When Wrestling With Rights, Thanks Be To Blogs!

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

In a session of Adult Sunday School in the church of a Midwestern town, a local leader of the Lakota Sioux Tribe passed around slips of paper. He told those in attendance to write down, in ranking order, the things in life that were most important. Once the lists were complete, the leader asked participants to name the items that topped their lists, and share why these items were so meaningful. After some minutes of discussion, the leader instructed that all must tear off one of the items, and relinquish those scraps of paper to him. The group was then asked to relinquish another valued aspect of their lives, which was even more difficult. Then the group was asked to hold up the three remaining symbols of valued aspects of life. One of the last three was ripped from their hands; in his own hands he began to gather the words family, freedom of choice, love, my wife, in various contours and colors of ink. But from some he heard voices of protest – they could not let go of their scraps of paper. Those top items simply meant too much to sacrifice, even in their symbolic form. The leader then revealed the purpose of the Lose Weight Exercise: to reflect upon what was taken forcibly from Native Americans – the most basic, and most important, joys and experiences of life. These are the things no one would sacrifice willingly, and that no one should take away.

This story recounts my parents’ morning at Spirit of Peace, my childhood church in Sioux Falls, South
Dakota; it came up this afternoon during our weekly phone call. Lately, I have wrestled with my thoughts about rights — and at moments like these when the mental wrestling gets really
rough, I forget that others are probably fighting the same fight. So…Thanks Be
to Blogs! I will use this case of today’s Adult Sunday School at Spirit of Peace, which is but twelve hours old and twelve hundred
miles away, to ask a question that builds a necessary ring around my mental wrestling.
You, of course, are my audience, cheering and jeering from your computer

Those lists of items were written in ranking order of
importance. Obviously, there was some variance among each of the very first
items: family, freedom of choice, and so on. Yet I imagine all of those first
items were similar in essence to many of the rights named by the UN General
Assembly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948): “Men and women of
full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the
right to marry and to found a family…” (Article 16). “Everyone has the right to
freedom of thought, conscience and religion…” (Article 18). But what about the
items further down the list? They were still considered among the most
important in life, but presumably their importance decreased with their
ranking, increased in variance, and would have perhaps been easier to tear off and give up?

This leads to my primary question: Which of these items are
rights? If we had to draw a line beneath the last item a person should never
have to give up because it and all preceding items are rights, what would that last
item be? Could that last item be the same for all? To claim that it could
points in the direction of essentialism, a concept that Martha Nussbaum wrote a few years ago was "becoming a dirty word in the academy” (1993). She further
elaborated that essentialism, the notion that there are properties essential to
humans and which all humans share, “is taken, usually without extended argument, to be in league with racism and sexism, with ‘patriarchal’ thinking generally, whereas extreme relativism is taken to be a recipe for social progress.”

Rights…how do we draw a line between what constitutes a right and what does not, while
respecting peoples’ differences? What are the rights of a woman living in a culture
that requires her to stay confined to a room while she is menstruating? What are the rights of a child suffering from life-threatening illness whose religion prevents him from taking life-saving medicines? When is culture itself a right, and when does culture stand in the way of rights?

Like any good wrestling match, the rowdiest of audience members eventually find a way to break into the ring and join the fight. So I invite you, essentialists, relativists, and all folk in between, to do the same…online, of course…not in the hallway outside the CCT lab.


Nussbaum, Martha C. 1993. Social Justice and Universalism: In Defense of an Aristotelian Account of Human Functioning. Modern Philology 90 (May): S46-S73.