Defining Civil Rights

Aristotle depicted by Raphael, holding his ”Ethics”: detail from the Vatican fresco ”The School of Athens”, 1510 – 1511.

How do you define civil rights? This is a big question, and although it seems like the concept should be self evident, to many people it’s not. Let me start by offering my understanding, my definition of the term civil rights: Civil and political rights and equality guaranteed to each and every citizen through law.  It would be nice if civil rights could be guarantee via culture, but that is impossible.

With this said, I must admit that when people talk about civil rights, we are often talking about black Americans. But just because we connect the “civil rights movement” with black Americans, this doesn’t mean we should limit the definition to one group of people … any ONE group of people.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, Ann Coulter on ABC “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, was discussing her thoughts on civil rights and she linked this concept to black Americans because of the “legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” The term “black Americans” is extremely important because Coulter is not interested in offering civil rights to blacks who are not legal Americans. Furthermore, she continued her definition of civil rights by stating: “We don’t owe the homeless. We don’t owe feminists. We don’t owe women who are desirous of having abortions, or gays who want to get married to one another.”

I am not the biggest fan of Coulter or her philosophies. But I wanted to look at the motivation for creating a definition so limited that it would only include one narrow group of people. To me the motivation is transparent: if we want to limit government, and limit what government does for its people, then we must somehow exclude people who would otherwise have rights or claims to government programs. Such as, women having the ability to have birth control covered by their insurance policies, free of charge.

What I find astounding is that many people, such as Coulter and even personal friends of mine, people who see government programs and civil rights as “entitlements,” are almost always willing to take from those “entitlement” the moment their lives goes to hell. When we are healthy, we would like to suggest that we rise above such things, that we do not need a helping hand, that we can do everything ourselves, that we are strong individuals.

But there is a reason we take out insurance policies, isn’t there? There is a reason we think ahead to that moment when our car might be hit, or our house might be robbed. We take out insurance because we know that there is a good chance life will not be as perfect as it is, or might be, at this moment in time. Isn’t this why most states require drivers to have driving insurance? Homeowner’s insurance?

Civil rights law is a type of insurance policy. If we create laws that guarantee equality in both civil and political arenas, then we can safeguard against those moments when hate, discrimination, and other realities of inequality, such as class warfare, shows it’s ugly little head. Limiting civil rights to one group of people limits our ability to take care of our nation. That is what Ann Coulter is missing. Maybe she has been blessed with a happy life to date. I am sure that she has had her own share of hardships, we all do to differing degrees, but what about that moment when she loses everything? Her right as a woman to go out in public and offer her political opinions. Her right as a person to have access to food or health care, should she lose everything in a blink of an eye. Then, what will she do? What if she had no family? What if she had no resources? What happens when the money runs out? The question we must ask ourselves is this: what are we willing to do for those living in our country? Are we willing to sit back, and watch a person’s voice, their political rights, and access to services such as food and health care be taken away? Are we willing to watch as a person live on the street, possibly dying because of lack of care? It happens every day. I’ve seen it.  Have you?

Robbing people access to the definition of civil rights is like disenfranchising most of the nation. You may disagree with what I see as a civil right, but that disagreement does not necessarily mean I should not have access to civil rights.

And yet, the act of redefining an idea or concept so that it can fit into one’s mode of ideology, is a very worrisome and troublesome technique being used by politicians and taking-heads today. Imagine, if you will, the effort of redefining birth-control as a form of abortion.  In a sense, this is what Arizona is doing when state lawmakers redefined the moment of conception as being two weeks before the actual moment of conception. By redefining this concept, birth control pills, any form of birth control, becomes an “abortant.”  Definition is a very powerful tool, and when people can make a strong argument, or at least persuasive argument-those two things are not exclusive, about redefining an idea that works to exclude large portions of the nation, we should all not only be wary, but on high alert.

Watch the George Stephanopoulos with Ann Coulter interview here.