Understanding of rights vs. having rights.


I just read a discussion in which someone had said, “People who don’t understand they have a right to privacy don’t actually need privacy, especially if the privacy violations are happening in the name of abuse prevention.” (I’m not trying to dredge up personal stuff so I’m not naming names or forums and ask people to do the same, I’ve seen this around many forums by many people and this person just happened to spark this entry. This is a response to the general concept, not to that person.)

Well, one thing I did was refer them to Dave Hingsburger’s “Ethics of Touch” video where he describes how increased impairment/likelihood of abuse/etc requires increased boundaries and observation of rights, not decreased ones. And I also pointed out the hubris in assuming that a person doesn’t understand they have rights, and the difference between gut-level understanding and intellectual understanding (you don’t need intellectual understanding of a concept of ‘rights’ in the abstract to feel viscerally when they are being violated, or to feel pain in general even if you don’t know where it’s coming from). I covered a lot of this in my more careful, not less post.

Additionally, something else Hingsburger mentioned in the same video — not understanding that you have a certain right sometimes is the problem in and of itself, and is a sign that a right has been systematically violated. I once let a total stranger into my apartment. She walked around, inspected the whole place in detail, asked me a question (which I answered incorrectly due to memory problems and an incorrect understanding of time-words — she asked me if we’d been harassed lately, and I thought she meant within the past hour or two — we’d had threats of violence towards us and our pets screamed at us through our front door something like the night before but I didn’t remember or mention those at the time, I have real trouble retrieving information like that in response to questions) and left. Turned out she was the attorney for the other side of a legal case my roommate was involved in. My roommate was angry that I let her in, and angry that I’d given her an answer she could use against my roommate. I didn’t know I had a right to refuse people entrance into my apartment. And that was the problem. The solution wouldn’t be to continue treating me as if I had no such right, because, after all, I didn’t understand, now would it?

But there’s another aspect to this.

If anyone uses the argument, “They don’t understand this right, so they don’t need it,” they can’t pick and choose. If not understanding a right means not needing it protected, then people who don’t understand the intellectual concept of a right to life can be shot, people who don’t understand the intellectual concept of a right to freedom from abuse can be beaten and tortured, people who don’t understand the intellectual concept of a right to eat can have food withheld, and so on and so forth. Not to mention those who would otherwise understand the concept but have been treated as if the right does not exist so long that they don’t realize it does, or don’t believe it does even if they do know that such a right could theoretically exist.

So don’t use “They don’t understand the concept of rights, so they don’t need them,” and then turn around and claim you’re using this argument to justify abuse prevention. If you really believe that people who don’t understand a right don’t need to have it protected, then you have no business trying to prevent the abuse of people who (you think) don’t understand a right to freedom from abuse. If you do believe that people who don’t understand the right to freedom from abuse deserve protection from abuse, then you don’t belong using the “They don’t understand the concept of rights, so they don’t need them” argument, it leaves people wide open to abuse on many levels.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

20 responses »

  1. Children don’t understand they have rights either (intellectually). That doesn’t mean their rights shouldn’t be protected. It’s a stupid argument that if you don’t know you have a right then everyone should act like you don’t have that right.

  2. It is fundamental to the whole concept of rights that a person’s right to privacy, or any right, is not dependent on their intellectual understanding of it.

  3. If person A is with person B and person B has no concept of rights, then that is irrelevant as to how person A treats person B. Person A has a responsibility to treat others as they themselves would wish to be treated.

  4. People who say things like “People who don’t understand X right don’t deserve to have X right” don’t understand rights themselves. There are a certain set of rights that everybody has, and they don’t get taken away unless someone commits a crime. Even then, I guess you could construe it so that nobody took the rights away from the person, the person abandoned his rights (to freedom, privacy, etc.) when he broke the law. Even then, he still has rights. To a lawyer, to a fair trial, to be treated like a human being.

    And we’re not even talking about criminals. Unless, of course, certain people think that a lack of comprehension of a right is a crime in itself.

    If someone doesn’t understand a right, others have an obligation to help him understand so that he recognizes when it is being violated. And if he can’t understand, he still has a right to … er … the right.

    All of this just seems so basic to me that I can’t believe that anyone would question it. It’s why police read people their Miranda rights when they’re being arrested. It’s why at my grandma’s nursing home, there’s a big list of “YOUR RIGHTS” posted on the wall.

    Plus, they’re called “inalienable”; that should be an indication that you can’t, erm, alienate them.

  5. I can’t even believe people say stuff like that out loud, much less believe it. It’s just…wrong.

    Taking that argument at its face value, the person stating such a belief would argue that a newborn has no rights. Scary.

  6. Yeah, what’s to stop people from treating babies this way? They can’t fight for their rights except by crying.

    I think it’s the notion that babies will (or might) grow up to live “productive” lives if you treat them right, whereas disabled people are doomed to be “unproductive” by common societal definitions.

    That said, there are people who will abuse babies and children with no obvious disabilities besides the weaknesses of being babies and children.

    I wonder if the industries of childcare and disability services tend to attract a disproportionate number of people who like to abuse power. My sister once worked at a home for mentally retarded people, and she said that the leadership was very corrupt. (I’m not sure if that was why she left, though.)

    Or maye it’s just that “power corrupts,” as “they” say.

  7. Well you know my position on this. And I live in a surveillance society, there is a camera down my street that can see every time I catch the bus, or go out for a walk and does it make me feel any safer?

    Not a bit of it.

  8. Wow, I’m sorry that this happened to you!

    And wondering why the (slimeball) person who violated your home didn’t clearly identify who they were and what their purpose for the visit before asking to enter was.

    At least enter a complaint against them? (With their boss?, or the other representative on your roomies side?)

  9. There is a difficulty where rights conflict and need to be balanced. Privacy vs. safety is a good example. It might be difficult to figure out where to draw the line to protect both rights as much as possible, but saying that a right doesn’t need to be protected because the person doesn’t know he or she has that right is not the way to do it.

  10. It could be me, Anne, but the solution to that problem in most cases seems pretty obvious. A person has both rights, period. If a situation comes up where one right interferes with the other, the person gets to choose which right they exercise, and which one they don’t. No person should ever choose to ignore another person’s rights, including the right to make choices about their life, unless there is truly no other option.

  11. Ann,
    I can think of three situations where it wouldn’t be so clear-cut:

    1) the person really DOESN’T understand those two rights, or has no way of communicating a preference between the two rights, or for some other reason is not in a good position to make a judgment between those two rights (an example would be someone who is acutely suicidal, who (arguably) may be so overwhelmed by emotion that they are not able to make a “rational” choice that their safety is important.) These cases, I think, are a huge source of controversy and I, for one, have no clear-cut answer as to what to do there.

    2)the judgment between rights has to be applied to a whole category of people, not just individually. So again with privacy vs. safety, an example would be US policy on measures to prevent crime that might infringe on civil liberties.

    3)Each right belongs to a different person, so you have to choose between one person’s safety and another person’s privacy. An example here could be taking measures against someone who has a certain likelihood of harming others, but who hasn’t committed any out-and-out crimes.

  12. An example of 3) is the recent debate in Canada about a sex offender registry. Does the right to be safe from harm by the people in contact with the offender outweigh the offender’s right to privacy?
    Regarding safe touch, when playing with children, I’ll only touch them under one of three circumstances – a) they initiate touch – eg if they hug me, I’ll hug back. Another example is when one girl playfully poked me, I poked her back. b) they give me permission. I asked a daughter of one of my friends if she’d like me to pick her up and twirl her around. If she’d said no, I’d have dropped it, but since she said yes, I twirled her around. c) if I need to touch them in order to care for them – such as changing a person who can’t dress themselves, or grabbing them if they’re running off.

  13. I wonder if the industries of childcare and disability services tend to attract a disproportionate number of people who like to abuse power.

    I think it’s a combination of that, and what you said further down about power corrupting. We certainly have seen people who got into teaching, even to “normal” children, who seemed to despise children in every way. Additionally, some people seem to be attracted to the “free halo” that comes with working with certain people who are generally considered undesirable and that nobody in their right mind would voluntarily spend time with– and there’s a particular prestige attached to working with “special needs children.” We’ve seen people who failed to treat others with any kind of decency and courtesy pull out the trump card of “but I work with special needs children!” as if that alone proved their essential virtue as people. It certainly makes it easy for people to pull the wool over their own eyes and convince themselves that they do it out of essential altruism, if society constantly reinforces this perception.

    But corruption through power, I think, also waylays people who come into the system with the best of intentions. A corrupt system will ruin even those with good intentions. Just as with animals, people tend to dismiss certain things as minor– they only hit them *once* or locked them in a closet *once* or deprived them of food *once*, and they can’t talk anyway so no one will know, and they probably don’t have the mental capacity to remember it anyway, do they? When people end up in positions of power, there’s also a tendency to interpret any “defiance” or “noncompliance” from the one they have power over as a personal insult, and the person who does it as essentially “bad” in some way.

  14. R. N.^Amorpha:

    Your comment makes me think of a book I recently heard about (though I have not yet had the chance to read it). It’s called “The Lucifer Effect” by Dr. Philip G. Zimbardo, the man who ran the Stanford prison experiment in which ordinary college boys were randomly assigned to be either “prison guards” or “prisoners” and then put into a mocked-up prison to act out their roles. The experiment was supposed to continue for two weeks but had to be shut down after six days because the “guards” became so involved in their roles that they quickly indulged in some of the kinds of abuses we heard about decades later at Abu Gahrib. And the “prisoners” were starting to break down because of it.

    From the little bit I know of his book, Zimbardo apparently likes to talk of what he calls the “bad barrel” effect. His point is, there aren’t simply “a few bad apples in the barrel.” Instead, there are certain “bad barrels” — in other words, corrupt systems — that are so bad that you can put “good apples” into these barrels and the good apples will go bad. He argues (or at least so I understand–as I said, I haven’t actually read the book yet) that this happens because even good people, ALL of us, have within us the capacity to do evil things.

    I haven’t bought the book yet because I don’t have time for it right now (I’m about to start a new class next week, in addition to my full time job). But I did find it in a book store and took a glance at the chapter headings. A lot of his book explores the Stanford Prison experiment in depth. I know there is more information about this experiment on the web — Amanda has linked to it at least once from one of her blog posts, probably one of the posts on abuses in institutions. I don’t remember where now. The book explores more what the experiment implies about the capacity all good people have for doing evil things when put into a “bad barrel,” so to speak, and the implications this has for prisons (and also psychiatric institutions, though unfortunately he doesn’t seem to really explore that angle too much. Which I can’t help but feel is a badly missed opportunity.)

    Zimbardo also talks some about other experiments (I think also run by him) that explore people’s reaction to authority when authority pressures them to do things they know is ethically wrong. And maybe some other relevant experiments that I don’t remember now.

    The next part is kind of a digression from where I started (i.e., responding to R.N.^Amorpha on corrupt systems corrupting), but: I looked at the book in part because the review I saw about it says it talks about how people can sort of mentally train themselves to be “heros,” with mental “exercises” to make themselves more resistant to the kinds of pressures that might otherwise make them give in when they find themselves in a “bad barrel” and more likely to stand up for what’s right. The book does have one chapter on this topic (the very last one). And, I don’t know, I suppose possibly there is more on this topic throughout the book that I didn’t spot in my cursory glance throughout it. But I was kind of disappointed because I felt like I already know that good people can do bad things, a corrupt system can corrupt even “good” people, yada yada (Amanda’s blog here, of course, has helped me crystalize some of my thinking on these topics, though I already knew a good part of it before I discovered her). And I also felt I already had a handle on some of the basics (at least in the abstract; not sure how well I do yet in the application) of how to prepare yourself to stand up for what’s right. So I was hoping to see a book that would explore these things in further depth so I could develop more confidence in my ability to do this if and when needed. A single chapter doesn’t seem quite enough in my opinion: at best you can maybe lay down the foundations.

    I guess Zimbardo wrote his book the way he did because, unfortunately, MOST people are still stuck on the idea of, “But I’m a good person! I would NEVER do anything bad! Because I’m a good person!” and may NEED pretty much an entire book to break down this idea before they can begin to accept the idea that they actually do need to guard themselves against doing bad things–that simply being “a good person” just isn’t guard enough. But I hope someday he (or someone else) will write a companion book that will focus primarily on the pragmatic “How NOT To Be Corrupted By The Bad Barrel” side of things. I think it could be a useful resource for social workers, doctors, counselors, etc. — anyone who might find themselves thrust into a position of power, whether or not they see themselves as the “kind of person” who has power or who yields it, wisely or otherwise.

  15. I keep having to re-read the initial statement: “People who don’t understand they have a right to privacy don’t actually need privacy.”

    It seems a most illogical statement. There are many things which I don’t understand but still need. There have been many good comments here to digest. I need to think on this one some more. I guess my gut reaction is to say that everyone’s rights should be protected whether they understand them or not. This statement seems to give an allowance for abuse of one sort or another.

  16. oh my gosh…this is such a relevant topic! i was just reading some of the folks on my links and came across this post by a mom who has had her son’s privacy invaded by teens who film him on their camera phones. how horrible!

    here is her link. is there anything that can be done about such a thing? i am hoping someone here can help her.


  17. I have always wondered if one example of “bad barrel inoculation” might be teaching people about the bystander effect. In my mental file of experiments I’d love to run, I always wanted to teach people about how there is a human tendency to be less likely to help if there are other people present, because of diffusion of responsibility and not wanting to appear foolish. Then (somehow disguising it so people don’t figure out it’s a ruse) exposing people to a helping situation and seeing if the bystander effect becomes less prominent.

  18. andreashettle: Thank you for the book recommendation. I’ll see if I can find it. I think “bad barrels” is very close to what I had been thinking of, yes. I believe Abraham Lincoln said that power, rather than adversity, was the truest test of a man’s character (but it may simply be one of those judicious sayings frequently attributed to some famous historical figure or other)– though as you said, I think corruption through power may often simply be the result of unexamined assumptions rather than moral failings. “Because I’m a good person, I could never do anything that bad; therefore what I’m doing right now, or consenting to allowing someone else to do, can’t possibly be all that bad. I know what bad people are like, and I am nothing like them.”

    …in other words, the only “failing” is the steadfast belief in your own moral goodness, and the idea that it renders you incapable of doing anything truly “bad.” Or that something else about your own nature, besides intrinsic goodness, makes you incapable of certain things. We’ve been in several groups, including but not limited to the autistic community, in which various people insisted they were constitutionally incapable of prejudice, bullying others, attempting to assert dominance over others, deliberately taking pleasure in others’ pain, etc. And almost predictably, those who were the loudest about asserting it were often those who displayed those traits most obviously, though they’d deny it could actually be the same thing.

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