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Are the rights of the individual infringed upon by American society?
How do we define rights as individuals?
Does this seem to be an odd or strangely phrased question? The idea that individual rights might still, in this day and age that is in 2008, be negatively affected by society itself. Honestly, there are many ways in which to answer the question and it is important to explore the context of the question and approach the answer as pragmatically as is possible. Is the question really one of legal standards, social behavior, or individual behavior? If it is a case of group or individual behavior then it cannot be answered with a survey of current trends in law and legal standards.
The issue of group or individual behavior is much deeper and farther reaching than changes to the legal system, past or present. If the question asked is indeed of American society itself rather than of the American legal system, I am not certain that it can be answered with any degree of specificity. To answer the question in terms of society we would have to agree that society acts as a single entity at all times. This of course is not the case, society is made up of individuals who although normally grouped together along lines of political, religious, and even economic norms remain people with their own opinions regarding specific issues based upon personal experiences. This is true despite our movement toward "political correctness" in our outside voices.
So my initial answer is both yes and no, there simply is no easy answer to this conundrum. American culture has been in part defined by the Constitution, the original Bill of Rights, and finally its Amendments. America has also been defined by its people the diversity of its culture and the social conventions that have been adopted over time. The combination of law and culture are the ties that bind our country and our people together and in many cases create the divisions. In truth, much of what has framed the heritage of our country is the belief of all people in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in its entirety. The original fight to create a Democratic Republic in which all men were free to pursue their personal economic interests without government interference and were granted the right to pursue happiness without religious obligation was the basis of the War of Independence from Great Britain. These fundamental rights have been the on-going standard of our nation since its inception. Upon these elemental standards, the entire framework of our nation as well as many misconceptions has been built regarding individual rights, privileges, and ultimately personal entitlements.
American law is based primarily on the interpretation of the Bill of Rights. Since the signing and ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791, there has been massive social upheaval bringing about much needed change to our society and thus our laws. Since 1795, there have been exactly seventeen amendments to the Constitution although in truth only sixteen of these amendments are in force today since the twenty-first supersedes the eighteenth. The critical changes to our Bill of Rights included the elimination of slavery in all forms, Civil Rights and Black Suffrage, Women’s Suffrage, Presidential Term Limits, and 18-year-old Suffrage. This then is the basis of our rights as citizens. All rights are enumerated in the Bill of Rights any other “Rights” are in truth entitlements or privileges and not truly rights at all as defined by law.
American society is made up of individuals who are bound by law. Without law, society will revert to anarchy. There are of course social conventions, the unwritten rules that bind individuals to social groups and communities of like people. These conventions are found at many different levels of society for example regional, religious, ethnic, and economic. While there are times that social conventions find their way into our laws, primarily at state and local levels and often to the detriment of some members of society, generally these are short lived and overturned by higher-courts. When social conventions are in direct conflict with the accepted legal rights of the individual, they will ultimately be challenged both morally and legally. From a historical perspective, legal rights are not granted or changed until social change forces acceptance such as with Civil Rights or Suffrage. Certainly, some regions or communities are slower to accept change, witness the sometimes-violent rejection of school integration in the Southern States during the 1950’s because of the Supreme Courts’ decision in Brown vs. The Board of Education.
There are those who have stated their individual rights have been infringed on by members of law enforcement or by those in positions of authority. The media spends a great deal of print space with stories of abuses of power. Do individuals in positions of authority step over the line on occasion and infringe upon the rights of others? Of course, they do ultimately they are human and subject to the same temptations as anyone else. Is the abuse of power a conspiracy? In most cases, this would be inconsistent with our social conventions and our moral and legal framework. One of the reasons for the high level of interest in cases of abuse of official power is that it is outside of the norm and thus newsworthy. It is in the nature of the American to root for the underdog; but it is also in our nature to follow the downfall of a person of power and wealth, especially when they have misused their position to do harm to others.
In some cases, parts of society have determined that there are specific behaviors that are inconsistent with the moral framework of the US. These groups work diligently to elect government officials, challenge current laws, or pass new ones to reflect their moral position. Often these groups don’t reflect a majority but do represent visible and loud minority. Their visibility garners attention and their message of change resonates within a sub-set of society, usually with the older generation. Society changes sometimes slowly and with great resistance. At other times despite becoming part of our legal framework, changes are rejected socially and this rejection creates chaos for a time. Consider the case of the Civil Rights movement and its effect especially on the Southern states. The truth is that both sides of the battle for Civil Rights believed that their “rights were being infringed on”, only one side in the battle was right although both sides claimed a moral right.
It is impossible to satisfy all members of a society at all times. There will always be those who believe that they are being treated unfairly. Criminals who believe they have been unduly harmed by law enforcement during their arrest, or after they have served their time. Smokers who believe their rights are being infringed upon as their ability to smoke anywhere is taken away. The religious Right who believe it appropriate to regulate who can marry. The irreligious left who believe any appearance of religion in public venues is an infringement of their right to be free of religion. The list goes on and in each case; society states their opinion through the passing of laws and agreement of the majority rule. Does society infringe upon the rights of the individual? Some individuals certainly have their choices curtailed and society has determined that there are activities that are harmful to it and thus must be regulated. Again, without laws, anarchy prevails and thus some individuals will have their choices limited and be unhappy with the outcome of law.
There is no possible way to answer the original question in any other way but this; individuals can always seek remedy against true infringement of their rights by private or public organizations or their representatives. Personal rights are specifically defined by law and all citizens of this country have the same rights. Society cannot infringe upon the rights of the individual. Individuals within society can treat each other poorly and can ignore the basic humanity of their neighbor; however, this is an entirely different subject.