Flawed talk of rights and responsibilities

    Security and opportunity with a strong dose of fear are
    apparently Labour’s themes for the next general election. Tony
    Blair has announced that the government will consider changing the
    law to protect householders from prosecution if they tackle
    burglars.

    Figures suggest that less than 1 per cent of burglars carry a
    weapon (although that’s not to stop them picking one up in the
    house they have broken into). Even when a householder has taken
    action, in the majority of cases, lawyers say, he or she has not
    faced prosecution.

    So this election ploy appears nothing more than propaganda,
    shoring up the notion that “respectable” householders, like a wagon
    train under siege, are experiencing perpetual attack from “them”
    out there.

    It’s not difficult to see how what begins as the exercising of a
    “right” for a small minority rapidly transforms into an obligation
    on every “responsible” householder to attack when faced with an
    intruder – no matter how unpredictable the outcome. Such is the way
    society’s values are transformed and the vigilante is
    nourished.

    This government refers constantly to rights and
    responsibilities, as if these are absolute principles beyond
    misinterpretation. Yet, the continuing saga of David Blunkett’s
    possible paternity of William, the child of his former lover,
    Kimberly Quinn, illustrates how one person’s exercising of a
    “right” may be viewed by another as an act of destruction. If the
    home secretary is proven by a DNA test to be William’s father, one
    application of his rights and responsibilities would be to insist
    on his rights as a father – regardless of the impact on William’s
    now fragile family. After all, Labour is constantly criticising
    “dead beat dads” who fail to do their paternal duty.

    A different course of action for Blunkett also exists in keeping
    with the code of rights and responsibilities, arguably placing the
    child’s interests first. He might, for instance, immediately
    establish his own right to see William but exercise that
    judiciously, maintaining a looser connection until the boy is older
    and can better understand the mess grown-ups sometimes make of
    their lives.

    The language of rights and responsibilities as spoken by Labour
    is fatally flawed because it is so damagingly rigid and inflexible.
    In reality, the process of love and care, sacrifices, rewards,
    errors and risk-taking is a complex and muddled series of
    trade-offs and transactions – in which, contrary to Blunkett’s
    belief, most of us genuinely do try to do what we think is
    best.

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