Rights Talk vs. Dialogue

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People say that we need more dialogue.  I couldn’t agree more.  But people need to learn to talk to one another, because it is not as easy as people imagine.  It is not our default mode.

It is worth noting, for example, that the “dialogue” everyone agrees we should have over the important challenge facing our society will be crippled from the start if each person thinks that what “freedom” means is that we each define our own “values” and then pursue them without regard to others – with no possibility of anyone “judging” our opinions.

When we all act this way, politics becomes little more than a conflict of self-interests and people asserting what they want under the guise of “rights.”  When people talk about “justice,” what they usually have in mind is a system securing their rights and their freedom to do as they wish, whether it is the freedom to own guns, to smoke marijuana, to make money without being taxed, or to produce and profit from making pornography.

If I have a right to do what I want, then so does everyone else.  But if someone else’s rights-claim interferes with yours – when their “right” to play their music loudly at any hour of the day or night interferes with your “right” to sleep – then what?  Often people today go to the government to press their rights-claim over the rights-claims of their neighbors, and their neighbors do the same.

This is ironic since rights were understood by the Founders as a claim one would make against the intrusive powers of government, whereas now rights are claims people make to government against their neighbors with the intention that the government should use its intrusive powers even more intrusively. The result is that politics becomes a competition of power, now couched in the language of “rights” rather than “self-interests.”

We could try to find some reasonable compromise.  Local legislative bodies often try to do this.  But if “rights” are “trumps,” as modern legal theorists such as Ronald Dworkin have insisted, then the declaration that something is a “right” means it will always outweigh all other claims. And the court adjudicating these disputes, instead of trying to balance one claim against another to find a reasonable compromise, will decide a “winner” whose “rights” must be respected, regardless of the social consequences, and a “loser” who must submit.

Ironically, people’s freedoms are often whittled away this way in service of someone else’s freedoms by the judiciary’s interventions in response to someone’s claim they have a “right” the government should enforce.  And when nearly everyone has a “right” the government is supposed to enforce on everyone else, pretty soon there are few areas of our lives left unregulated by the government.


The list of things people are not supposed to say or do increases with each passing year.  Perhaps it is worth remembering, then, that there are key constitutional provisions that allow the legislative branch to restrict the power of the judiciary when the courts get too expansively authoritarian (see art. I, § 8, cl. 9 and art. III, § 1 and § 2).  Is it time for the people’s representatives to consider deploying them?

In a society where many say they do not wish to impose their “values” on others, they are often quick to impose their claim of some “right” on others, which can in practice amount to much the same thing as imposing values.  If a person on a college campus has a “right” not to feel frightened by opinions that challenge his or her values, then this “right” will restrict the ability of others to invite speakers with different values to campus.  In this instance, the language of protecting “rights” is being used to impose certain “values.”

The irony is captured in a comment a young woman once made to me about all-male clubs.  “There are some things,” she insisted, “that just shouldn’t be allowed in a free and open society!”  I agreed because I believe that freedom must be tied to truth, especially the truth about the human person, a truth most fully revealed in Jesus Christ, which can be known, at least in part, by human reason. Ironically, this woman’s insistence on the “right” of women to associate as they wished (in this case, in all-male clubs) necessitated restraining the freedom of others to associate as they wished.

This approach usually necessitates the government designating favored groups whose “rights” trump those of others.  The problem here is that the groups not so “favored” will in time come to resent being repeated losers in their disputes.  Instead of being respected as fellow citizens pressing a reasonable claim within the system of representative republican governance, they are increasingly viewed as dangerous “enemies of rights.”  They are not just people with a different position, they are people “threatening our rights.”

And yet, if “rights” are used to privilege certain groups over others, then the groups not so privileged will eventually seek to cast aside these “rights” as though they were casting off the yoke of slavery.  Then both groups – those enforcing rights-claims and those resisting them as oppressive – will both envision themselves as “liberators” and their opponents as “oppressors.”

So we’re all victims now, but we’re also all oppressors.  The result is little or no interest in compromise and thus no need to dialogue.  Who dialogues with people who want to deny people their rights?

I hardly need point out how different it would be if we envisioned dialogue as something taking place between persons “made in the image of God” but also tragically fallen and broken, in need of redemption, created for communion with others and with God.  Dialogue should not become a war of words; it should be seen as the human participation in the Word becoming flesh, the goal of which is not the destruction of an enemy, but a sacrificial death-to-self in service to Goodness, Love, and Truth.


*Image: Politics in an Oyster House by Richard Caton Woodville, 1848 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD]. Woodville exhibited an 1852 copy of this work to some acclaim at the Royal Academy in London, where it was re-titled, A New York Communist Advances an Argument.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.