One of the things that precipitated the American Revolution was the Stamp Act. It was one of the taxes at the center of the controversy about the “right” of the English Parliament to tax the US colonies directly. Lord Chesterfield, in opposing the Stamp Act, pointed out that even if Parliament could enact the tax, it couldn’t enforce it and it wasn’t worth making the colonists mad over it, and warned Parliament that they were “asserting a right you know you cannot exert.”
By the way, Lord Chesterfield is given credit for many quotes that are still popular today such as “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” and “Whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well.” But my favorite quote by him is: “A weak mind is like a microscope, which magnifies trifling things, but cannot receive great ones.”
Anyway, back to the Stamp Act, I like Lord Chesterfield’s observation because it seems to me that a lot of people today are spending a lot of time and energy asserting rights that, even if they existed in law or nature, they cannot–or should not–exert. And that is causing a lot of our problems.
For example, did you hear about the woman on the Jet Blue flight from New York to San Diego? She was seated in a special seating area that provides more space than the usual airplane seat, and Jet Blue charges passengers $65 for that extra comfort. The seat next to her was empty. At least until some schlub in the back who hadn’t paid $65 informed the flight attendant that his TV monitor wasn’t working. The flight attendant very kindly moved the guy to the empty seat next to the woman.
And that’s when it hit the fan. The woman freaked because the guy hadn’t paid $65 like she had but was getting the benefits of the extra leg room. No fair, she whined.
And whined and whined to the point that an on board air marshal intervened and the flight was diverted to Denver and the rest of the passengers were delayed for a couple of hours until they could boot the woman off the plane and continue on their way again.
The most interesting part of the story is that no charges were pressed. She got away with it. She asserted a right that no rational person would ever think they could exert, inconvenienced a lot of people and walked away as if nothing had happened. Beautiful! And in the meantime deprived everyone else on the flight of their right to have their non-stop flight actually not have any stops.
And probably inconvenienced herself, too. And maybe that’s lesson one when it comes to asserting rights: is exerting them practical, logical and, here’s a novel idea, beneficial not only to you but also the community around you.
What right was she asserting, you ask? Why merely the right to have the world work the way she perceived it and wanted it to be at that particular moment.
That’s a pretty powerful right and if you think about it, a lot of the problems in the news relate to people trying to assert it. Just look at the headlines any day of the week.
A lot of people seem to have their own personal view of the Constitution and for some of them, the Bill of Rights included the Right to Have the World Conform to Your Wishes.
The beauty of this right is that in your personal Constitution, there can be an infinite number of sub-clauses. A few of my own inalienable rights come to mind. For example, the right not to have pregnant women talk about bladder dynamics in front of me or the right not to have to ever hear Gangnam Style again.
Mine are fairly modest assertions when you consider that some people out there are asserting rights such as the right to maintain a personal arsenal, or the right not to have to deal with or help people who don’t look, think or act like them, or the right to have the way they think adopted by everyone else in the world.
But I think that the woman on the Jet Blue plane might teach us all a lesson about asserting our Right to Have the World Conform to Your Wishes. Instead of asserting our theoretical rights to have the world work the way we want it, why don’t we just assert and exert the right to ignore things like that, not be bothered, just get on with life and learn to get along with each other. All the woman on the plane had to do was ignore the situation. It would have saved her and everyone on the plane a lot of angst and made for a harmonious environment.
And a right to a harmonious environment seems like something we should all be asserting and exerting.