Humanity: Privilege or Right?


The story dominating every news cycle, headline and Twitter feed of the past week has revolved around the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from parents and placing them in temporary holding facilities. Those are the facts on both sides, even Fox News accepts the existence and use of child detention centers (or as media-darling Laura Ingraham described them, “summer camps”). For once, we can all agree on the basic facts. Families are being broken up at the border by federal agencies. The cause of this atrocious policy is explained differently based on political preferences. But the justification of the “zero tolerance” policy, given by attorney general Jeff Sessions, comes from a higher power as the marionette turned real-boy by Bull Connor cherry picked one chapter from the Bible that sounds like it agrees with him. Case closed.

But in his own comments, those which aren’t deemed infallible by the Catholic church, Sessions boiled down the reasoning behind breaking up families too, “if you don't like [it], then don't smuggle children over our border." This comes back to one of Republicans’ favorite philosophical falsehoods: circular logic. This fallacy is defined by the philosophy community as, “a type of reasoning in which the proposition is supported by the premises, which is supported by the proposition, creating a circle in reasoning where no useful information is being shared.” Sessions here is basing the acceptability of taking children from parents on the assumption that these immigrants (not aliens) have no rights because they are criminals. And that is what this article is about, not about child detention itself (thanks for bearing with me).

The Trump administration has built a battle of public perception of rights against privileges and how we define both. This latest assault on the rights of all humans, that one is entitled to keep his or her family together even in times of crisis, is only this week’s example from the à la carte administration. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio is legally allowed to purge voter registration records due to absence from elections and failure to respond to government notices. The specific rule in Ohio states that after one missed federal election cycle voters are sent an official notice, and if they do not respond to that notice and don’t vote in the next four years, their names are removed from the voting rolls. Two facts about this case should not be surprising: the law affects Democratic voters at nearly twice the rate of Republican voters, and on the majority side of the decision was Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch.

This Supreme Court case is entirely in-step with the policy of family separation. The government is attempting to solve a non-existent problem (crimes committed by unregistered immigrants and voter fraud) by providing an aggressive policy aimed to end the problem that didn’t exist in the first place. And thus the circular reasoning is made complete.

But other à la carte freedoms are even more basic than voting rights or practices of managing government detainees. This month the Supreme Court also ruled in the case of the Colorado cake shop that refused to bake a dessert for a gay wedding, giving people the right to take away the rights of others based on religious beliefs. Another right that was turned into a privilege was the capability of transgender people to serve in the military. Back in March, Trump put out a revised version of the ban that sought to strip away the right of millions of Americans to serve their country, and president, due to what the administration referred to as “substantial risks.” So now, not only are immigrants not people, but neither are gay or transgender people. That is what this administration is saying when it takes rights away from entire groups of people: you are not a person, you do not deserve these rights.

And of course, they have no shame in doing so. Last Wednesday, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski offered these consoling words when told about a 10-year-old girl with down syndrome being kept in a cage: “womp womp.” Lewandowski then refused to apologize, because why should he? He owes no apology to “the children whose parents are putting them in a position that is forcing them to be separated.” Whereas Jeff Sessions took his justification from some perceived manifest destiny God has given him to break up brown families, Lewandowski simply feels no sympathy for families that fled to the United States without brushing up on our latest border policies (which have since been rescinded.)

There is a central philosophy in the Trump camp of rolling back all of the rights people have been given and reverting them to privileges. Not rights like corporate personhood or the rights of corporations to mine peoples’ data, rights like freedom from discrimination or healthcare. Trump has tapped into a feeling many older citizens have that people nowadays are entitled and spoiled with all they have been given, something that has made them impatient and that’s why they’re liberals. But psychological studies seem to point the other way. For nearly 50 years, researchers have been conducting what they call the “marshmallow test” to measure delayed gratification. They put a child in a room with one marshmallow and tell the child that she can have one marshmallow now or two later, and they see how long the child can wait. Data shows that the child’s ability to wait has increased by about a minute every decade. This seemingly innocuous test of delayed gratification has real-world translations into things like patience, self-control and focus. This could be accountable for the new wave of adolescent activism we are seeing in the national debate over gun control, or they could just be actors.

What this debate over rights and privileges boils down to is a respect for somebody’s personhood. If somebody is accused of a crime, does that take away their humanity? What if they had no say in the commission of the crime and are five years old? What if that person had to struggle for decades of being ashamed of who they are, only to finally accept and love themselves and find somebody else who loves them that happens to be of the same gender? Should their rights be thrown away because it makes the other person feel uncomfortable? Former associate Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that “the right to swing my fist ends with the other man’s nose begins.” That includes immigrants, children, gays and transgender people.