The Aesthetic Case Against Rights

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This is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Overcoming Justice.” I’d love any ideas, reactions and thoughts you have regarding this article.

I have several reasons for viewing rights with suspicion. I think the epistemology is all messed up and I think that the concept of human rights invalidates huge swaths of history and experience. However, I’m not going to talk about any of that here because I’d rather talk about the aesthetic qualities of rights and how they tend to make people ugly.

There will be no weighty discussion about why so and so classic rock band is composed of sellouts and neither will I drown you in solemnity while explaining obscure Belarussian cubists. Instead, I’d prefer to stick with a flippantly joyous Australian TV show.

I speak of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.” It’s set in the twenties and, as such, immerses the viewer in a world of art deco, cast iron fire escapes and roving Victorians. Marxist cab drivers escort the heroine to and fro, a police captain and house servant fall in love but must overcome the incomprehensibly massive gap between Catholics and Anglicans. Even the anarchists manage to sidestep androgyny. The period touches are, in other words, delightful.

Against this background we discover the impossibly cool Phryne Fisher. She bangs the hottest guy each episode, drives a gorgeous Hispano Suiza touring car at 85 mph and seems to possess every stunning piece of Italian leather and Parisian needlework produced between 1919 and 1925. She is also prone to embarking on daredevil feats of cat burglary while wearing white mink and floor length evening gowns, swinging from the backs of moving passenger trains and enjoying all the things available in shady Turkish baths.

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Hispano Suiza K6 – fitting conveyance for a lady detective, I think you’ll agree.

Since the show is still running as of 2017, has a female protagonist and is set in the twenties, there is at least one instance of misogyny per episode. The exact person saying sexist things shifts episode to episode – sometimes it’s a male authority figure, sometimes it’s a stuck up Victorian lady, sometimes (though rarely) it’s the villain – but what never changes is Ms. Fisher’s way of reacting.

Here, presented in a scene, is the sexism of “Murder on the Ballarat Train.” All you need to know is that an incredibly unpleasant and imperious woman had vanished after being, apparently, abducted from the moving train.

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Confidence, of the glowing sort.

Miss Fisher, glowing with confidence and shining under a glorious white sun-hat, attempts to walk straight into the crime scene – as is her custom. However, a blond, mustachioed policeman stands in her way.

“This is not a matter for you to worry your pretty little head about,” he said.

Phryne Fisher, completely unflustered, cocks her head slightly to the side, unleashes a million watt smile and blows by the policeman.

“It’s just that I couldn’t help noticing, officer, that …”

Ms. Fisher goes on to notice several vital details and lead the police straight to the imperious woman’s body, hanging from a water tower. The sexist police officer can only stand by, gaping in wonder.

Let’s see how this scene changes if we switch up one, small detail: Phryne Fisher will degrade herself by discussing rights.

Miss Fisher, glowing with confidence and shining under a glorious white sun-hat, attempts to walk straight into the crime scene – as is her custom. However, a blond, mustachioed policeman stands in her way.

“This is not a matter for you to worry your pretty little head about,” he said.

Phryne Fisher, grievously offended by the condescension and discrimination leveled at her by this lugheaded policeman, moves to assert her rights.

“How dare you speak to me this way, you sexist pig?” Fisher said. “I am the finest detective/adventurer in Australia and I’ll be damned if I stand idly by while you and the rest of the patriarchy insult women.”

The policeman crosses his arms and stares at our heroine with the willfully uncomprehending righteousness endemic to his profession.

“You can leave by yourself or I can make you leave,” he said.

Fisher’s jaw juts forward as she prepares another salvo against the unjust oppression this police officer typifies.

“I know my rights!”

“Fine, if that’s the way you want it,” the policeman said as he pulled Phryne Fisher’s arms behind her and fitted the handcuffs.

Incompetent police investigators busily contaminated the crime scene as our heroine continued to berate the mustachioed policeman from down the hall.

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It’s hard look cool when you need to be protected.

There are lots of reasons why Phryne Fisher is so cool. The effortless wealth and witty banter certainly factor in, but I feel the biggest single ingredient in Ms. Fisher’s edifice of awesome is power. Like James Bond or Gilgamesh or Achilles, Ms. Fisher’s superiority could not be more apparent.

Really put yourself in this frame of mind. You are smarter than the people around you. You are better looking, you are stronger and you are simply better. Your neighbors’ concerns all seem petty for the reason that anything that rises to the level of problem for you will necessarily dwarf the capabilities of lesser people.

This is not arrogance on your part, mind you. Your confidence grows naturally from your Bond-like charm, your Achilles-like daring and your Gilgameshian might. You are the LeBron James of social occasions, the Salvador Dali of insight and the Marie Curie of wisdom.

From such a standpoint, how would you react when a sexist policeman attempts to condescend to you? You might be genuinely bemused. You might read the offender like a book, find his ignorance hilarious and act as if he doesn’t exist. You might pity him or hold him in contempt. You might even slug the guy but you would never, ever, stop and lecture that policeman on your rights.

Can you imagine a scene where Achilles accuses Priam of violating his civil liberties? Could you sit through a movie where James Bond demands Goldfinger treat him in accordance with the Geneva Convention? At the very least, such behavior would seem disappointing or odd.

I don’t think we can simply dismiss the “rights = uncool” thing as a characteristic of fiction, either. I doubt many people would sympathize if Vladimir Putin claimed to be the victim of oppression or if Angela Merkel complained about how mean Italian trade negotiators were.

The reason, I feel, is pretty simple – rights are for the weaker party. When I said Phryne Fisher would be degrading herself with talk of rights, this is what I meant. She would surrender her position as superior and become a victim or subordinate. She would trade magnificence for ugliness.

If you are a superordinate, I would hope and pray you embrace your power and responsibilities, leaving behind talk of rights. If you are a victim or subordinate, I would hope and pray you are seeking to improve your situation and thus do not speak of rights. If you are a victim or subordinate who is not seeking to change your situation, I hope and pray you reform because if you do not, you have no chance of being as cool as Phryne Fisher.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider buying the author’s novel.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Blackguard-Ben-Garrido/dp/1939051746

For customers living in East Asia.

http://www.whatthebook.com/book/9781939051745?

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6 comments

  1. Another great post Ben.
    I’m not really sure if anyone is seeking actual “rights” (in modern democratic voting societies) these days as much as they seek victimhood in the hope of securing some type of preferential treatment. Of course, we have to take into account the effect of Alinsky-style organizing.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Is it possible to invoke the power of rights without assuming the position of victim?

      Let’s take the right to one’s private property. Can you go before the judge and demand protection against theives or squatters without making yourself victim?

  2. I agree with your position on rights. Personally I have never asserted a right as a reason I should be granted something that I was being denied, preferring to ask the other party to defend their refusal. I never thought of asserting rights as ceding the moral high ground and assuming the mantle of victimhood but this post illuminates that shift perfectly.

    1. I’m glad you like it.

      I’m not going to say that the concept of rights is bad, but it does seem to me that asserting rights is also an act of submission.

  3. Good post Ben. I don’t have a strong opinion on this one, but on the quasi-related issue with regards to ‘rights’ versus ‘privileges’ can I share some frustration? Like when people claim they have the ‘right to drive’, which in my opinion isn’t a human right. It’s a privilege offered to those who follow the rules and who can prove in advance (via test) they are competent enough to do so; driving privileges are not automatically given nor are they promised in any document that I’ve seen. Same with healthcare, we are privileged in this country to even have access to healthcare; there are many countries where this is not the case.

    When people invoke their “freedom of speech” without understanding that does not include freedom of responsibility for said speech. Freedom requires a certain maturity and understanding to appreciate and not destroy it. Circling back to rights, I think some of the newer generations talk about rights as if they are a divine directive, unassailable by government or society. I think some of these people lack perspective, and are probably confusing rights with privileges. There are some countries where police don’t even read you your rights… because you don’t have any.

    Good post Ben, it invoked discussion out of me even if it’s not relevant 😛 😉

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m not against rights in the sense of shared cultural norms but the idea rights are unassailable kind of makes me laugh.

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