Rights Versus Responsibilities

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We have an epidemic of rights today and a drought of responsibility.  A number of years ago when I was a first-year teacher I had the following experience.  I was teaching at Guadalupe Area Project (GAP), otherwise charitably known as a “dropout school.”  It was mostly a school for students who had been kicked out of the St. Paul Public School System for a variety of reasons.  The school was started and run by a Sister Giovanni.  She was a leader in migrant relations on the West Side of St. Paul.  It was a largely Latino community.  Many of the residents on the West Side were recent immigrants from Mexico or Central America.

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Sister Giovanni believed in giving kids and people a second chance.  She started GAP to help students who were displaced from the public school system.  We had kids of all types and most were not traditional “school material.”  Some were chronic truants, some were chronic troublemakers, some had chronic learning difficulties, some had chronic behavior problems, and some were just lost souls.  It was a challenge working with these young folks but one I relished at the time. 

D943_130_551_1200One day a young student came to me and complained that he felt that his rights had been violated.  At the time, I took any students complaints very seriously particularly when it concerned rights.  I listened to his problem and asked him what he wanted me to do about it.  He asked if I would intercede on his behalf with Sister Giovanni, who was our principal.  I wanted to show the young man that I was concerned and caring and so I agreed to carry his problem to Sister G as she was known.  She was feared and loved by almost all students so it did not surprise me that he thought I might have more luck with Sister G than he would have. 

unnamedI went to Sister G’s office and knocked on her door.  She opened it and welcomed me in.  We exchanged some pleasantries and she asked me what I needed.  I began to explain the issue that the student had brought to me.  Sister G listened attentively.  When I was done, she smiled and nodded reassuringly.  I thought “Great, I have been successful.”  She then spoke, “This is your first year teaching right John?”  “Yes, it is,” I answered.  “Well, I have heard the issue and I may address it later, but I want to give you an important piece of advice now.  Students just like the majority of people will always demand their rights, but they seldom demand their responsibilities.”  Then, she gave me the philosophy that I have never forgotten.  “John,” she continued, “for every right there is always a responsibility.”  That was the end of our discussion.

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It is now fifty some years later and I see a government under siege by gun toting extremists demanding their first amendment rights.  I see citizens screaming their rights to not wear a mask when required by businesses or government offices.  I see women and men yelling about their rights to get grades that they believe they deserve or that their children deserve.  Everywhere I look it seems some American is on a YouTube video attacking someone because they believe that their rights have been infringed upon.

The people that invaded the US Capital were loudly proclaiming that it was their building.  The implication was that they had a right to enter it if they choose to because they owned it.  But ownership of property implies a stewardship relationship.  If you own property, you have a responsibility to take care of it.  The vandals that broke into the Capital destroyed property, stole goods, and even shit on the floors.  Is this the way anyone takes care of property that they own? 

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Rights:

Do most Americans even know what a right is or what it means to have a responsibility?  A right is defined by “Webster’s Online as:

1: qualities (such as adherence to duty or obedience to lawful authority) that together constitute the ideal of moral propriety or merit moral approval.

2: something to which one has a just claim.

In the definition above, the “just claim to something” seems to be the most common usage as it applies to U.S. citizens.  A large majority of people think that they deserve something or are entitled to something.  We have heard many pundits bemoan the entitlement mentality that is immensely popular today.  I believe that the concepts of entitlement, narcissism, and rights weave a peculiar pattern on the psyche of many Americans.  The mindset that results is overly sensitive to any behaviors or efforts that impinge on the so-called rights of these Americans. 

The Founders of the USA talked about “inalienable rights.”  An inalienable right can be defined as, “a right that cannot be restrained or repealed by human laws.”  Some examples include the following rights that are deemed as inalienable:

  • To act in self-defense.
  • To own private property.
  • To work and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
  • To move freely within the county or to another country.
  • To worship or refrain from worshipping within a freely chosen religion.
  • To be secure in one’s home.
  • To think freely.

There is an International Bill of Rights which lists the following rights:

  • The right to equality and freedom from discrimination.
  • The right to life, liberty, and personal security.
  • Freedom from torture and degrading treatment.
  • The right to equality before the law.
  • The right to a fair trial.
  • The right to privacy.
  • Freedom of belief and religion.
  • Freedom of opinion.

There is even a list of 30 Basic Human Rights.  Such lists are impressive if a bit naïve.  To say that rights cannot be taken away is ludicrous.  Rights hardly existed for many people even through much of the Twentieth Century.  Freedom and rights grow out of power.  They always have and they always will.  Without power, one may claim a right but never have any opportunity to practice it.  Government power, military power, police power and personal power all either defend or attack our rights.  Some governments giveth rights and some taketh away rights.  It is inspiring to think that we have “inalienable rights” but without power, an appeal to our rights is hollow and worthless.

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Responsibilities:

“Webster’s Online” defines responsibility as:

1: the quality or state of being responsible: such as

a: moral, legal, or mental accountability

b: RELIABILITY, TRUSTWORTHINESS

2: something for which one is responsible.

Looking at the definition of responsible, I wonder if any of the extremists ever considered the idea of moral or legal accountability?   Obviously no more than they thought of the idea of reliability or trustworthiness with the constitution of the laws of the country they profess to love.  How ironic, that they were chanting USA, USA, as they attempted to tear down the foundations that America is built on.  Nothing is more sacred to American democracy than a free and fair election.  However, these fanatics were willing to follow their deluded leader in his attempt to overthrow an election that was certified free and fair by almost every court in the country. 

Responsibilities do not grow out of power.  Responsibilities are the currency that we use to pay for our rights.  Nothing is free in this world.  Rights come with a price tag.  The price tag is paid for in responsibilities that accrue to our “inalienable” rights.  For instance, I have a personal right to swing my hand.  However, I also have a responsibility to stop swinging it when it interferes with the mobility of another human being.  I can ignore this responsibility, but the consequence can easily be the loss of my own right.  In a society we have many laws which become the responsibility of people to obey.  In return for this responsibility, personal rights are granted for a wide range of endeavors and activities.  This is the quid pro quo of rights and responsibilities. 

Another example is my right to my own opinion.  I may dislike a particular minority.  I may well be prejudiced against another race or ethnic group and believe them to be inferior to my own group.  There is no law against prejudice.  Nevertheless, we have a responsibility while a member of a multi-cultural society to avoid discrimination against other people and groups. 

Discrimination is an overt act and not simply an innate prejudice.  A society can tolerate a great deal of latitude when it comes to the stupidity of prejudice, but that latitude disappears when individuals are subjected to harassment and abuse because of the color of their skin. 

It is sad that everywhere we look today, individuals in America are clamoring for their rights.  Yelling in restaurants, offices, planes, schools, and private businesses that they have rights.  Screaming that the constitution gives them the right to do something without any responsibilities.  They protest that they are going to contact a lawyer and intend to sue someone since their rights were stolen.  None of these people want to recognize much less acknowledge that they have responsibilities.  They want their rights, but they do not want to pay the cost of their rights. 

Conclusions:

we-are-a-nation-of-narcissists-300x198-1What is the solution to the problem that we are facing today?  A poisonous cultural stew of narcissism and entitlement driven by a rights only oriented mentality that thinks they are above responsibilities.  I have reached the point in this essay where it would be easy to say, “Sorry, I don’t have the answer.” Or else, I could now list several bromides which may or may not have much effect.  I have the following solution which I believe in 100 percent.  I doubt that it would be acceptable to Americans as too many people have grown privileged, lazy, and indulgent in this country. 

imagesMy solution is for a National Required Service (NRS) that starts at the age of 18 for every man and woman in America.  Upon finishing high school and before starting college, every American would need to attend the National Required Service.  They would have two options.  The first option would be to choose between a two-year service or a four-year service.  A two-year service would be the minimum.  The advantage of a longer service would lie in the educational benefits that would accrue.  Serve two years and you would receive two years of financial credit towards any public education institution of your choice in the country including vocational education as well as liberal arts.  Choose a four-year tour of service and you would receive four years of financial credit towards the public institution of your desire.

The second choice facing the individual entering the NRS would be which track to join.  The NRS would have two tracks.  A civilian track would involve services like the Peace Corp or the AmeriCorps.  A military track would use the various branches Army, Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force to recruit soldiers from the NRS enrollees. 

Students would not go directly into college or the work force from high school.  Every 18-year-old youth in this country would have a responsibility to give back to the country that sustained him or her. No one except someone with a severe medical or family emergency would be exempted from this service.  No matter how much money you had or how influential your parents were, you would be legally required to attend the NRS.  Many enrollees would benefit from a chance to experience life away from home and to grow up some before entering into college or vocational training.  They would further benefit by having enough monetary credits to pay for their education or training and not to come away from school in debt for the next twenty years of their lives.

This program would convey rights to millions of youths and also a sense of responsibility.  The lingering miasma of entitlement that exists today would be dispelled as American youth learned about their responsibilities to their country.  They would be gratified by the role that they played and proud to have served their country.  We do not need a war to teach people about service to their country and to help them obtain the pride that so many military people have achieved upon completing their tours of duty. 

 

 

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Wayne Woodman
    Jan 18, 2021 @ 14:53:15

    Thank you John for a very clear article on the issue and I for one totally agree with your solution and also think it is 100%. Here in Canada we used to have 2 programs, Katimavik and Canada World Youth, that were a boon to many kids just out of high school, one of those being our son, but they were not mandatory. So this combined with the the second alternative would be fantastic.

    Like

    Reply

  2. Wayne Woodman
    Jan 18, 2021 @ 14:53:50

    Reblogged this on Musings and Wonderings and commented:
    Thank you John for a very clear article on the issue and I for one totally agree with your solution and also think it is 100%. Here in Canada we used to have 2 programs, Katimavik and Canada World Youth, that were a boon to many kids just out of high school, one of those being our son, but they were not mandatory. So this combined with the the second alternative would be fantastic.

    Like

    Reply

  3. ragnarsbhut
    Jan 22, 2021 @ 13:33:21

    Some rights seem to be pure fiction.

    Like

    Reply

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