“This is not about the COVID-19 virus”, a noticeable number of my Facebook friends write. “This is about our rights.” The right to leave their homes, to run their businesses. The right to shop and eat at restaurants. The right to travel. The right to congregate to worship. The right to risk their own lives as much or as little as they want when it comes to COVID-19.
Trump’s advisor, Stephen Moore, seemed to agree, referencing Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience and comparing her actions to those of protesters hoping to re-open their states despite governors’ shelter-in-place orders. After all, Rosa Parks had a right to sit anywhere she wanted on the bus, no matter what it cost white people. (Never mind that it wouldn’t have cost them anything except perhaps the difficulty of overcoming their habits and biases. )
In contrast, the actions of shelter-in-place protesters, traveling outside of their counties, mingling in large groups, then returning home, could cost others a lot. Their lives, perhaps. Of course this depends on whether COVID-19 is real, or an imaginary enemy foisted on us by the liberal media. It depends on whether COVID-19 is really any worse than the flu. It depends on how easily it spreads and how sick it can make healthy people. It depends on the resources in place to help those who do contract it.
“It’s time to use our voice!” some of my Facebook friends write, writing post after post documenting their mistrust of the government and the mainstream media. These are the same groups of friends who scoffed at Colin Kapernick’s choice to kneel during the National Anthem. After all, his right to silently protest cost them their ability to pretend that inequality is behind us. It cost them being able to to watch a football game without having to consider injustice. It cost them their right to sing our national song without having to think about the veracity of the words.
“But the NFL can do whatever they want! They’re not the government!” I’ve been frequently told in the past. If so, why not Facebook? Why can’t Facebook censor posts they think contain speech that is false, misleading, or hate? Why do Facebook’s actions equal oppression, but firing Kapernick for quietly kneeling does not?
If personal liberty is what America is best known for, it also seems to be what most divides us, separating us into left and right, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat, patriot and traitor. Each person, each side, seeing so clearly their own rights while often failing to recognize rights of another. Because, of course, most personal freedom comes at a cost to other freedoms.
The fetus’s right to life crowds out the woman’s right to autonomy over her body. Our right to limit who comes across our borders crowds out others rights to shelter and safety. Parents rights to homeschool as they see fit, crowds out the right of children to receive a particular standard of education. Our right to bear arms crowds out rights to shop and work and attend school without guns. Our children’s right to learn about sexuality crowds out parental rights to determine exactly what their child learns about sexuality.
Police officers’ rights to shoot when they deem it necessary, crowd out citizens’ rights to trial by jury. Employees’ rights to access low-cost contraception are crowded out by employers’ rights to not pay for a medication whose use runs contrary to their religious beliefs. Gay peoples’ right to marry within their own gender crowds out the rights of those who want to maintain the “traditional family” as the norm.
Centuries ago it was States’ Rights that crowded out the rights of black humans to live free. It was the religious rights of European immigrants to America that crowded out the rights of the indigenous people who had walked the land for generations, if not millennia.
Yes, rights have always had a central place in American society. And just as centrally, insistence on our rights has always provoked division and controversy. Today, amid a pandemic, it’s no surprise really, that rights continue to play a central role. My right to keep my children safely home from school during a pandemic is protected by the governor’s stay-at-home order. Meanwhile it’s that same stay-at-home order that impinges on the rights of my neighbors to run their retail business.
Which only points out the obvious. Our rights are always limited by other peoples rights, our freedoms always limited by the freedom of others. John Finch, Chair of the Prohibition Party in the 1800s famously stated, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Apparently in his time people were arguing over competing rights, too.
“Freedom isn’t free” the saying goes. Which is another way of pointing out that the freedom of my friends to protest in Sacramento may be paid for by my friends in health care who don personal protective equipment before entering any respiratory room and who know that intubating a patient in distress during this pandemic could cost them their own lives.
So how do we decide whose rights matter most? Do the most powerful win? The loudest? Do some rights matter more than others? Who decides? And when does the free exercise of rights cross over into mob rule?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.