We need a civil Ten Commandments that tell people how to be respectful citizens in a free Republic. One of the Commandments could be something like “Thou shalt not use your rights in vain.” This would be using a stated right in such a way that the use demeans what the right protects.
For instance, you have the right to freedom of speech, but that right is not absolute and it has been deemed that you cannot shout “FIRE!” in a crowded theater, and you cannot joke about having bombs or make bomb threats in an airport. You have a freedom to say whatever you want, as long as you are not using your freedom to infringe on the rights of others, and as long as it is not putting peoples’ lives in danger. You also do not have the right to slander others or commit Libel in the press. Your freedom to use words is not absolute. There are limits. And frankly, there SHOULD BE limits.
But many Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson were uncomfortable about the government setting those limits. If we allow the Federal government to decide where the limits of freedoms are, how to keep it from imposing its will over the freedoms and essentially blot out the freedom for which it is pledged to protect?
The solution offered by Jefferson et. al. was a solution of self-censorship. Their logic is that rational, Enlightened people should not need a government to tell them when they have crossed the line. They should be willing to check their own freedoms if the use of a freedom checks the freedom of another. This gets back to the “FIRE!” in a theater or bomb jokes at the airport. I make a rational, Enlightened decision not to cause a panic by the exercise of my freedom to use words as I see fit or how I want. I censor myself if I were to have such a desire.
But what does this have to do with “using a stated right in vain”? NOTHING! But it does, I think, serve as a necessary backdrop to what I am about to suggest.
What I have said thus far is that rights are not absolute – that is not my idea, that is the idea of the Founding Fathers – and that censorship should come from the self and not from the government – which means that there needs to be an acknowledgement that just because you can say something, doesn’t mean you should.
Using a right in vain, however, is using a right like freedom of speech in a way that is shameful. It is deciding that my freedom of speech allows me to declare whatever random garbage I want to say regardless of fact, truth, or whomever it may hurt. It is using a sacred principle like Freedom of Speech – a freedom that was conceived as a freedom to criticize power when it is wrong or abusive; a freedom to petition power; and a freedom to say what is not popular. Popular speech rarely needs protection, but unpopular speech (criticizing a war as unjust or wrong during wartime) may need to be protected.
Using the freedom of speech in vain would be to take that sacred protection against power to have an unpopular idea and not be punished for your opinion, and instead using it to tell lies. It is valid to criticize the President — any President — when he is wrong, but criticizing the President for the sake of criticizing the President is using the freedom in vain. Worse than vain and repetitious criticism, is the vain and repetitious telling of a lie that everyone knows to be a lie, even when it is a lie that some want to believe out of some twisted and perverted notions of reality and possibly so-called patriotism. Saying that the President is a bad President because he led us into a war by lying us into war; because he let Osama bin Laden escape and shifted blame for 9/11 to Saddam Hussein is a valid criticism. Saying that the President is wrong to use the NSA to spy on Americans is valid (Bush was wrong; Obama was wrong; those who advised them to do it were wrong). But saying the President is bad because he looked like one of those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, or that he was stupid, or that he is not American, or that he is a Muslim terrorist or whatever other lie, untruth, or slander you want to say is using your freedom in vain.
The same goes for religion. Your right to religion is not absolute, and your right not to be religious is not absolute. You cannot be so offended by the idea of religion that you stop others from practicing theirs. You cannot be so zealous about your religion that you force others to practice yours, regardless of what their religion, or lack thereof, may be. And you certainly cannot use the machinery of government to impose your religious values on others, even if they share your religion.
You have the right to practice your religion, or be selfish in the name of your religion, or marry whom you want, and even say that only certain marriages are valid as understood by your religion. But you do not have the right or the power to then determine how others have to live based on your own religion, or lack thereof. Using freedom of religion as a means to stop homosexuals from marrying is not part of your right to religion, and it is using your right to religion in vain. You have a right to believe gay marriage is a sin, and you have the right not to marry a gay person, but you do not have the right to force others to believe or live as you do – and saying you do is a vain use of your freedom.
The right to assemble gives me the right to spend my free time with whatever group I want. But if I’m using that right to assemble to wear white hoods and burn crosses then I believe I am using that right in vain. And if I am in Congress, and I keep passing the same legislation that everyone knows will fail over and over again just to make the same political point over and over again, like passing the same ban on abortion or voting to repeal The Affordable Care Act over and over, knowing it will die in the Senate, and knowing it will be vetoed if it somehow survives the Senate, I am using a whole host of rights and institutions in vain – Congress, the legislative process, freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, and if I am doing this out of some twisted vision of Christianity, freedom of religion. I am using my rights and my freedoms in vain.
The first Civil Commandment is clearly: Thou Shall Have Rights and Freedoms! But the second Commandment must be: Thou Shalt Not Use Your Rights and Freedoms In Vain! We have been very good honoring the first Commandment as of late, but we have not been so good at keeping the second.
It is true that The United States of America is not a true democracy. Nevertheless, the nation is founded upon democratic principles. We have a democratic republic. Democracy, whether it is a direct democracy or an indirect one, must have rational, civil discourse in order to function. Citizens must be educated enough and civil enough to engage in critical thinking and debate, and people must be humble enough to allow for their own further education and acceptance of facts as they present themselves. This state of rational, civil discourse has not existed in The United States for a long time. This is why we need a Civil Ten Commandments. We need to have rules that we all agree to follow so that we can discuss, debate, and actually listen to others, even when their ideas and opinions may differ from our own. We need a Civil Ten Commandments so that we can once more be civil to each other.