What’s a human right and what’s a Constitutional right? How often do they intersect, and is it possible for them to conflict with one another? These are the kinds of questions that will be most important to ask and to answer as we try to move forward. Our country’s founding principles, put down into a document, are now well over two centuries old. We don’t practice medicine the same way we did 200 years ago. We don’t all primarily hunt and farm our own food sources anymore. There has been much that has changed over the course of our nation’s history — but do those changes require us to find the values in our Constitution that are either congruent or contrary to our modern values, ethics and way of life? Can we ever truly get to a new plane of existence in this country without first shaping our shared values?
From the very beginning our Constitution was one of hypocrisy and self-contradiction. We declared ourselves a nation based on equality, and then set about putting up societal barriers between certain people and the freedoms our founding documents define. Slavery was legal, thus starting a long and difficult struggle for true racial equality that continues to this day. Women couldn’t even express their views by way of a vote until the start of the last century. So if we know that contradictions of principle existed back then, is it not possible for more contradictions of principle to still lay ensconced on our Constitution?
The effort to modernize our laws, to shape them into a more accurate representation of how we feel as a community, has been going on from the very beginning. In every generation there are those who wish to freeze progress in its tracks and make the status quo permanent. Likewise, in every generation there are those who work tirelessly to educate and advocate for change. The conflict between those two sides is everlasting, enduring, and likely to be an infinite exercise in societal evolution. Knowing that there will always be this struggle shouldn’t discourage us from taking the challenge on head-first. Instead, it should invigorate us for the task at hand.
A human right is one that is universal. It crosses international borders. It transcends local sectarian beliefs. Indeed, a human right can and should trump any constitutional law or decree — especially if the constitution in question works to actively block access to that human right. In other words, if our Constitution had a clause that allowed any land-owning person to punch someone in the face at any time they want, it would violate a lot of people’s basic human right to not be assaulted.
It’s the right and duty of all Americans to make sure our own constitutional document most accurately reflects our currently held values. Over the course of time we have had to amend the Constitution many times to patch the holes the Founders left or created when drafting it. The existence of the amendment process is all the proof you need that the Founders themselves understood the limitations of mortality — that they couldn’t help shape society after they were gone. Instead, the living generation — as Jefferson referred to it — is the one responsible for making sure society’s commonly-held values are in sync with its laws.
The Constitution is not sacrosanct, and those who wrote it are not demigods. This isn’t to say they didn’t do a great job. This isn’t to say that they didn’t create a remarkably durable and rather ingenious new form of government that has served us well all this time. And the notion of auditing the Constitution to determine where it needs to be put back on the rails so to speak isn’t about eschewing all that has come before. Rather, there is a need to ensure that we don’t protect 200-year-old legal prose to the continued detriment and harm of either a segment of our populace or our society at large.
To be sure, it’s not an easy task. As many people that live among us that understand the need for change, there are a nearly-equal number of people who fear and even despise change. They’re the ones who insist that even the smallest change to our laws is the first step towards cashing in all our ethics and values for the sake of modernity. They don’t like the concept of societal evolution and will fight with extraordinary effort to block it. Unfortunately for those groups, they are never, ever on the right side of history and ultimately they wind up losing, no matter how long the struggles take.
In every generation there is a chance to make the world a little better place for those who will come next. Every generation gets an opportunity to make adjustments to keep the nation’s trajectory moving in the right place. This generation is no exception. We are living in a time of unprecedented access to information and data. We have the benefit of over two-thousand years of recorded history. Modern science and technology is allowing us to view our world in ways that were never before possible.
Yet through all that modernity and despite growing sentiment for change, our laws still don’t fully-reflect the American Promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People live in fear of a health scare bankrupting them. They live in fear of not having enough hours on their time card to feed their children. They worry about whether their children will be shot walking to or from school, or worse — in school. There are millions of Americans who are denied the most basic of human freedom to truly love and marry as equals. There are eleven million people living in the shadows, Nowhere Men and Women who have left behind their own homes to seek a better life for themselves here, but now they are caught up in limbo.
As those who came before though, it’s up to those of us who can see the future to work hardest to get there. Perseverance and determination, with a healthy dollop of truth can be a powerful propellant for change. It will never be easy, and there will be setbacks. Politicians will ignore us, corporations will abuse us, and those who fear change will threaten us from every angle they can, invoking every Boogeyman imaginable, but it cannot be allowed to silence the voices asking the most urgent and important question of any generation.
What good is a Constitutional right if it tramples over a human right?