. This had left millions of people as refugees and/or stateless. In effect these people had no rights. Arendt pointed out humans acquire rights only as part of a political community, i.e. as being citizens. As I set out above, our experienced rights are essentially limited and are only enabled by our social and political environment.

In more recent times, in our democracies we tend to see governments acting to secure the rights of minorities. However in totalitarian states governments often vilify and suppress minorities e.g. Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in Communist China and so on.

Whilst I feel for the oppressed minorities in other countries, I would now like to examine the process of extending rights to minorities in our own country.

There is an unpalatable fact that is seldom raised when we consider this process. Almost every right we extend to a minority comes at a cost to the majority. We seldom pause to take stock of whether the utility gained by the minority is worth the cost to the majority. Indeed some of my readers might even be appalled that I should ask such a question.

Let us look at a simple and uncontroversial example. In the last four or five decades we have consciously moved to improve the lot of disabled people. If, for example, I decide to construct a new building. In order to gain approval for construction and advance the welfare of the disabled I will most likely have to demonstrate that I have included ramps for wheelchair access, provided toilets that will accommodate people in wheelchairs and ensured that the lifts in the building have controls that can be conveniently accessed by those in wheelchairs. Complying with these demands results in substantial costs. Most would agree that such costs are justified because they allow a sizable minority of our community to participate more meaningfully in our society.

There is little doubt that the smaller the minority the more carefully we need to weigh up the costs and advantages of extending rights. Historically the decision to allow women and then indigenous people to vote could hardly be questioned because a substantial part of our citizenship could not engage in our participatory democracy. And what was the cost -a diminution of the influence of white males in determining how we should be governed. And that we might argue, paradoxically, is a consequence of little moment but of great import.

However, accompanying the movement to establish rights for smaller and smaller minorities, has been another insidious trend. The champions of these minority causes have often successfully shut down debate about these important issues. They contrive to shame into silence those who have contrary views. As a consequence we get suboptimal outcomes because one side of the debate is decidedly muted.

This phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that the media is populated by predominantly leftish journalists who tend to promote the more “progressive” causes. This is well-illustrated by the recent federal election when the media had convinced itself that Bill Shorten would easily win. But living outside this “echo chamber” Scott Morrison’s “quiet Australians” whose viewpoint is seldom well-represented by mainstream media showed that the media, in general, was out of touch with the sentiment of everyday Australians. Reliance on media reports or the traffic on social media is a very unreliable way of gaining insight into what people really believe.

It is hard to deny that the population in general is more conservative than most commentators would have us believe.

A case in point is the current debate about an indigenous “voice” to advise parliament on indigenous issues.  As I have written before, I have misgivings about such a voice, principally because I don’t see it actually improving the circumstances of the most disadvantaged indigenous people. But I suspect, given the inherent conservative nature of the Australian population, a referendum to amend the constitution to embed such a voice is doomed to failure. Australians are unlikely to support any proposition that affords extra privileges in the constitution on the basis of race.

But the “progressives” are now pursuing the conferring of rights on minorities to the extremes.

The emerging frontier for rights seems to be about gender, sexual preference and countering biological determinism.

Despite what the more militant feminists might say, women have largely attained equality with men in our society. But even here we need to ensure the pendulum doesn’t swing too far. One area of concern has been highlighted in recent press articles. In recent decades laws have been passed to ensure that women who accuse men of rape are not subjected to undue scrutiny of their previous sexual history. There is no doubt that that would be a particularly harrowing experience for many. But, as usual, our attempt to defend the rights of women is accompanied by a danger to the rights of men. Lawyers are saying that because such evidence is inadmissible, particularly weak cases are being brought before the courts.

Janet Albrechtson in a recent article wrote:

…..a District Court Judge has implored the NSW Parliament to consider changing laws that are aimed at protecting rape victims but are causing a serious injustice to defendants. The judge is presiding over a case where a man accused of rape is not allowed to bring evidence of 12 incidents in which his female accuser has made false complaints about sexual abuse.

This is the cleft stick we find ourselves in – legislating to preserve rights often has unintended consequences. In this case the consequences could be dire, resulting in an innocent man being convicted of rape.

Now I can understand the horror a genuine victim of rape must go through if she (and it is normally a woman) has to endure providing the most intimate details of her sexual history which are then are trawled through before the courts and subjected to the confronting and hostile questioning of the defence lawyer. But it is also a travesty if a perfectly innocent man can’t properly defend himself of unfair allegations. I am not suggesting there is an easy solution to this but we are well advised to pause before we legislate because in protecting one set of rights we will often imperil another.

Similar to the progress of women, we have made great strides in normalising the status of homosexuals in our community. The most compelling argument, I believe, in the acceptance of homosexuals is that homosexuality is largely genetically determined and is in this way a natural variant of human behaviour and therefore not to be condemned even though it is different to the behaviour of the majority.

But the desire to “liberate” other smaller minorities on the basis of their sexual proclivities is being taken to ridiculous extremes. The latest efforts to support the rights of transgender people seem to me a step too far. The notion that we should have the freedom to choose our gender and have such arbitrary gender status supported by law as seems now the case in Victoria would be laughable if it didn’t have such serious potential outcomes.

I was intrigued the other day to contemplate some of the manifestations to such an approach to gender. There had been a house fire in the suburb next to us and unfortunately a person had been trapped inside and was subsequently killed. The body had been so badly mutilated by the fire it was reported, that the gender of the victim could not be determined. The reporter went on to say that the police were relying on forensic evidence to determine the gender of the victim. But I assume in Victoria it would no longer be appropriate to determine gender in this way. The victim might have changed their birth certificate to identify with the opposite sex or perhaps hadn’t got around to changing their birth certificate but had let it be known they wished to be identified as something other than what their biology at birth indicated.

“So what does it matter?” you might ask.

A birth certificate is a fundamental legal document that is relied upon to verify its holder’s status for many legal requirements. Why should it be allowed on a whim to change your gender on a birth certificate but illegal to change your age or the identity of your parents? In today’s narcissistic society, many others who don’t have a concern about their sexual identity might want to reduce their age or to have more interesting parents. Yet we don’t (as yet) countenance the changing of these facts. But your birth biology is a fact we have allowed that to be tampered with.

And of course there are (inevitably) other consequences. Nothing much is required to change our gender assignment under these arrangements other than our desire to do so. Transgender men and women (perhaps more often boys and girls), as I understand it, merely have to have a doctor proclaim that the person suffers gender dysphoria which then needs to be confirmed by an acquaintance of the so-called “victim”. (It is amazing how often in identity politics we encounter new ways for people to identify themselves as victims!)

As a result we find males with all their genitalia intact wanting to be identified as women and women with all their genitalia intact wanting to be identified as men. This has led to some bizarre outcomes. In Canada we had a fully intact male identifying as a woman, complete with penis and testicles, suing female beauticians because they refused to defoliate his genital area by waxing because he had identified as a woman. In Britain we had the case of a fully intact woman identifying as a man who recently gave birth to a baby seeking the right to be publicly registered as the child’s father!

Normal women (I suspect my use of that terminology might draw some flak!) are rightly concerned that transgender women who have all the male physical attributes might be given access to exclusively female spaces such as toilets, change rooms and so on.

But what I find the most disturbing feature of this new gender revolution is that young children who believe that have been assigned the wrong gender are often being treated surgically and chemically to help them assume some of the characteristics of the opposite sex.

Psychologists say that children often experiment with their social roles, including their gender roles. To take action which irreversibly supports the child’s ill-informed desires is likely to lead to larger problems later in their lives. How foolish it is to attempt to reassign a child’s gender at such a young age.

One psychologist recently wrote in a letter to The Australian newspaper:

For a parent to impose on their child the delusional idea that there is no relationship between their chromosomes and gender is to betray the child’s deepest interests.

The suicide rate for those who claim to be transgender is many times that of the rest of the population whether they have “transitioned” or not. This suggests that the activist approach fails in this area.

A recent report quotes the British Medical Journal as protesting:

There are a large number of unanswered questions that include the age at start, irreversibility, adverse events, long term effects on mental health, quality of life, bone mineral density, osteoporosis in later life and cognition. We wonder whether off-label use is appropriate and justified for drugs such as spironolactone which can cause substantial harm and even death. We are also ignorant of the long-term safety profiles of the different gender affirming hormone regimens. The current evidence does not support informed decision making and safe practice in children.

So again we see a situation where, in trying to promote the case for the defence of rights for a disaffected tiny minority, we create divisions and dysfunctions in the broader community. We also stand guilty of endangering the lives and the long term welfare of children and adolescents by responding to their immature whims about their personal identity.

It is appropriate to also recall the experience of the Canadian psychologist, academic and author, Jordan Peterson. Peterson came to fame by resisting his university’s demand that university staff address alleged transgender students by their preferred pronouns. This had been mandated by the Canadian Government under Bill C-16. In late 2016 Peterson resisted, claiming that this directive infringed his rights of free speech. Peterson’s resistance catapulted his career as a public speaker and author.

But it is true that, almost inevitably, the legislation or even the promotion of rights for smaller and smaller minorities will have ramifications for the rights of the majority. That is not to say that we should not be concerned for such rights and have concerns for those minorities but that we should be careful of the consequences. And in this regard, I believe, that we should legislate only as a measure of last resort.

In general, I would suggest, when we legislate merely to protect minorities from taking offence from hearing what they do not wish to hear, we are invariably wrong.

In the contest of ideas everyone has a right to be heard, except if they are inciting violence. By shutting down speech we don’t agree with, we are denying our capacity to decide for ourselves. Let the holocaust deniers speak along with those who believe in a flat earth or that the moon is made of green cheese.

It is an appalling tactic, frequently used, to call those who purvey ideas we disagree with as indulging in “hate speech”. And it is equally appalling that those institutions that we once relied on to promote and contest competing ideas, our universities, now deplatform and vilify those who don’t toe the line and refuse to promulgate the “conventional wisdom”. We are sheltering our young from meaningful debate and allowing them not to be challenged intellectually by refusing to expose them to controversial points of view.

Soon we are going to see the federal government bring to the parliament legislation to cement religious freedom. I believe religious freedom is tremendously important, but I am again concerned about the spinoffs. And as much as I value religious freedom, I value even more freedom of speech which I suspect is the most fundamental freedom in a democracy. Hence I implore the government to ensure whatever actions they take to safeguard religious freedom, they do not detract from our freedom of speech.

We need to be vigilant in a democracy to preserve our rights but we must also be careful that misplaced efforts to enforce on our society the rights of minorities does not reduce the stature of our most important rights that enable our democracies, particularly our right to freedom of speech.

2 Replies to “Rights and Wrongs”

  1. I’d like to see all speech protected except speech that incites violence. I’d add a caveat to this though that the personal attack of individuals through free speech provisions should not be allowed. It is ideas that we should be challenging not individuals themselves. As an example, to say “all gays are nasty” is promoting an idea (not one I agree with but still an idea) and we should have the right to say it. To say “Fred is nasty, he’s gay” is attacking Fred. I don’t see this as acceptable free speech. Incidentally you should be able to replace gays in this statement with Muslims, Christians, Aboriginals, environmentalists, Labour supporters, Women, or any other group.

    Unfortunately it is never black and white though is it? What about if you make the statement “all gays are nasty” in front of Fred at every opportunity you get. Is that still attacking Fred? I would hope that others witnessing it would come to Fred’s aid and argue the point but it is probably an attack and unacceptable in any case.

    Ultimately it is only through free and open discussion that real truths in a democracy come to the surface and change is made. Imagine if 150 years ago you were silenced for saying “homosexuality should be legalised”. That statement would have been deeply offensive to many Christians back then and nearly everyone was Christian. The very laws that impact free speech and we are introducing to protect minority groups may well have prevented the very existence of those minority groups if they were introduced years ago. Minority groups that feel they are being victimised should perhaps be careful about what they hope for.

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