One man’s rights can be another one’s nightmare

By Dorothy Dobbie (photo by Allen Skyy)

We hear a lot about rights today. If you go to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, you will discover a whole new way of looking at this topic, and it covers a range of items and issues that you have most likely never given a second thought to as the curators explore the question in infinite detail.
For most of us, the big issues spring to mind when we talk about rights: we have the right, we believe, to freedom of expression, to worship what and how we want, to own property, to make decisions for ourselves… But do we?
All of these rights are curtailed by the rights of others, often the collective, sometimes simply by the prevailing school of thought. Yesterday’s taken-for-granted right can easily become an outlier’s attitude as the thought leaders steer society in ever-more-tightly corralled circles of opinion.
Our right to freedom of expression is limited by a plethora of regulations and legislation: you can’t joke about bombs and guns in an airport without being arrested, you can’t call people names that promote hatred, and so on. Our right to worship is limited, for example, by society’s belief that polygamy is wrong (although this one may be changing).
Property rights are very much abridged by the needs of the collective – you can have your land appropriated by the state without appeal, and you do not own the mineral rights beneath your surface – at least not unless you homesteaded before 1894, when legislation took these rights away in Manitoba.
As for making decisions over your own life, there are so many examples contradicting this I don’t have room to name them all, but two that come to mind are the right to drive without a seatbelt and the right to carry a bottle of life-giving water from your home to your place on an airplane.
The question that fascinates me is what happens when an individual or a group declares its rights and they come into conflict with the rights of another? Case in point is the right of a person to ask for help in ending his own life versus the declared rights of others who believe this is a violation of religious mores. Or how about the rights of a person to smoke versus the right of another to breathe unpolluted air?
How about the emerging conflict between those who like to talk on their cellphones on a plane versus the rights of those around him to enjoy silence? (And how is this different, by the way, from two people talking throughout the whole flight?)
We bump up against rights, real and perceived, every day, often with both sides claiming supremacy over the right in dispute. Come to think about it, isn’t this one of the causes of war – a claim to some rights, whether it be over land or ideas, is disputed, and the next thing you know, we’re in a bloody conflict.
Makes you think, doesn’t it? Maybe instead of loudly proclaiming our rights, we need to reframe the issue as “How can I enjoy my rights without infringing on those of others?” The answer is often compromise.
You don’t need to put your airplane seat right back to its most extreme level where your head is in the lap of the passenger behind you, but you can ease it back just a little to accommodate your back. You can keep your voice low on the phone, wear just a dab of perfume, or express your dissatisfaction with the behaviour of another without assassinating their character.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is probably the best rule to follow to avoid stepping on another’s rights. And try to keep the doing as positive as possible.

2 thoughts on “One man’s rights can be another one’s nightmare”

  1. The issue of rights in Canada is fraught with confusion and assumptions.

    Your article mentions that individuals may think that they have the right to smoke and that this contrasts with the rights of others to breathe unpolluted air.

    In fact, smoking (tobacco, pot, vape) is not a right in Canada, but, like many other human behaviours, it most certainly is a choice.

    And the scientific research is clear about the terrible impact that one individual’s choice to smoke has on the people around him or her.

    1. Good point, Donna! I think the author was sometimes referencing people’s presumed “rights” which aren’t official, and then turning to some of the actual rights and privileges we have in Canada. You’re very right – the lines often blur!

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