I watched an argument between a car driver and a cyclist recently. The cyclist felt the driver had emerged from a side street without due care; the driver felt the cyclist had jumped some traffic lights and should not have been where he was.
But the argument didn’t focus on the incident for long. Within three sentences the cyclist had pretty much blamed the driver for two tsunamis and most of global warming; the driver felt the cyclist was, and I quote, “a ball of fluorescent piety”.
“I have the right to go to work too you know,” said the cyclist. “And I have the right to drive on the roads I pay for,” said the angry petrolhead. From there it descended into one of the banes of modern life - an argument about who had the biggest set of “rights”.
‘There is a concern that computerised records are open to abuse and patients should have the right to keep their ill health a secret from those who treat them’
Whether we are arguing about our “right” to know what Jon Venables did to contravene his licence or the rights of kids to cajole and bully a man until he dies, as happened in Hattersley recently, the preoccupation with our rights as citizens seems to pervade most debates we have. Personally, I have absolutely no idea what people mean when they talk about their rights any more. I don’t know where these rights come from, how you know you have them, or what happens if you find someone else’s down the back of the sofa.
I do know, however, that something uncomfortable happens the moment we claim we have “the right” to do or act in a way that impinges on others, a way that forces them to claim “the right” to impinge right back. We become aggressive, combative, and we place ourselves in conflict with a world we imagine wants to oppose us. And we stop listening.
I listened to a debate about our “right” to opt out of computerised medical records for fear of too many clinicians knowing about our health needs recently. Clinically speaking having access to the notes and needs of patients regardless of where they present themselves can only be helpful. However, there is a concern that somehow this facility is open to abuse - that records will stop being confidential. And that patients should have the right to keep their ill health a secret from the people who may treat them.
I wonder sometimes if people are just too angry, if they are annoyed by a world that gives them tooth decay, Channel Five and David Cameron and that, in the face of this irritation and its attendant misery, they want somehow to be seen to fight back, to dissent. And rather than construct a different means of transport or a different type of politics we instead demand our “rights” - made up, vague, unarticulated individual rights. And we apply them randomly: not in the hope that they do good but because we don’t know what else to do with the state and its politicians. And I think it is sad and self defeating, in part I suppose because, if nursing taught me anything, it is that our responsibilities in the world are more pressing than our rights.