There’s a lot of nonsense upon stilts around. Maybe our subtitle should be Fighting Fashionable Nonsense Upon Stilts. I heard something on the BBC World Service this morning that surprised me a good deal. It came at the end of a rather dreary discussion of sport that I wasn’t really listening to – about people who change their nationality in order to compete for a different country, and some of the drawbacks to this arrangement. And then we heard from someone from the European Commission on Human Rights, saying that if governments took a too ‘punitive’ approach (odd word) then they might be violating the human rights of the athletes. ‘People have a right to compete for their country,’ she said. They do? (And what do you mean ‘their country’ since the issue is precisely their swapping countries? And why call the potential reconsideration of this policy ‘punitive’? Is declining to allow people to do something necessarily punitive? If I don’t let you come into my living room without permission is that punitive?) (You see? We can just never get away from rhetoric.) Why do people have a right to compete for their countries? And then, why do they have a right to compete for someone else’s? Maybe I’m missing something, but this seems like an odd conception to me.
It reminds me of a story I linked to some weeks ago, about a UN representative who said that testing schoolchildren could be seen as a violation of their rights. I can see claiming that testing is a bad idea, not helpful, counter-productive, harmful – but a violation of rights? That seems like a stretch.
Julian’s latest Bad Moves discusses some of the reasons a proliferation of rights and rights-talk is not necessarily a good idea.
Yet when people claim the government owes them support to conceive a child artificially because they have a right to have children; that they should be allowed to spread racist or homophobic views because they have a right to free speech; or even that there is no need for greater gun controls in America because of the right to bear arms; it should be clear that it is all too easy to evoke a seemingly unobjectionable right to justify a possibly objectionable course of action.
Indeed it should. People here in the US do claim (very loudly) not only that there is no need for greater gun controls, but also that there is urgent need to get rid of the few weak controls we have, and furthermore that if their ‘right’ to bear arms is eroded any further they will use those arms to resist. And then there is the tragic irony of the way the First Amendment is used to overturn legislation that attempts to reform the way political campaigns are financed – which is, not to put to fine a point on it, by means of large bribes. The courts argue that the right to give millions of dollars to the party of one’s choice is constitutionally protected free speech – with the result of course that the ability of corporations and rich people to influence the governement is protected. Of course, it’s perfectly fair. Just as everyone has a right to sleep under a bridge, as Anatole France said, so everyone has a right to shovel millions of dollars into the pockets of the people who run things. Yes, rights can be quite tricky.