With various responses to the Prop 8 decision floating around out there, I was particularly struck by this tweet, which articulates a divide I’ve been chewing on for some time: Californians knows that marriage is a civil right, not a privilege.
“Privilege” is a word that’s seen widespread use lately, in the context of society’s treatment of different groups of people: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc. There are many lists out there pointing out what kinds of advantages a person is likely to enjoy if they fit into the preferred group, and how many of those advantages aren’t even the kind of thing you think about in your daily life (unless you don’t have them). But I think there’s a blurring that happens in some of those lists, which I want to look more closely at: the difference between privileges and rights.
Privilege is, literally, private law. It’s a special exception made for favored individuals or groups. Centuries ago, a nobleman might be given the privilege of hunting deer on the king’s land; today, I pay for the privilege of checking books out from Stanford’s libraries, which is otherwise reserved only to their students and staff. If the king decides he doesn’t want anybody shooting his deer, or Stanford decides they don’t want to deal with outside users, then they can take that privilege away.
A right, on the other hand, is something everybody has, unless we permit laws or behaviors that exclude disfavored individuals or groups from it. Voting is a right belonging to all U.S. citizens, unless they’re children (excluded on the basis of immaturity) or incarcerated felons (excluded as part of their punishment). Freedom of speech is a right. Fair trials are a right. You can’t take somebody’s rights away without a damn good reason.
The distinction is important because it affects how a problem can best be solved. One of the white-privilege lists I saw mentioned the privilege of being able to walk around in a store without the employees watching your every move to make certain you aren’t going to steal anything. I had a visceral reaction to that: for god’s sake, that should be a right! Our default should be to assume that a given customer is not a criminal, unless we have evidence to the contrary. (Evidence other than skin color, which doesn’t count.) You don’t fix that problem by telling your employees to give every customer the hairy eyeball; you fix it by telling them not to discriminate against the black (or Latino, or etc.) customers. On the other hand, being able to make an offensive joke about a member of a disfavored group and not suffer any consequences for it? That’s a privilege. You fix that by calling people on it, making sure there are consequences; the privilege harms other people, and so you take it away.
Both of these are important things. But I don’t want to lose sight of the rights, in all the talking about privilege; it downplays the importance of the former, while creating the sense that the only solution is to take things away from the advantaged groups. Sometimes that is the solution — but sometimes it’s better to share the advantages with everybody. Improving the world doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.
In the case of Prop 8, you don’t resolve the situation by making civil marriage a privilege, granted by the government to those (heterosexual) couples of which it approves. You resolve it by acknowledging that marriage is a right, which cannot be withheld simply because the couple is same-sex — or mixed-race, or one or both parties are incarcerated felons, to choose a few of the relevant legal precedents. Nobody has to lose anything for other people to gain.