This op-ed does not encourage giving up on our rights in any way whatsoever, and does not refute the significance of demanding our rights. Rather, it sheds light upon how language serves fascism.
Again, language is political, and it’s catastrophic how it often goes by unnoticed. We all — myself included — are accustomed to this hackneyed concept of “giving rights” when addressing disenfranchisement that is based on intersectional factors like race, gender, class, religion, etc.—so much so, this very idea of trying to pressure legal institutions to give rights has become, in the eyes of many, the ultimate solution, when in fact, it’s nothing but an illusion.
Human rights, as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) puts it, are “rights we have simply because we exist as human beings – they are not granted by any state,” which means that our rights are already there ever since we are born, and that we don’t have them; simply because, thanks to legal institutions, they “bestowed” them upon us. And by all accounts, Amnesty International UK makes it clear that, ironically, these rights “can never be taken away.”
The catch is that on saying that rights should be given, we, unknowingly, instead of conveying the fact that rights are being violated, participate in confirming the systems’ conviction that the oppressed are asking for a luxury that was never available for them. As a consequence, the act of giving rights per se serves to portray the “generosity” of such systems.
The catch is that on saying that rights should be given, we, unknowingly, instead of conveying the fact that rights are being violated, participate in confirming the systems’ conviction that the oppressed are asking for a luxury that was never available for them.
Merriam-Webster, for example, states that “to give” means “to grant or bestow by formal action.” And on a closer look to what verbs like “grant” and “bestow” mean for such dictionary, in the context of rights, it’s turned out that “to grant” means “to permit as a right, privilege, or favor,” and “to bestow” means to “convey as a gift.” Likewise, Collins Dictionary sees that giving “someone or something a particular power or right means to allow them to have it.” That is to say, such words are not simply about reclaiming rights. Rather, they’re about allowing people to have them, which means, if they want, they can simply say “no, we don’t allow you to take them,” which is totally the opposite to Amnesty International UK’s statement about how rights “can never be taken away.”
What’s more, when defining rights, they don’t seem to be on the same page with OHCHR. If anything, unlike OHCHR which demonstrates that rights exist naturally once we exist, Merriam-Webster believes that rights are a kind of “power” and “privilege,” whereas Collins Dictionary decides that the law and morals grant these rights, and thus, defines them as “things that one is morally or legally entitled to do or have,” which contradicts with the latter part of OHCHR’s definition which makes it clear that rights “are not granted by any state.”
We live within totalitarian regimes, and with them taking control, demanding rights perpetuates their fascist schemes rather than dismantle them, in the sense that the law, in such systems, becomes a tool that has the power to either approve of and/or deny the supposedly unquestionable rights. And having definitions that consider rights a kind of luxury in such well-known dictionaries says a lot about the ideology adopted – one that establishes a false dogma that rights naturally exist only for the top dogs, and that the underdogs are striving to get similar privilege; to reshape the system and become the ones holding the power.
Of course, demanding rights from systems has been effective from time immemorial. Even so, it’s essential to recognize how the language used by systems can render the oppressed inferior and deem superior those whom it favors. If anything, it is not unlikely to find that there are many other words that are used on a daily basis without realizing that they shape the culture the way that the oppressors would like it to be.
Our “give us our rights!” cries have been all about placing legal institutions in a position that gives them indefinite power. And now, it’s our time to rage and RECLAIM our rights.