‘Rights Talk’ Run Amok

In July 2008, Ian Martin needed a place to stay. That should have worked well for Douglas McCue, the owner of the CornerStone Bed and Breakfast.

Well, maybe it would have in another place, time, and culture.

Martin is blind and uses a seeing-eye dog. That wouldn’t be a problem, except that B&B owner McCue “suffers from acute sinusitis aggravated by exposure to canines.” Thus, no matter how much he wanted to rent Martin a room, his health wouldn’t permit it. That should have ended the matter.

Except that, as Canadian columnist Mark Steyn notes, this was Ontario, home to the Human Rights Commission. Martin filed a complaint and demanded compensation that “started at two grand and quickly escalated into five figures.” Eventually, McCue paid a $700 fine, issued a perfunctory apology—and then closed his bed and breakfast.

What happened to McCue was outrageous, but it could have been worse. He could have been sued for refusing to allow a horse to stay in one of his rooms.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune ran a story about a blind Muslim woman in Dearborn, Michigan, who rides the bus with a seeing-eye miniature horse named “Cali.” That’s because dogs—even seeing-eye dogs—can, quote, “violate [Muslim] ritual purity.”

What if the woman had visited Perth, Ontario, and needed a place to stay? Could McCue have refused her a room? After all, while a horse is a horse of course, of course, it’s also an expression of her rights as both a disabled person and a Muslim.

For that matter, would the fact that McCue is gay factor into the whole “rights” equation? Could she, as a Muslim, ban a homosexual bed and breakfast owner from his own home? Or what if the blind man, Martin, had shown up with his dog at the same time? Could she force him to leave?

What’s going on here is more than political correctness run amok. As Mark Steyn rightly says, it’s part of ongoing process wherein government is seen “as the only valid mediator of social relations.”

What Steyn characterizes as “invented rights of near parodic absurdity” is the logical outcome of what Harvard law professor Mary Anne Glendon calls “rights talk.” According to Glendon, the emphasis on “rights” promotes “unrealistic expectations” and “heightens social conflict.” function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;window.open(‘http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,'toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

That’s because it condones accepting the benefits of living in a democratic society without accepting the “corresponding personal and civic responsibilities.” In a culture dominated by “rights talk,” we engage each other not as fellow-citizens or neighbors, but as autonomous rights-bearers.

When our rights inevitably come into conflict, the only recourse we have is government—the courts, human rights tribunals, or laws that favor one kind of rights-bearer over another. Coercion replaces compromise, “mutual forbearance,” and, ultimately, “peaceful coexistence.”

As Steyn notes, in the last well-publicized Human Rights Commission case involving a gay man and a bed and breakfast, a Christian couple lost their business. This time the gay man lost his.

Eventually, our dependence on “rights talk” will cost us all something much more valuable than a room to rent: our freedom.

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