“Man is born free but he everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau’s conclusion marked the end of the first stage of the Enlightenment — which came with the recognition that all people were possessed of basic rights but for the most part they were not able to exercise them. While Rousseau has a lot to answer for — he created the concept of the Noble Savage, after all —this aphoristic description of the state of politics has driven much of the rest of the enlightenment project — an effort to allow people to express the rights they already possess. The free expression of rights by others has been what has driven the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the civil rights movement, feminism, the establishment of gay rights and so on.
While the final stages of all these movements require individuals and groups to assert and take their rights, in every case the first step required a change in the social culture wherein those who could already express their rights created the conditions that allowed freedom to bloom. It has not always been easy and has been fought at every step of the way.
In some cases the fights have been verbal or political but sometimes they have required the taking up of arms. The end of slavery in the United States required a civil war. Some people are still fighting it.
I was inspired to think of this the other day by the people who expressed discomfort over the Irish referendum that changed the constitution to recognize gay marriage (well, that work is still to come in the legislature but it is a foregone conclusion after the vote). People shouldn’t vote on other people’s rights was the general sentiment.
But how else do you think it can happen? Revolutions? They sometimes work but the French revolution was followed by The Terror and then Napoleon.
Although generally, national referendums have not been the route to inclusivity and the expansion of freedom, it is hardly invalid. The alternative is a political process wherein legislatures pass laws to remove restrictions on people. This was how women gained the vote in the end — it was brought about by protests and arguments (some of which were unfortunate) but ultimately required the law to be changed by the only people who already had the vote: men.
The courts have also played a role — but not by “making law” but by forcing legislatures to obey the highest law of the land, the written and unwritten constitution that lays the foundation of society. But even then it was the political process that created those possibilities. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” And it was the evolution of culture and society that led to the understanding that all men meant all humans.
Rights may be inherent to all people but without the freedom to exercise them they are nothing but a beautiful dream. As Ireland has shown it is time to stop dreaming and start living.
And that’s ten minutes.