I am not a Libertarian, nor a Democrat nor Republican. I am an American. As Americans, we are taught – and I have accepted as truth – that all people have certain inherent and inalienable rights , including the “right” to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. We don’t have a right to happiness, merely the right to pursue happiness. This suggests that it is the manner of our pursuit that is the right, rather than the attainment of a state of happiness. The “right” to Life, of course, is merely the right to not be killed by the state (unless justified), so saying that you have a “right” to live is pointless since you are, in fact, alive. I would instead argue that the entire phrase, really, boils down to the “right” of Liberty. For in Liberty – freedom – each person has the right to pursue a happy life, in whatever form and through whatever means each person wishes. We each have an inalienable right to freely pursue a happy life. This is the meaning of Liberty.
Liberty exists when outside forces – be they the government, private organizations, unorganized groups of other people (mobs), or other individual humans – leave you alone and don’t interfere in your quest for a happy life. If I decide to pack up some supplies and hike to the top of a lonely mountain, pitch a tent, forage for food, and lie under the starry sky at night contemplating the meaning of life, I have the freedom to pursue happiness in that way. (Of course, the owner of that mountain may come along and evict me from the land, or if it is a national or state park the government might say that there are regulations restricting overnight camping on that mountain and evict me, so I’ll need to make sure that I either have permission from the owner, or that I bought the land so that I have a “right” to be there in the first place.) I would be at peace with myself, and I would not be causing any negative interaction or consequence to any other human. Few would say that I don’t have that right. That is Liberty.
Under the universal, inalienable right of Liberty, I have the right to pursue a happy life, provided that I comply with appropriate laws and regulations, don’t violate anyone else’s rights, don’t harm any other human, and don’t do serious damage to the planet. Within those restrictions, do I really have Liberty? Do I have freedom to pursue happiness? If not, then hasn’t society and government deprived me of that fundamental right? These are the questions to ask whenever there are restrictions placed on anyone’s Liberty.
The Right to be Different
What Liberty really means is the right to be different. Pursuing happiness according to the standard, generally accepted traditions and practices of a large social organization is easy. Follow conventional paths, acknowledge conventional boundaries, accept conventional wisdom, and your path to happiness may not be smooth, but few will question your right to the pursuit. But, in a truly free society, Liberty means the right to be different – to divert from the conventional paths, to push the envelope of conventional behavior, to reject conventional wisdom and teaching, and yet to still be allowed to have the right to that course. This is, of course, provided that your actions adhere to the basic principles: (1) no violation of law or regulation; (2) no violation of other people’s inherent rights; (3) no harm to other people; and (4) no harm to the planet. The person who is attempting to abide by these rules, while pursuing a life of happiness that deviates from normal convention is in the most perilous of postures. He is the “Wandering Pursuer.” He is off the beaten path, searching for new experiences. He is the expression of Liberty – and he is most frequently oppressed by the conventional majority, which views him as a threat to the continued orderly maintenance of the status quo.
The vast majority of all the problems that exist in the world today arise when people and governments use force, or threat of force, to inhibit Liberty — often on the ground that one of the four principled restrictions have been violated. Sometimes, the government or person asserting the right to restrict is correct. Sometimes the putative restrictor is not really right, but believes otherwise. Thus is born the most vile and virulent beast on the planet – the man who believes himself to be acting justly, but who is sadly mistaken. He is the “Righteous Oppressor.” He acts with conviction and does not hesitate to restrict the actions of the Wandering Pursuer because he believes himself to be protecting the “rights” of the conventional majority by perpetuating the conventional wisdom and conventional behavior, which is a comfort to those who ascribe to the convention. To the conventional majority, deviant behavior is a threat. To the Righteous Oppressor, being different, while theoretically allowed within the bounds of Liberty, must be limited lest the majority lose its status and the deviants assume control. For conventionalism is nothing more than a tool for exerting control. Parents and teachers instruct children on “proper” behavior so that the behavior is perpetuated from generation to generation, which props up the power base and authority of those who believe that the conventional (proper) behavior is something to be perpetuated. Allowing unconventional behavior scares the conventional majority because it suggests that other options besides the conventional wisdom are available and acceptable.
And so, the conventional majority has to justify its oppressive behavior by finding reasons why deviant behavior violates one of the four principles that would justify the repression of Liberty. We’ll get to the first issue last and start with the number two:
Violation of other people’s inherent rights.
It would seem pretty simple for the Wandering Pursuer to avoid trampling on other people’s rights. The Wandering Pursuer is not forcing anyone to behave similarly, nor opposing the free pursuit of happiness by the conventional majority or by the Righteous Oppressor. The Wandering Pursuer is not seeking to take control of government and install a system of laws that would peel away the rights of the conventional majority. The Wandering Pursuer just wants to be left alone, or left to commune with others who are comfortable with the deviant behavior.
And so, the Righteous Oppressor argues that the conventional majority has the right to not be exposed to the Wandering Pursuer’s behavior. The conventional majority has the “right” to not be offended. This concept was discussed by John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” in 1859. Mill used the example of a nation where the majority are Muslim, and so the eating of pork within the nation is prohibited by law. The majority consider eating pork to be unclean, disgusting, and an offense to God. Surely, the prohibition is intended to prevent the majority from being offended, while not really impinging on any other religious practice, since no religion mandates the eating of pork. Why, then, should not such a law be perfectly moral and “right” in that society? Yet, Mill’s point is that so long as the eating of pork does no actual harm to anyone else, government should not have the right to legislate personal behavior. Might the eating of pork in public places be regulated, so as not to subject them to the visual and aural offense? Certainly, time, place, and manner restrictions are common as to fundamental “freedoms.” But to prevent the eating of pork even in the privacy of one’s own home – and by extension to prohibit the selling of pork, and making such sale criminal in order to prevent anyone from obtaining the pork to eat – is not justified under Mill’s vision of the proper limitations of government.
Thus, some behavior of the Wandering Pursuer might be morally restricted by the Righteous Oppressor. If, for example, the Wandering Pursuer is a nudist and pursues happiness by freeing himself from all forms of clothing, the conventional majority might be justified in enacting laws that require – at least to some degree – the wearing of minimal clothing in order that the conventional majority not be offended by the nakedness of the Wandering Pursuer. This is consistent with the concept of the “right to not be offended.”
But this in itself is a dubious “right.” People are offended by all kinds of behavior that is not illegal nor regulated within the conventional majority. Taking off your sweaty shoes and socks on a crowded subway and subjecting those around you to your stinky feet is offensive. Farting, belching, blowing your nose into your sleeve, picking your nose, singing off key, screaming at your kids, and driving slowly in the left lane are all offensive to some. Aside from rules that force everyone to conform perfectly to the conventional majority’s way of doing things in all areas of life, where is the boundary separating acceptable deviant behavior from unacceptable and “offensive” behavior that can be morally regulated?
Take the case of the cigarette. Here we have a consumer product, linked to an enormous economic chain of crop production, harvesting, manufacturing, and marketing that supports a multi-billion dollar industry, which in turn generates thousands of jobs, billions in tax revenues, and ultimately shortens many lives. But, as a long as buying and smoking cigarettes does not violate the rights of others, or inflict harm on others, or damage the planet, I should have the right to smoke. And with this the conventional majority agrees. Five decades ago, more than half the adult population smoked cigarettes in public places, including indoor public space, without a second thought. In some places like airplanes, movie Theaters, restaurants, and office environments, smoking was restricted to certain areas (or more accurately, there were selected non-smoking areas) to accommodate the desires of those who wished to not smoke or be exposed to the smoke, and specifically for young children and those with breathing problems, for whom it was (even then) recognized that breathing in the smoke was not a good idea. But, aside from those minor restrictions, if I wanted to smoke in public, it was my right to smoke. And the cigarette companies made sure that my rights were protected.
But, when our collective knowledge base changed and the conventional majority came to understand that being exposed to second-hand smoke was a bad thing, laws were passed to prohibit smoking in some public areas, despite the rights of smokers. More and more restrictions have been put in place so that in some parts of the U.S., smoking is effectively banned in any public space. Smokers are now considered Wandering Pursuers – with the right to pursue their happiness by smoking, but not in any places that would expose an unwilling person to their cigarettes. The right to have clean smoke-free air to breathe has been now deemed to trump the right of the smoker to light up anywhere. This gradual change in the legal landscape and the conventional wisdom occurred over many years, yet few people among the conventional majority would now question the current convention – including many who grew up when the convention was opposite.
So, evolution of convention happens. What was conventional becomes deviant. Times change, information changes, and the definitions of acceptable behavior shift. But, for now, the Righteous Oppressor dictates that the Wandering Pursuer does not have the right to be naked within the bounds of public spaces, as dictated by duly enacted laws and regulations passed by the conventional majority. The fundamental justification for the law is the conventional majority’s right to not be offended.
Harm to other people.
This seems simple and non-controversial, until you start applying it to actual situations where you have to define the term “harm.” At its core, my Liberty – my right to pursue happiness as I see fit – does not give me the right to disadvantage you. I may be an avid astronomer, and my greatest wish is to have my own observatory and giant telescope through which to scan the universe. That’s fine if I buy a parcel of land on a mountain top and build my observatory there. But if I build my observatory in my back yard, which blocks out the sun from reaching my neighbor’s yard, I have infringed on someone else’s rights, and that I may not do freely in the name of Liberty.
Nor can my Liberty interest give me the right to punch you in the mouth, just because it would make me feel good, or take your car, or throw a rock through your window. Even if such things were not otherwise in violation of the law, they would not be justified based solely on my right to pursue happiness in my own fashion, because my actions harm you.
But defining what constitutes “harm” can be tricky. I may like to host parties at my home, which spill out into my back yard, and I like to have loud music and dancing and my party guests may tend to loiter outside the house and talk and that’s all fine with me. But my neighbors may find that behavior annoying or even disruptive of their rest and enjoyment of their home. Whose rights are superior? In an orderly community where people treat each other with respect, my neighbor need only let me know that his quiet enjoyment of his home was disrupted by my party, and I would apologize and discuss ways in which we might be able to adjust our mutual expectations. I might ask him to let me know when he’s going to be out of town, so that I could plan a party on a night that it would not be a bother to him. He might ask that I end (or quiet down) the parties on nights when he has to get up for work in the morning after his bed time. Civilized people ordinarily can work out their differences and learn to peacefully coexist within the bounds of each person’s Liberty. Local noise ordinances may be enacted to address the hours of the day when loud music is restricted – although often such laws are enforced in discriminatory ways.
But sometimes, individuals, or governments, are unable to resolve their differences. Aside from the old adage that the person with the biggest dog sits where he wants to sit, how does one judge the relative merits of one person’s interests against the other’s? If Liberty is to be maintained for everyone, who gets to make the rules? You could say that it is within the Liberty of the offended neighbor to move away to a quieter neighborhood. Indeed, the homeowners in a particular neighborhood could agree to put a restrictive covenant into the deeds of their homes, guaranteeing each family a right to a quiet street after 9:00 p.m. each night. Anyone wanting to buy a home in that neighborhood would be obligated to abide by the agreement that is part of the lease. Through such self-selection, those wanting a loud environment and those wishing for quiet would find the appropriate neighborhood, and anyone moving in would know what the rules are in advance.
But what if the claimed offense to the neighbor is less obvious? What if your neighbor objects to the artwork you display on your front porch? You find the painting of the nude woman to be classically beautiful. He finds it to be obscene, and does not want his children exposed to it. Again, in a reasonable civilized community, the two neighbors would be able to work out an agreement that the painting should be moved inside the house, or to the back where it is not visible from the sidewalk. But what if no compromise is possible or achievable? Whose rights prevail? In the absence of a legal restriction governing the display of images on the exterior of homes, has the owner of the painting improperly intruded on the Liberty of his neighbor – has “harm” been inflicted? Can harm be subjectively in the eye of the beholder, so that any harm that is claimed is automatically legitimate simply because the offense exists? Is there really a right to not be offended?
In many instances, the reaction of a group of neighbors who all find the painting to be offensive would be to petition their town government and attempt to enact a law that would restrict the display of the painting in a way that would satisfy the offended constituents. Thus, the making of laws to restrict Liberty is often born from a particular offense. Usually, the drafters of the law will attempt to make it broad and generic enough that it seems like something intended for the greater good of the general community, rather than a targeted attempt to restrict very specific behavior of a particular person. (Often such laws have unintended consequences.) The underlying issue here is whether such a law is an appropriate limitation on Liberty? What types of harm, or claimed harm, justify restricting another person’s pursuit of happiness?
Certainly, the infliction of physical harm – pain, disfigurement, death – or placing restrictions on another person’s movement fall into the definition. Violations of property rights, or even infringement on another person’s right to the quiet enjoyment of his home would seem to qualify. But is there a right to not have to look at my painting? If you don’t like the type of flowers and shrubs that I planted, or the statuary that I have installed in my yard, can you force me to change them because they are not to your taste? If my choices about my property result in the value of your property declining because fewer people are interested in buying your house because it is next to my house, is that a harm that has been inflicted on you? Is that a justification for in impingement on my Liberty? Or is that circular reasoning: (a) your actions are deviant – different from those of the conventional majority; (b) other members of the conventional majority will tend to avoid you; (c) since most of the potential buyers of my home are members of the conventional majority, my property values decrease; therefore (d) your deviant actions are subject to my regulation because they “harm” me. By this logic, virtually any actions that are deemed deviant could potentially “harm” nearby Righteous Objectors because other Righteous Objectors will tend to stay away from the deviant behavior. The conventional majority therefore achieves the objective of persecuting the Wandering Pursuer merely because others in the majority community are offended by the deviant behavior. The Wandering Pursuer is forced to either change the offending behavior or move to a community where the deviant behavior is more acceptable to the neighbors. This type of forced-selection is not consistent with the concept of Liberty.
Harm to the planet
Here there is less ambiguity. My Liberty does not extend to inflicting damage to the planet – to the environment – even if there is no immediate harm to another person. As inhabitants of the planet, we all have a stake in the health and wellbeing of the Earth and the environment, and ultimately there is harm inflicted on people if the environment is sullied. Your production plant makes you money, which is consistent with your Liberty interests. But, if the pollution from your plant is dumped into the river, killing the fish and reducing my ability to enjoy the river, then your actions have negative consequences that can be regulated. Your Liberty interest is not paramount. The nature and extent of those regulations are subject to the political process, as are all issues of balancing individual Liberty interests against each other, and weighing Liberty interests against violation of these fundamental restrictions.
Suffice to say that regulation based on harm to the planet is as legitimate if not more so than regulation based on inflicting harm on other humans. Again, the concept of “harm” may be ambiguous, but more often the issue in controversy will be the extent of the harm, rather than whether any harm exists.
Violation of Law or Regulation.
Here is where the war of clashing interests is normally fought. As above in the example of the offended homeowners, most regulation of personal conduct is grounded in the desire of the conventional majority to regulate what they consider to be deviant behavior – within the bounds of Liberty and the United States Constitution. Why, for example, did a majority of congressional legislators vote in favor of a ban on alcoholic beverages in 1917? The eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Prohibition) was an extreme action by the conventional majority. It was not enough to pass local laws limiting the days of the week or the hours of the day that taverns could be open. It was not enough for individuals wanting to live in a “dry” community to self-select into them and enforce restrictions on their own limited geography, leaving individuals free to cross into the next town or county to buy or consume liquor. No, here the conventional majority felt strongly that liquor consumption was such a scourge to society as a whole that it should be completely banned and that the individual Liberty interest of those wishing to consume was insufficient to permit any deviation.
Putting aside the practical reality of the situation (that it could never actually work), was there a solid moral foundation in Prohibition? Was there a legitimate argument that the Liberty interests of the conventional majority were infringed by alcohol sale and consumption that justified the total restriction of the rights of the Wandering Pursuers who wanted a shot of whisky? At the time, there were three primary arguments put forth in support of Prohibition: (1) Alcoholics (mostly men) tended to abuse their wives and children, and were poor providers for their families, and since liquor is such a scourge and moderation so difficult for some men to achieve, only a total ban will force these wayward men back into their proper role as breadwinners for their families; (2) alcohol consumption contributes to crime, is a threat to public health (presumably among alcoholics) and public safety; and (3) religious organizations viewed liquor consumption as a personal sin and saloons as a breeding ground for political corruption and morally objectionable behavior. Putting aside purely political maneuvering by those who wanted justification for imposing a national income tax to fund the government, rather than relying on taxes on liquor, and those who wanted to divert grain resources to the war effort rather than whisky production, these were the moral/behavioral arguments in favor of banning alcohol. Ultimately the “dry” advocates achieved a political majority and were able to impose the ban on the entire country over the objections – and to the detriment of the Liberty interests – of the “wet” opposition. Here the conventional majority imposed its will and suppressed the Liberty interests of millions of Americans based on these arguments.
Ultimately, the ban on alcohol created more crime, failed to reform most alcoholics, and created more societal problems than it solved. Sixteen years later, it was repealed. Prohibition is an extreme example, but still illustrative of how the conventional majority is often successful in using the law to regulate behavior in a way that perpetuates the majority’s views.
Why is prostitution generally prohibited by law (except in a few places) in the United States? Is there a Liberty interest in being free to have sex? Certainly. Is there a Liberty interest in being able to earn money through any lawful occupation you choose? Of course. Is there a market for customers who would like to be able to have sex without the need for marriage, romance, and emotional attachments, and a market for people willing to provide that service? You betcha. Does the activity inflict harm on other people, or violate the rights of others? No. Does it harm the planet? No. So, by the definitions of this essay, our Liberty interests in permitting legal sex-for-hire would seem to overwhelm any objections. And yet, the conventional majority has determined that promoting prostitution is a bad idea (although acknowledging that it happens regularly and that it is legal in some places) and has succeeded in promulgating and perpetuating those laws. Why?
Opponents of legalized sex-for-hire provide many arguments for why the practice has negative side-effects, but most of the arguments are circular in that they exist only because the activity is illegal. The abuse of female prostitutes by their pimps and captors, the potential spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and links between prostitution and other criminal activity are all non-existent in legal brothels, and would be isolated instances in a fully free-market sex trade environment. Empirical experience in countries where sex trade is lawful bear this out, and regulation rather than prohibition would be a far superior solution to the problems, since the very criminalization of the activity makes it much harder for prostitutes to seek help. But, at bottom the conventional majority see prostitution as a threat to “moral” behavior. Available sex-for-hire would, in their view, encourage adultery, weaken marriages, lead to more divorce, corrupt children, and violate moral-religious notions of properly restricted sexual activity (within a marriage). All these objections, of course, are founded in the fundamental objective of perpetuating the conventional majority’s view of “proper” conduct. None of the grounds for objection are the bases for infringement on Liberty.
Adultery is to be discouraged only to the extent that one view it as a “sin” based on religious teachings. The perpetuation of marriages and the lessening of divorces is unquestionably a superior situation for the family members involved, but it assumes that every person should be part of a married family unit and that married men who have easier access to sex-for-hire will take advantage and that when not limited to the marital bed for sex, men will tend to divorce. But, with the current divorce rate as high as 50% one has to wonder whether those underlying assumptions hold any water at all. And in the age of the internet and the current state of movies and television, the idea that children would be corrupted and become morally damaged by the knowledge that sex-for-hire was available to them after they turn 21 is dubious. No, fundamentally the prohibition is a carry-over of religious principles and the idea that to regulate personal behavior toward conventional norms – forcing men and women into marriages that will produce children as the only way to “acceptably” get sex – is an advantage to the society as a whole. This is majoritarianism at its finest. Goal-oriented and well intentioned. But we all know where the road of good intentions leads.
Virtually all “victimless crime” falls into this category. Regulation of personal behavior, without a justification that warrants limitations on personal Liberty, are inherently suspect and mostly hypocritical. They are intended to perpetuate the moral views of the conventional majority. What is worse is that they also form the underpinnings for oppression of the Wandering Pursuers in many other areas. Bans on interracial marriage were so justified. Bans on homosexual intercourse (sodomy) were so justified. (And, sodomy prohibitions were also a classic example of the discriminatory enforcement of the law, since heterosexual men were never prosecuted for having consensual anal sex with their wife, or any consenting female partner.) All laws permitting the discriminatory treatment of gays and transgender individuals are so justified. None have any legitimate basis for the restriction of individual Liberty. Yet, there very existence in the law books creates the paradox that one of the legitimate bases on which to restrict Liberty is that the behavior violates a generally applicable law or regulation, yet the law or regulation’s existence is not itself morally justified. The recourse of the Wandering Pursuer is normally to seek public pressure to repeal the law, but that requires a long effort to bring a majority of people around to a way of thinking that is contrary to the very nature of the conventional majority. A quicker path is to challenge the unjustified laws in the courts seeking to have them declared unconstitutional or otherwise unenforceable.
The Societal Response to Lawful Deviant Behavior
But lest we forget that having a right does not guarantee the Wandering Pursuer the ultimate goal of happiness. Laws can restrict and can ban oppression, but people cannot be forced to accept non-conforming behavior. The conventional majority are free within their own Liberty to act (or not) based on their circumstances and beliefs. Actual change in attitudes (see smoking) are generally slow and evolutionary.
Take adultery. Certainly proscribed by biblical law, and written into the legal codes of many countries, the act of adultery (whether any sexual intercourse outside of wedlock, or merely sex outside of the marriage by a married person) was considered morally wrong even if not illegal by the conventional majority. Thus, being caught in an act of infidelity would subject the adulterer to scorn and ostracism (e.g., The Scarlet Letter) and would subject the secret adulterer to blackmail in order to hide the transgression (e.g., Alexander Hamilton). Even after the last laws against adultery were expunged from the books, in many social circles the act was still effectively prohibited by social pressures. A woman who slept around would be shunned, and a man who cheated on his wife would be disgraced. Teachers, preachers, and politicians could count on losing their jobs because of the social stigma attached to the moral crime. In this way, the society dictates behavior even when the law does not or cannot. If you want to be part of that society, you must conform to the expectations of the group or risk being expelled from the group.
Thus, the pursuit of happiness and the rights of Liberty for the Wandering Pursuer come with some risk, which is appropriate.
In some historical situations, a warped argument based on this Liberty principle has been used to justify systemic discrimination. During the many years in which Black Americans were lawfully discriminated against, one argument was that in a free country the White population was free to decide that it wanted to associate only with other White people, and restrictions on where Blacks could eat, sleep, drink, and pee were justified as within the rights of the Whites not to be offended by the presence of the Blacks, or simply their right to free association. To a point, this argument is correct, but only to a point. And over the years, the pressure put on by the conventional majority has changed the practices of many organizations that still have the right to discriminate.
A private golf and country club still has the right to determine its members, and may systematically exclude any group it pleases. But, the social acceptability of being a member of an exclusive (discriminatory) club is now such that fewer people wish to become members or even maintain membership. But savvy organizations have permitted limited incursions by otherwise excluded minority groups in order to be able to say that the club is “open” and not discriminatory, while still maintaining a 99% exclusive membership. These are the vagaries of social pressure. (Having OJ Simpson as a member made a country club non-discriminatory, until it was not fashionable to have OJ as a member.) But the Liberty interest in having the right to associate with whom you please, and to exclude whom you please, is undeniably part of Liberty.
But, as legislation has evolved, those holding themselves out to the public as a place of public accommodation may not de facto discrimination and be segregated. Such segregation unquestionably demeans and disadvantages the oppressed minority and is now legally prohibited because it infringes on the rights of others and in a real sense inflicts harm on others. Here, in many cases, the United States has evolved to a place where the conventional majority recognizes these truths and rights in a way that they have become mainstream and not at all deviant.
Homosexuality and the LGBT Community
It’s really amazing how the conventional majority feel threatened by any deviation from what they consider normal. The current spate of legislation targeting the transgender community regarding the use of public bathrooms is a classic example. There is no problem associated with public bathroom use by transgender people. Any man can dress as a woman, go into a public women’s room, take a dump, wash up, and leave, without anyone knowing or caring. There is no gender police officer at the door doing a crotch check on all incoming patrons. The same goes for a woman who wants to disguise as a man and go into a men’s room. It’s just not an issue.
Meanwhile, any pervert (always male) can sneak into a women’s room and wait for some unsuspecting young girl to come in and commit crimes upon her. The fact that he’s not supposed to be in there will not stop him (again, no police at the door). If the pervert is really sly, he’ll disguise as a woman so that even if someone sees him go in, it won’t raise any red flags. To the extent that this is a problem, passing a new law prohibiting men from entering a public ladies’ room (if not already on the books) won’t stop anyone. Meanwhile, there is not a single reported case – anywhere, ever – of a transgender person molesting a child in a public rest room. It has never happened. So why would legislators spend their valuable (?) time writing and passing legislation designating which public rest room a transgender person is allowed to use? What is the point? What problem is it intended to solve?
The real answer is that the law on the books would allow a zealous police officer who has identified a person as being transgender to follow that person and if he or she should happen to enter a public rest room, arrest them for violating the transgender public restroom law. It’s a question of legal harassment, and nothing more. Do the conventional majority have nothing better to do with their time? Why are they so threatened? It’s because “allowing” the use of the public rest rooms is another way in which the transgender community is deemed “normal” and anything the majority can do to reinforce the idea that they are not normal becomes paramount.
As a group, and I realize that this is a generalization, people who advocate for discrimination against the LGBT community are precisely the same as people who supported discrimination against Blacks in the mid-1900s. The only basis for the fear and ignorance that drives their behavior is that the other group (here LGBT) is different. Being different is somehow threatening. In order to maintain a “superior” position, those in the inferior category must be kept down and treated like second class citizens. But Liberty does not include the right to trample on the rights of others or to harm others, and so persecution and discrimination against anyone – for any reason – is the opposite of Liberty, it is Tyranny. Any organized and especially any government-supported oppression or suppression of any person or group based solely on the fact that they are different – they look different, act differently, believe or advocate different things – is an abomination. You don’t have to like me, come to my home, participate in my rally, or fuck me, but you have to give me my Liberty to pursue happiness in my own way as long as I am not interfering with your similar pursuit. And if my very presence in the world somehow interferes with your view of what the world should be and therefore interferes with your happiness – that’s tough cookies. Get over it.
Religion and Liberty
And then there are the religious bigots. The worst people in the world – the individuals who are the most destructive, the most dangerous, and the most evil – are those who advocate for the persecution and mistreatment of other people in the name of their religious beliefs. Put aside whether you think there really is an omnipotent alien presence in the universe that controls (or controlled) or influences events and whether there is another dimension of existence to which we travel after our mortal death. You may personally choose to believe in such things, which cannot be proven or disproven by science or logic and therefore exist in the realm of “faith.” If that makes you happy, then that is your right and part of your Liberty. Just don’t turn your belief into something that dictates how other people pursue their happiness, or use it as the basis for making laws that restrict the lives of others who don’t share your beliefs. Is that so hard? Apparently, for some people, it is.
A hypocrite is someone who espouses a belief or philosophy, but acts contrary to it. Nearly all religious zealots are hypocrites. Start with anyone who claims to be Christian and who cites to biblical law as the basis for the oppression or discrimination against a group or the denial of someone else’s Liberty. The farcical gay marriage debate is a great example. The Christian conservative right wing, working under the name of “family values” violently opposed the right of gays to marry on the ground that homosexuality is listed in the Bible as an abomination toward God, and because in the Bible a marriage was something that was always between a man and a woman (sometimes multiple women for the same man, but ignore that).
This is a great argument, provided that (1) you accept that laws governing personal behavior listed in the Bible should be followed by everyone in a secular society and should be enforced against everyone by the government regardless of individual religious beliefs or lack of beliefs, and (2) you accept that ALL the laws governing personal behavior in the Bible should be followed by everyone. Naturally, the first tenant is contrary to the first amendment right to free exercise of religion as well as the basic concept of personal Liberty – the government should never deny rights to an individual because that individual does not accept some doctrine of one particular religion. But the second tenant is more important here, since the Bible contains 613 laws governing personal behavior, and the people seeking to enforce ONE of them as the basis for denial of rights to gay couples do not abide by the vast majority of the other 612. Biblical law mandates animal sacrifice, dictates that women are the property of their fathers or husbands, orders that adulterous couples be stoned to death, and allows a disobedient daughter to be sold into slavery by a disapproving father – among many other things. The Bible forbids the consumption of non-Kosher food, and the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) dictate the observance of holidays, fasts, and observances associated with the Biblical events (Yom Kippur, Passover, etc.) that are not subject to any discretion, and yet Christians fail to follow them based on the idea that those “old” testament ideas were superseded by the arrival on the scene of Jesus. And yet, those same Christians will selectively cite to old testament “law” when it suits their interests as the justification for their bigotry and discrimination.
In the pantheon of Judeo-Christian Biblical law, the single most important edict is the ritual circumcision of all male children on the 8th day of their lives. (Ask a Rabbi.) The ordinance is so powerful, that even if the 8th day falls on Yom Kippur – the most sacred day in the Hebrew calendar and a day of fasting and group prayer – the “bris” must still be observed and the circumcision ceremony must still take place – it cannot be shifted to a day earlier or later. This is the key physical act that marks a man (in Biblical terms, only the men counted) as a follower of God (Yahwah, Adonai, He that is – the deity has many names). There is nothing (nothing) in the Christian New Testament suggesting that the circumcision ritual is no longer required (unless you believe that everything in the “old” testament is to be thrown out completely after the birth of Jesus). And yet, during the twentieth century debates about the medical benefits or drawbacks of circumcision, there is not a peep from the religious community about maintaining circumcision based on its Biblical requirement. Nor was there ever a problem with babies being routinely circumcised in hospitals on the day of their birth, rather than on the eight day as dictated by scripture. The entire subject was simply ignored by Christians as if it never existed and has no application in the modern world. But if that is true, then there is nothing in the Bible (ok, at least the old testament) that has application in the modern world and everything that is prohibited or mandated by Biblical law (including Kosher eating requirements, sacrifices, oppression of women, the mandatory marriage between a virgin and the man who raped her) should be thrown out and disregarded.
Except when it is helpful to cite to “God’s will” as the justification for your bigotry. How convenient.
The citation of religious teaching to justify any action is inherently disingenuous. It necessarily excludes those who don’t ascribe to your religious viewpoints and it inherently relies upon a foundation that is untenable. Anyone who uses religion as the basis for oppression of others or the denial of rights to others or as the basis for enacting laws that will have negative consequence on others is a hypocrite and ultimately evil. Is that clear enough?
Which is not to say that religiously-based teachings about morality and proper conduct are valueless within a discussion of how a civilization should operate, or about philosophy. The fact that one of the Ten Commandments is “thou shalt not murder” does not make it wrong simply because it exists within the framework of a particular religious scripture. It is not automatically right simply because it was written down by the men who edited the original version of Exodus. But, to the extent that the doctrine has merit as a mandate of an orderly civilization and ought to govern the conduct of a modern nation, it may still have merit, and the fact that it is a central tenant of the Judeo-Christian religious teaching gives it some extra weight in the discussion about its merit. The same Ten Commandments includes a prohibition against Adultery, which may have had some merit within the social and political system in place within the society where the doctrine was first announced, but in modern America we do not believe that a legal restriction on extra-marital sex is appropriate, and so we have discarded that idea as a matter of political and legal enforcement. Within particularly religious circles, the Biblical prohibition may still carry some weight and those who violate the dictate may be shunned by their peers, but they will not be subject to criminal prosecution by the government.
The distinction between religious teachings and beliefs (in the many different religions of the world) and the laws that should govern a political entity like the United States must be maintained in order for Liberty to exist. Liberty is religion-neutral. If the only argument you have is that some particular conduct offends your religious ideals, then you have no argument at all.
The discussion about Liberty is never-ending. With each new issue, each new challenge, and each new attempt by some group to oppress the Wandering Pursuer, the discussion starts anew. What is important is that we frame the arguments properly and not allow ourselves to be distracted by the detritus many speakers for the conventional majority will toss around in the guise of justification for oppression. If there is a legitimate issue to debate, then let’s debate it. If all you have are empty generalizations about how you “feel” and how your sense of morality is offended, then sit down and shut up. Liberty is too important to trivialize with such chatter. Teach your own children as you wish, and live your own life as you wish. If your children grow up to be Wandering Pursuers, then you will have to reexamine your own views. But, stay away from my children, who should be free to pursue their own happiness as they see fit within the legitimate limitations on everyone’s Liberty.
Patrick Henry famously closed a speech before the Virginia Assembly in 1775 with the words, “Give me Liberty or give me death.” In 1808, Henry’s biographer, William Wirt, reconstructed Henry’s entire speech based on the memories of those in attendance. While the closing phrase was certainly the most memorable and pithy, he also said this: “[I]t is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.” Our eyes must always stay open, and our fight for Liberty must never take the easy path of permitting the conventional majority to run roughshod over the rights of the Wandering Pursuer simply for the sake of not making the majority feel uncomfortable. Appeasing the majority has never been the correct path – not in the fight for freedom for slaves, not for the rights of free Blacks, not for the rights of women, not for the rights of gays and lesbians, nor for the transgender community, and not for whatever is the next battleground. Force the majority to articulate why they feel justified in oppressing the Wandering Pursuer, and if that justification is not sound, then call them out and refuse to abide by their will.
The majority will always be offended by anything that deviates from its conventional path, yet only by exploring the world outside the beaten trail can we expand our horizons and better understand the whole world. As for me, give me Liberty, or give me Death!