It seems to me that these days, many people are standing up for their rights, as they perceive them to be. On the surface, this would be an excellent way to behave in a democracy. Why then is it so divisive?
Many years ago, even before I began law school, my dad handed me a 3×5 card that he had written on in his trademark fountain pen calligraphy. Any of his students from Warrensburg High School in the ‘50s and ‘60s would have recognized the writing, as it adorned all of their graduation diplomas and detention slips.
On one side of the card, it read “Privatum commodum Publico cedit”. The translation on the back of the card read, “Private advantage yields to public (good)”.
We talked about it some, and he explained that it was a concept dating back to Roman times and that it meant that while an individual has rights, they are tempered or limited by the needs of society.
Three years of law school and a career in criminal justice has clarified this concept for me. I also learned that it is a part of the English Common Law that forms the basis of our law. First off, nothing in the Bill of Rights is absolute. Free speech does not allow you to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Further, “the pursuit of happiness” does not allow theft. In point of fact, the only person who can enjoy absolute freedom is the tyrant. In bygone days, it was the guy with the biggest club who could do as he pleased.
That Latin truism describes the bedrock of democracy. We may enjoy many freedoms so long as they do not impinge on the rights and needs of others. Our home is our castle unless the government needs the land for a highway. Our life is our own unless there is a war and we are drafted.
What does this have to do with the demonstrations I described at the beginning? I would like to see a silent picket with a blown-up version of that 3×5 card walking back and forth near anyone expressing their “right” to something. The sign would remind everyone that individual rights have limits and that the sensible thing to do is to discuss and find common ground with the needs of the rest of us. Compromise and courtesy rather than confrontation. Wouldn’t that be a pleasant change?