Respect, rights and freedoms in an era of identity activism

The British actor Ben Kingsley, probably most famous for his eponymous role in the film Ghandi, has, since being knighted in the 2001 honours list, apparently insisted on being referred to as ‘Sir Ben Kingsley’. This is his right and he is, from all accounts, quite offended if the honorific is overlooked. Not all recipients of such honours are quite so sensitive to the proprieties being observed so closely or the impunity of their slight redressed with quite the force of the Kingsley wrath. Nevertheless, although it is his right, we are not obliged to comply with his wishes. There is not a law that requires the satisfaction of any obligation, real or imagined, to address a knight of the realm by their title, outside the laws of polite society, regardless of any damage inflicted on their self-esteem.

I should say I have nothing against the person, the persona or the onstage and on-screen performances of said Sir Ben. I have used him merely as a colourful illustration of the principle that the right to receive a particular good, service or respect does not automatically place upon other members of society an obligation to fulfil that right to the holder’s affective satisfaction. If I have bought a lottery ticket, I have a right to participate in the lottery, but not a right to win. If I have paid for some goods, I have the right to receive them and in good condition, but not to be perfectly satisfied by them. In a court of law, I have a right to hear my case heard, but not the right to receive the verdict I want. And so on. In no case I can think of can the privileges placed upon one by the conferring of a right imply an additional right to be respected or an additional obligation on the rest of us to make the bearer of the right be happy.

Nevertheless, while from the assumption that there is no right to be happy, we cannot conclude that there is no right to be respected, we have travelled from the well-founded and established proposition that the rights of others must be respected to the belief that there is indeed a right to be respected. The confused logic of this pathway is not limited to the layperson; it permeates academia and the judiciary, instigated by intellectual sophistry and compounded by legal activism. The problematic issue, though, from a societal perspective, is not a logical one. It is that the notion of a right and the necessity of respecting rights is so fundamental to legal culture, that anything that can be established as a right has the force of law behind it.

The entire debate has become confused around the conflation of rights with respect. Both terms have also suffered from an inflation of meaning over the past few decades. A right, at least as established under English law, meant a freedom that could not be interfered with by those in authority, such as the state, or by any other individual. These rights included the freedom of belief and conscience, the right to free speech and the right of assembly. Sir Ben Kingsley’s right to his honorific is a right in that mould; he has the freedom to append that title to his name, a freedom which those of us not similarly honoured do not have; it is, moreover, a freedom which he is not obliged to practice but I am obliged to respect. However, and this is the crucial point, I am not obliged under law to acquiesce in, or respect, the choices he makes on the basis of that freedom. I am free to do so, but also free not to do so.

What has happened to the notion of rights in the post-war period is that they have been transformed from negative freedoms to positive goods for the individual, such as education and employment, and then to positive goods for groups, including the protection of identities. With each step there has been a move away from holding the authority of the state to account, towards empowering the state over goods which it is increasingly difficult to guarantee, resulting in it becoming more coercive in its attempts to deliver them.

At the same time there has been a confusion between and a conflation of two meanings of the word ‘respect’. The first of these is defined as the “deference to a right, privilege or privileged position”, the second as “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability”*. These meanings are clearly different, but they have become confused and conflated through the notion of group rights. Such rights are invariably based on ‘identities’, a slippery term as they are largely self-constructed and weakly bounded, meaning they can be restructured and multiplied virtually endlessly. Identity as a self-construction necessarily evokes the sense of worth of the group to which one belongs; and as a right commands deference to that judgment. Hence, the conflation of the two senses.

The particular case I have in mind, because it highlights the extremes to which this idea can be pushed, is the decision by some states in America and Canada – surely to be replicated more widely sooner or later – to give legal force to the concept of preferred names for transgender people; that is, a legal requirement that in any public setting transgender people or people with specific gender identity requirements must be referred to by their preferred pronouns, and not simply by the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ based on a speakers own identification, assumption or assertion of their gender. For those who are not up to date with this area of identity advocacy, this extends far beyond the use of gender neutral terms such as ‘they’ and its lexical cognates (which, despite its grammatical awkwardness, I, like many, have been using for the past 30-odd years when gender is unknown or unimportant). Facebook now lists up to as many as 70 varieties of gender identification.

The first thing to say, as others have pointed out, is that the standard gender pronouns are not an honorific, a mark of respect, but only a mark of categorisation, categories that have emerged organically within the evolution of language. It is an entirely fallacious claim, therefore, that because the use of standard gender pronouns confer respect, the same respect should be extended to any form of gender identification that one can conjure up.

We are used in our society to make allowance for people’s individuality; and, although most of us do not consider this to be entangled with questions of rights, are willing to accommodate people’s reasonable requests in the name of common humanity and shared social bonds. However, the requests – actually, demands – that are being foisted upon those working in the public domain, such as in businesses, schools and universities under those legal jurisdictions, to match every individual’s gender self-identification with their preferred pronoun or other title (and be aware that these include such tags as ‘gender fluidity’ which entail switching gender identity upon a whim), are so outrageous that we cannot help suspect that there is an ideologically driven agenda.

Moreover, unlike the case of the be-knighted Sir Ben, whose honours – though rightly deserved – have mainly the force of tradition and convention, and whose demands for recognition we are under no obligation to meet, or only to the extent that we wish to remain on good terms with him, the case with gender identity is wholly different. There, the right is not predicated on any recognised accomplishment, but is demanded only on the basis of a belief. A specious one at that; one not founded on any credible empirical evidence. Yet it is one backed by the full force of the law. Of course, people have a right to their belief, regarding gender or any other marker of identity, but they do not have the right to respect for their belief, or acquiescence in the charade that their identity is sovereign. All identities are self-constructed and negotiated.

This seems to me to be the point on which legal activism has betrayed the inner meaning of a right, which is that a freedom always comes with consequences, which includes the consequences of disapproval and disavowal. Such advocates have carved out a realm of pure freedom purportedly protected from any consequences whatsoever, on the pernicious premise that the exercise of freedom of others in disagreeing with the social manifestation of their right and, especially, with the coercion of respect for their choices in doing so, can be categorised as ‘hate speech’ or ‘abuse’. The truth is that freedom is never without consequences, whether we choose to believe it or not, and in promoting the idea that it can be they give rise to a realm of chaos, both psychologically and socially.

I have dwelt on the issue of gender identity as a current manifestation and illustration of what happens when philosophy abandons logic and evidence, and the ramifications of that on a societal level.  On a personal level, I have been acquainted with a handful of people with complex gender identities. Some of those earned my respect for being people of integrity, whose character and accomplishments transcended the singular dimension of their gender. I suspect for many more it has become a fashionable eccentricity engendered by the extreme liberality of the societies we inhabit in the West, to which the young are particularly susceptible.  If so, it is a dangerous game that has unchained respect from accomplishment and freedom from consequences, one in which those in academia are particularly complicit.

*Note: definitions are adapted from the online dictionary respect. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved January 31, 2018 from website

About the Author

Don Trubshaw
Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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