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Thoughts on Rights, Autonomy and the Struggle for Change

I am often reminded by others of a need to establish such things as universal human rights. On this subject, I support the struggle for equal rights under the law because I oppose any injustice, but if we're talking about revolution, the focus has to go beyond “rights.” Sure—I have rights, you have rights, we all have rights—where does that get us at the end of the day? Rights are so passive. They're an illusion. They exist until you realize they don't. And then, perhaps, we have a revolution, and we all truly have rights, until—we don't.

Marginalized people already know that rights aren't worth anything. Rights don't confer power. They simply provide a moral code, and an arbitrary one at that. Moral codes are static, appealing to tradition and emotion, and are thus exploitable. There are no rights outside of law; they don't even exist except as figments of a collectively passive will.

I don't take something because I have the right to it. I take it because I have the power to do so. Everything is based on power—everything that keeps us marginalized. And that is the language of empowerment. Empowerment, autonomy—to me, these are tangible things; they are positive things. They are ideas that one can actively create by resisting, and appropriating, and holding those accountable who would enslave you—using any and all means. Do rights confer that sort of power?

Something that always drew me to, on one hand, communism, and on the other, minority and gender struggles and identity politics generally, is the language—and more specifically, the action—of autonomy. The discourse is often one of “rights” and therefore passive and weak, to be incrementally rectified, but there are long historical threads of active resistance among all struggles that we're talking about—towards empowerment, justice and autonomy. Capitalism, and the struggle for socialism, isn't what made or makes me a socialist. It's the struggle for autonomy. That is something that I find is often missing from discussions of political theory and political philosophy.

Part of the problem with approaching the problems of society from a “universal rights” prospective, for me, is that it always seems to gloss over the intensely variant experiences that we have as a result of unique identities. Part of the problem is that the language is one of inertia; it's an excuse to revert to moralism—traditional, learned, trained—anathema to questioning morality on a profound level. Reconciling universal principles with a contextual morality that accounts for all agents in question—is this possible? “Human rights” are today used as a pretense to endlessly bomb people in never-ending wars—so it is, and will continue to be. Indeed, there must be more to the struggles of humanity than “rights.”

Politics | Philosophy


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