Talking About Policy as a Matter of Rights Is Part of the Democratic Process

By Henry Saroyan

In “Righting Away Democracy” (03/27/17), Natalie Denby engages in a worthy intellectual enterprise—a criticism of “righthood.”

The writer decries the narrative of campus progressives as lacking intellectual rigor, indicative of trite sloganeering rather than substantive political debate! But Denby’s well-intentioned polemic dabbles in the same kind of bombast that she is so against. Indulge me as I explain.

It is difficult to ignore the soft facetiousness that underlies this article. The author claims that campus activism is replete with “rights-based” causes. The examples she cites range from global issues (e.g. climate change) to national politics (universal health care, affordable college tuition, etc.). But she also references the banal, adducing internet access as something that social justice activists are so impassioned by (obviously explaining the excessive “Right to Wi-Fi” posters on campus).

Why does Denby do this? Is it to illustrate just how robust or contrived the left’s demands are? Perhaps. Nonetheless, Denby perpetuates a problematic fiction. Let us not blindly believe that our school’s politically-conscious students frame each and every one of their demands as “rights.” By lumping myriad causes together into one exhaustive list, Denby wants us to believe that the left cares about all of these issues equally. Her rhetoric implies that the appeals to “righthood” for both affordable health care and the “feeling of intellectual safety” (read: safe space!) are of equal importance. By grouping extremely significant causes with those oft-trivialized, Denby also dances around and ignores the many persuasive reasons why something as essential as health care should be considered a right in a wealthy, developed liberal democracy (a principle that many nations have wholeheartedly embraced).

But Denby’s flippancy is even more overt. Denby tells us that her intention is “not to demean a single one of these supposed ‘rights.’” But, in the same article, Denby debases compelling advocacies (from food security to the fight against onerous student debt) as “standard fodder of campus liberalism.” This is patronizing at best, hypocritical at worst. Denby has to choose. Fighting to save the planet from self-annihilation is either a worthy case or only partisan dross.

Denby’s more salient articulation is that the discourse of rights is a democratic antinomy that shrouds political preferences with “implied sanctity.” However, defending something as a right does not suggest one’s infallibility. It actually invites debate. Would political discourse be so concerned with health care if people like Senator Bernie Sanders had not passionately and publicly defended it as a right? And in the face of a Republican agenda insistent on effacing affordable health care, why shouldn’t we be even more receptive to this kind of discourse?

Additionally, Denby says that “quibbling” about the minimum wage makes “Trumpers” defend a rights-based language of their own. This concession belies her conviction that liberals are chilling political discourse. How can the left stifle opposition yet encourage conservatives to formulate equal-and-opposite political ideology? Denby also claims that college liberals’ “rights-based” language contributes to a whole host of destructive behaviors, like “attacks and riots over conservative speakers.” This is in shockingly obvious tension with her own observations. She points to our university as an example where the left embraces “righthood.” Yet, riots are nowhere to be found here (not even over Corey Lewandowski’s visit). So much, then, for argumentative rigor!

Most importantly, Denby ignores just how central the issue of “righthood” is to democracy. Much of relevant democratic theory seeks to investigate exactly what qualifies as a right. Rights can be bifurcated as “negative” (liberties that the government ought not to infringe upon) or “positive” (obligations or services that the state should supply, i.e. health care!). The very Bill of Rights that Denby claims would be “a pedantic, thousand-page tome” today reflects this exact phenomenon. The Bill of Rights provides us both negative rights (freedom of speech) and positive rights (trial by jury, legal representation). These amendments echo the anxieties and aspirations that our founding fathers thought were so compelling so as to be embraced through constitutional codification. Similarly, many of the rights that liberals (and conservatives) champion—from a clean environment to gender equity—reflect contemporary political convictions that address problems in the status quo. Make no mistake, the Constitution has been amended throughout our history precisely to reflect the same discourse of “righthood”—for example, the right to vote for women—that Denby labels as “anti-democratic.” Actually reading the Constitution evinces just how dynamic and malleable the concept of a “right” truly is!

As Americans, we have always championed ambitious hopes and dreams as fundamental rights. This is how movements are made, how hearts and minds are changed. This is how discourse is possible and how our democratic principles are sustained.                                        

Henry Saroyan is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.