I remember talking to a friend a few years ago about how I don’t like the phrase “given the right.” For example, in New York, gay people have been “given the right” to marry. If it’s a right, then it’s not really something to be given, is it? Who is it that’s doing the giving? Is it straights who have been gracious enough to bestow upon homosexuals the right to marry the people they love? Is it the state “giving” people a right that they already possess, by virtue of it being a right?
Human rights are something that we have because of the fact that we’re human. Sure, if they are not endorsed and protected by the state, then having a right means absolutely nothing. Go and tell a homeless person living in the slums of Delhi that they have the right to food, shelter, education, and information. Having a right means nothing if it’s not fulfilled, even if they are “inalienable and universal.” For a right to mean anything, people have to be able to realize them.
History also talks of women being “given” the right to vote. As recently as 2005, Kuwaiti women were “given” the right to vote. But if it’s a right, then it wasn’t really given to them, was it? They already had it.
My friend asked me how I thought it should be phrased, if not “given the right.” I don’t know if I have the right answer to that, but maybe we can talk about “returning the right” instead. If it’s a right, then you had it until someone or something took it away from you. If you steal my car and then bring it back, you’re not giving me a car. You’re returning what’s rightfully mine.
It sounds awkward when I say it out loud. But maybe the reason it sounds so awkward is because the way we phrase it reflects how we think about it. Rights are not something that the privileged class goes around sprinkling on underprivileged people at whim. Rights are something that people innately possess, although they sometimes have to fight to get them back; sometimes losing their lives in the process.
The reason that people fight for their rights, even knowing that they risk death, is because they know how important they are. Being chained by oppression, being seen as less than human just for being how and who you are, whether that’s being female, trans, African, indigenous, or gay; the constant threat of violence and imprisonment is no way to live. Let’s not “give” anyone the right to do anything. Let’s work on restoring to people what was theirs in the first place.