February 23rd 2019

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Something rotten led to fish-kill: perhaps fishy environmentalism

EDITORIAL Resistance grows to Beijing's soft-power push

CANBERRA OBSERVED Climate change: deadly ... to political leaders

TECHNOLOGY Electric cars: UK taxpayers subsidise rich greenies


CYBER SECURITY Chinese smartphone threat extends way beyond Huawei

SOCIETY Such grandeur of spirit

POLITICS John Hewson should have as sturdy a Constitution

FINANCE Hayne royal commission sets agenda for bank reform

FAMILY RELATIONS Dad: a girl's first and most influential love

COMMENTARY Words gone feral: rights and equality

MEDICINE AND CULTURE Book captures tragedy of falling foul of a fanatic

SOCIETY AND CULTURE A dog's life: reflections of a grey nomad


MUSIC Serialism a killer: Ideas tend to get in the way

CINEMA Cold Pursuit: Revenge served up manic

BOOK REVIEW Why the West and nowhere else

BOOK REVIEW The escalation of horror and atrocity


FAMILY AND SOCIETY The end of Liberalism

SPECIAL EDITORIAL Has Cardinal George Pell been wrongly convicted?

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Words gone feral: rights and equality

by Dr Lucy Sullivan

News Weekly, February 23, 2019

It is time we put the word “rights” to bed, at least in its present conceptualisation. It has ceased to have any serious moral, social or political meaning. As now used, it is merely to assert an individual’s or minority group’s demand to be privileged in some marginal proclivity above the rest of society.

It is wielded like an omnipotent dec­ree, the epitome of righteous principle, pure and unchallengeable but, in fact, it has become entirely unethical, a tool of social bullies. Thus claimed, the “right” demands more than the freedom to exercise it. It also asks society to reorganise itself and deny itself to secure this proclivity and privilege.

And while we are at it, we should retire “equality” too, as at present notionalised. Let us have back, for pity’s sake, their progenitors, “democracy” and “the rule of law”. It is only within these regulators of society that rights and equality can take their proper place as “democratic rights” and “equality under the law”.

Giving primacy to these subsidiary principles, we are rapidly enshrining a dictatorship of the dissident individual.

In a representative democracy, close to half the population must, on occasion, accede to being overruled in their personal and political preferences by what may be little more than half. But if both halves broadly share cultural tastes and political ethics, it works.

The majority may find it prudent or compassionate to endow culturally dissident minorities with legal approval to indulge in diverse and potentially divisive tastes and practices – such as with the institutional indulgence of transgender masquerading and fluid gender marriage – but there cannot be an open door to legal instatement of “individual” freedom in the name of equality.

If there is such a freedom, by what principle can we debar the right to self-expression and personal satisfaction to those who have a conviction that murdering their sexual partners or engaging sexually with little children is necessary to fulfilling their deepest sexual needs?

We must have some reference point beyond individual and minority group rights to set the limits of law.

Some cultures, for reasons that do not apply to us, have gone beyond our limits, such as members of a family having the right/obligation to kill a woman member for engaging in extra-marital sexual relations, or to kill a baby born within two years of its predecessor, while the killing of an unwanted fetus, abhorrent and illegal in Western culture for centuries, is fast establishing itself among us, with or without the rule of law, and shows signs of extending post-birth.

Should we adopt bigamy if a pro-bigamy lobby gathered momentum?

(An anecdote from the Indian Raj relates an Indian princeling saying to a British official in defence of the suttee, “We have a custom that when a man dies, we burned his wife on a funeral pyre”; to which the British official rejoined: “And we have a custom that when a man burns a widow on a funeral pyre, we hang him.” How does the individual rights principle fare in such a situation?)

The point I am making is that rights discourse must not be used to impose personal and minority preferences by regulation or law in a democratic society. The law must represent the society, not its dissidents.

Anti-discrimination law has taken the character of forcing the majority to conform to the mores of an (aberrant) minority. While we say we are a liberal democracy, we must not overlook this meaning of the word democracy. In a democracy there cannot be individual rights, only democratic rights.

Equality, per se, in every field of life, is unachievable nonsense. As currently invoked, it is conceived as eliminating the individual differences that are foundational to our biological world of genetic determination.
The law cannot endow biological equality. But we can have, under the law, political equality.

In the late 18th century, the political concepts of rights, liberty and equality replaced the Christian doctrines of love and neighbourliness, reinforced by the Common Law (justice as pragmatically evolved), as the fundamentals of a good society. These high claims were the bugle call of the nascent United States’ Declaration of Independence (which, nevertheless, embraced slavery for another century) and are expressed in the French Revolution’s battle cry of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, characterised by a blood lust to rival today’s Islamic State’s methods of ideological propagation (which the French honour to this day).

Like Christianity, which took centu­ries to realise its radical ideals in anything approaching their full conception, in the century that followed, these “enlightened” secular ideals for government moved towards realisation in the development of representative democracy and universal suffrage in the Western world.

This came despite a flurry of relapses into dictatorship in the non-Scandinavian countries of Europe and a false side-shoot due to over-interpretation in their communist manifestation.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another aberration. Rights and equality were originally conceived as operative at the political level, not at the domestic, where Christian principles still served well – and, I think, still do, though the obloquy directed at Christianity at present is likely to diminish their transmission.

Beyond rights and equality there have always been compassion, charity and care. Action apparently springing from these virtues can be imposed democratically via law, even on those that do not feel or approve them, if they are a minority. But they cannot be called rights in a society where the majority does not approve them.

We are still fairly close to this enforcement position in law, though less so in regulation, and increasingly distant from it in argument and the looser edges of bureaucracy. Claims asserted as individual rights and for equality – for example, abortion and fluid gender marriage – have been approved democratically by referendum or by parliamentary majority.

Others, though, appear to be on the way to being imposed merely bureaucratically: for example, cross-dressing in schools and transgender use of sex- defined public facilities such as toilets, change rooms, gyms and sporting associations.

The problem with calling individual and tiny minority preferences and aberrations “rights” is that it falsely endows them with an ethical weight that both Parliament and people are loath to dispute, and stifles assessment of what the effect of giving them dominance might be for society as a whole. The end result may be disruption or oppression of the majority by what is a very small minority.

The attempt to impose transgender acting-out in schools is particularly worrying as regards its potential to cause psychological bewilderment and distress among children at large. The attempt by activists in the extremely tiny LGBT populations to obstruct religious freedom on a variety of fronts is a clear case of gratuitous invocation of individual/personal “rights” to deny individual/personal rights to a much larger group.

Can this be called equality? It is unjust and, moreover, has no democratic justification. Nor is it liberalism, however constructed.

Lucy Sullivan PhD is an Australian social scientist. She is the author of False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church: A Social Memoir Enhanced by Statistics, 1903-1993.

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