Monday, April 03, 2006

Civil rights

On the heels of my post about entitlement and gratitude, I can't help but editorialize on polygamy, gay unions, and religion in the context of "civil rights".

Establishing something or other as a civil right is sort of the holy grail of public dialog. Hence, you get politicians using the term all the time, as well as lobbyists, pundits, and apologists all of whom slip it into their vernacular in places that are not widely agreed upon, but in so doing advance their own cause by degrees. It's the holy grail because once something is deemed a civil right, you can't argue with it anymore. It's a given. It's final. It's basic. Entitlement takes over.

You can define civil rights variously as those rights guaranteed by the constitution, rights guaranteed by citizenship, or just rights developed over time that may or may not be protected by the government. But this last definition is closer to human rights, and I think civil rights are more properly validated by the judiciary. The courts are the arbiters of social contract.

Which brings me to polygamy and gay unions. Marriage has long been a part of accepted societal practices. Polygamy and gay unions have not. Including specific departures from monogamous heterosexual marriage as marriage should involve public discourse and be legislated through representative government as a matter of community standards. Community standards. NOT civil rights. And, in my opinion, the burden of proof lies with those seeking to change long standing traditions.

In terms of my personal views, I’m for legal gay marriage. I think our communities ought to celebrate commitment and love in this way. I’ll have to post about how my view fits with the church’s position some time. I include this just to show that there is a (hopefully) sensible position that supports gays without caving to fallacious civil rights arguments.

For now, I just cringe whenever I hear “civil rights!” bandied about like it’s some sort of battering ram, forcing acquiescence rather than coherent public debate.


Dave Walter said...

I agree with you completely, L.

Ha! A belated April Fool!

There are some things that should not be subject to community standards. Marriage between consenting adults is one of them.

There shouldn't be any question that marriage is a basic right; there shouldn't be a need for civil rights legislation in the first place. Blacks should always have been allowed to marry whites. Gays should be allowed to marry each other.

-L- said...

DW, you wiley tricker. ;-)

You might be thinking of "human rights", not "civil rights", and even then I don’t see why you matter-of-factly asserting so helps the argument any. Marriage, as a social construct, is only a basic right if society says it is. And it has, in the case of heterosexual marriage, for thousands of years. The rights inherent in marriage, who marries, when, and how are subject to the approval of society. Do you think the age of marriage has an independently right answer?

Dave Walter said...

The rights inherent in marriage, who marries, when, and how are subject to the approval of society.

Yes, and I'm saying the right to get married is a basic right that should be extended to gays.

Do you think the age of marriage has an independently right answer?

You mean the age at which a person can legally get married? I think a person should be allowed to get married upon entering adulthood. I don't know what age is.

-L- said...

Yes, and I'm saying the right to get married is a basic right that should be extended to gays.

So you're agreeing with me... wait a minute. Are you fooling me again?

The point here is not whether to extend that right to gays, it's how. The civil right argument attempts to force everyone everywhere to accept one point of view because it's supposedly constitutional. The more appropriate way in a free society is not to appeal to some imaginary long standing guarantee in the constitution, thus cramming it down unwilling throats, but to discuss it until a majority agrees. Sometimes doing things the right way is better.

Chris (hurricane) said...


Can you explain to me the distinction you are making between civil rights and human rights?

-L- said...

Sure thing, hurc. This is something I don't really claim to understand perfectly. That's why I put in those links to the various definitions in the post. They're used synonymously sometimes, but that makes it harder to tease out the arguments in this case. Civil rights are designated by a social contract, e.g. the constitution. Human rights are those that ought to be respected whether there is a social contract or not (your dignity as a human is violated if these rights are not granted).

Chris (hurricane) said...

So, help me understand your position on gay marriage then. Is the ability to marry the person of your choice, regardless of sex, a human right? A civil right? Neither?

-L- said...

Man, my blog sucks. Sorry I've left everything so unclear.

Marriage is a social construct. It is what we make of it. It is neither necessary for human dignity, nor guaranteed by the constitution. It is, therefore, not a civil right or a human right at all. (I think.) Sure, one may believe that it's a good desirable thing for anyone who wants it, but that doesn't just magically make it a credible right. And I haven't distinguished here between gay or straight marriage. There are other discussions we could have about the definition of marriage itself, but that's not for this post.

There are folks a lot smarter than me who have written about this stuff, it's just hard to tell sometimes who is yanking your chain. A dean of the law school here explained to me the importance of HOW we support gay marriage. It gets pretty esoteric, and my main take home message was that having the courts decide it is a departure from the way this country has worked in the past and sets an ill-conceived precedent. I can certainly understand the temptation to support any method that gives the result desired, but that will often come back to bite you in the ass.