The word rights is one we hear a lot in connection with politics, especially from those on the left. Human rights, women's rights, animal rights, worker's rights and so forth. But what exactly are these rights based on? In a world where language defines our society (rather than the other way around), we obviously need to be very careful with how we choose to speak.
"Rights" are not something which we take for ourselves, but rather things which are granted to us. In modern society, there seem to be two types of rights. One type is granted by the state, the other type is considered innate. I will explore these in turn.
As an anarchist, the irrelevance of state-given rights to me is clearly obvious, however, time and time again, I hear other anarchists referring to them. This seems to be especially prevelant amongst anarchists based in the USA, where anarchists are heard to complain when their "rights under the US constitution" are ignored, and in relation to war and imprisonment, such as the "rights under the Geneva convention" of the prisoners at places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
Surely, as anarchists, we understand that states only grant concessions when forced to in order to quell dissent – the 8 hour day, the repealing of the Jim Crow laws, granting women and blacks the vote are all examples of this. And, as anarchists, we understand that even where the state is forced to grant concessions, it will usually try to bring the same results back in a more palatable form (the above 3 examples are all relevant here too). What was once de jure becomes de facto, and the state survives to oppress another day.
Why then, are we so surprised when state-given rights are violated? This is the norm, not the exception. In making the issue the violation of state-given rights, rather than state oppression, we allow the state to dictate the agenda, leaving ourselves eternally on the back foot. As long as we argue within a statist framework, we will remain trapped inside it.
For activists concerned with them, issues such as human rights and animal rights are frequently regarded as innate inside the animal (whether human or not) they refer to. In our society, there is only one thing that is imagined to have the power to grant innate rights, and that is god.
The number of atheists who refer to these innate rights is bizarre. Innate rights assume a universal truth, a universal good and bad, which can only come from a higher being. As with state-given rights, discussing innate rights only serves to further entrench that which is normative, namely a belief in a higher power (god).
Liberation – An alternative view
An alternative to the rights-based view already exists and has a heavy usage within political circles – it is liberation. Unlike passively recieved rights, liberation requires active participation. It is not based on any universal truth. Liberation is bold, liberation confronts the oppressors, and, eventually, liberation can bring true freedom, not reliant on the framework of the oppressor or the belief that an ulimate authority will make things right.