I don’t get all that caught up on words, at least not until I hear people use them improperly for their own gain or avoid blame. The two that drive me the craziest are “rights” and “mistakes”, and I’ll describe what I think they mean and why other people want so much to use them improperly.
To qualify as a “right”, in my book, means two things. First, we all can, equally, have the same right. Your right to them does not, in any way, impinge on me or anyone else having the same right. Free speech is a good example. We each can have it and use it without infringing on the other’s exercise of that right. Second, rights do not involve money. I don’t have to pay to have free speech and I’m not required to pay for yours. It’s really a specific case of rule number one, but since so many improper uses of “rights” involve money being taken away from one party and given, or used, to provide the “right” to another, I think it helps clarify my definition. In my definition, health care and education are not rights. They are arguably moral obligations, but that’s a big difference. With a right you don’t have to qualify and you don’t have to oblige anything back, it simply yours, pure and simple. It’s no wonder that proponents of any given “give-away” program want to qualify it as a “right” instead of a good idea or the proper thing to do. Furthermore, taking away someone’s rights is very serious business. Putting someone in jail or drafting them into the armed forces are examples of necessary situations that require suspending someone’s right of life, liberty or free speech. Check out our Bill of Rights and you will find rights like freedom of speech, religion, assembly, search and self-incrimination. These fit my definition of a right. I find knowing the difference between a right and those “false rights”, however well-intentioned, keeps my moral compass pointed to the truth.
Also commonly misused is “mistake”. We all make them all the time. Perhaps you meant to add sugar to your coffee and grabbed the salt instead. That’s a mistake in my book. Using salt was not your intention, you really meant to use sugar. Some mistakes like this are caused by lack of attention, some by being in too much of a hurry or trying to multi-task. Contrast that with a teenager who steals a pack of cigarettes and Mom says “oh, she just made a mistake”. Really, that was the mistake? Did she mean to steal some chewing gum and grabbed the wrong thing? More like “she didn’t think she would get caught” would be the truth about the mistake made. The stealing was a choice, but not a mistake. Most people learn right from wrong at a very early age, openly displaying what they know is right and hiding what they know is wrong. But “mistake” is used instead of “choice” because it avoids placing blame and declaring fault, and then dealing with the ensuing drama and conflict. It would be much more accurate to say “kids are going to make some bad choices”, acknowledging they have more to learn about life and how we treat each other instead of closing our eyes to reality.
It’s easy to understand why these powerful words, “rights” and “mistakes”, are used inappropriately, but I won’t fall for it. If we’re to face problems in our families, communities and nation, we have to deal with these difficult conversations truthfully and not hide behind the wrong words.