When I first received my driver’s licence I loved to spin my wheels. Doing rollbacks and burnouts on a particular concrete pad in the industrial area of the town I lived in was a pet pastime for me and my friends. That was until the Police caught us. We were hauled off to the Station. In fear of being prosecuted, we responded well to the lecture given to us. What the policeman said that day has stuck with me ever since: “Having a driver’s licence is not a right, it’s a privilege.”
That concept has broad merit in every facet of life. There are far more privileges in life than there are rights.
Yet ‘privilege’ is a word that hasn’t had a good following of late. We hear it in the context of ‘white male privilege’ and we associate it with bad things. But there is a vast difference between the noun — ‘he belongs to a privileged class’ — and the verb — ‘she was given the privilege of partaking in…’
Here are five remarkable differences between a right and a privilege:
1. Rights cannot reasonably be withheld, but privileges can. Many things we think of as a right are actually a privilege. And yet, rights are withheld from people when there is abuse. Rights can be abused, but privileges that are withheld are never an abuse. Perhaps that which can be withheld, but isn’t an abuse, is a privilege.
2. Privilege cannot be earned. It can only be received or bestowed as a gift. We shouldn’t work for privileges based on earning them, as it’s the wrong motive. Rights, neither, are earned; it’s a bad and sad situation (abuse) where someone needs to earn a right. Being respected, for instance, is a right, not a privilege; we should never need to earn humane respect. When we make privilege into a right we end up in an entitlement culture. When we make a right into a privilege we end up acting inappropriately and propagate abuse.
3. Rights are inclusive, whereas privilege is exclusive. But it’s inappropriate, and an abuse, when certain demographics of society are ascribed privilege and perquisites and other demographics are disadvantaged and dishonoured for who they are. Privileges ought to be universally attainable, and rights universally attributed.
4. We live better when we consider every bit of life a privilege. Then gratitude is the output and joy is all ours, no matter what we don’t have. Life is not a right in the perfect sense of the word (i.e., we can’t demand to never die), but there is a right to life. If we treat life more as a privilege than as a right, we enjoy life more.
5. Rights are about dignifying people, yet a special dignity is bestowed on the person receiving a privilege. But everyone is entitled to have their dignity respected, which is the cherished honour of being human, but privilege is some extra portion which, for the purposes of respect, should be accessible to everyone.
Privileges are discretionary and ought not to be enjoyed for who we are. Rights are non-discretionary and ought to be enjoyed by all.