Blog: We need to teach that rights come hand in hand with responsibility

It’s been a pretty crazy week here in Melbourne. Between pandemics and earthquakes, we’ve also been struck with a bout of riots over the shutting down of the construction industry. I’m not here to take sides or lecture people about vaccines. I believe in vaccination and I also believe in a person’s right to choose what to do with their bodies. I would no sooner enforce compulsory vaccination than I would make abortion illegal. But this is fact: what has happened this week has arisen because of many of the industry’s workers’ non-compliance with COVID-19 safety regulations. This is why the vaccines have been made compulsory for construction workers – unlike for healthcare workers and teachers who have a public facing role. I’d imagine the police and military are also required to get it or face a short career, but I haven’t fact-checked this. One thing I would ask you to remember is that shutting down industries or organisations because of non-compliance with safety regulations has a long and proud history in Australia. Construction is one of those industries that would be used to this. This is nothing new and there is certainly a precedent for it.

But like I said, I’m not here to take sides on the issue. They have a right to protest, of course; but the behaviours I’ve seen this week, are not indicative of protests I have seen in this country before. They are a bit more like schoolies acting out on their last day of year 12 (and the weeks to follow). I’ve seen behaviours and attitudes akin to this in my classrooms and I know how daunting it is to face up to even just one very tall young man who is incensed about his rights being violated. I’ve never really understood how to respond to that until thinking about these riots this week. I’ve watched the police in their riot gear and thought – it’s the only way…

What I’ve determined is this. Rights you have – yes. Some rights are more obvious and permanent than others. Other rights are more like privileges – they exist provided you are equally willing to meet your civil responsibilities. Once we start to ignore our responsibilities to society, we start getting in some trouble with the law. Generally, laws exist to keep the majority safe and well. Sometimes they exist to protect powerless people and minorities too. An agreement we make (whether conscious or not) when we live in a democratic society is that will do our utmost to follow the laws so as to maintain a civil society. We understand that when we break those laws or do not demonstrate socially responsible behaviours, there will be some kind of consequence for out actions.

What we’re seeing in this riot is that there is a small number of individuals who are very strongly attached to the concept of having rights and privileges, but they are not equally willing to be responsible citizens. There lies the rub. You can’t have one without the other. If construction workers were found to be following the COVID-19 safety regulations and had not been spreading the virus around, then they would have had the same rights as everyone else – the right to choose not to vaccinate, in this case. Perhaps their energy would have been better spent educating their industry about hygiene and social distancing.

I think we need to really think about this as teachers; because I know that feeling in a class where a kid is really starting to push the boundaries and they might turn us and say – “make me” or something equally as provocative. They know that we know we can’t make them do anything. We can’t physically force them, or even really touch them. If their parents don’t take our side or feel powerless also, we can’t enforce certain consequences. Children do have rights and in knowing so, they have power; but when does this power become too much – a violation of socially responsible behaviour? And what can we do about it?

We need to start teaching young people about their responsibilities to society. Of course they need to understand that there are some rights that come with being human – and we are getting better at teaching about this. Equally, there are some ‘rights’ that are actually privileges and, more importantly, we have a responsibility to one another – to create a civil society. When you flout your responsibilities as a citizen and start endangering others willfully, privileges and rights start to become a bit watery.

Imagine living under a government where your human rights are continually violated – it’s not hard for some people. They’ve done that. For many Australians, it is very difficult to imagine. Plenty of people survive day to day without their basic human rights being met. That is true control and violation. We live in a society where, as citizens or permanent residents, we have all our basic human rights met (for the most part – there will be individual circumstances of abuse where this isn’t the case, or in the case of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples where they are continually being violated). Our tolerance for compliance and social responsibility has been waning over these multiple lockdowns, but overall, the public has shown great responsibility for one another. Now we are staring down the pathway out of this, there is perhaps excitement, impatience or exhaustion; but we haven’t quite given up yet.

This collective responsibility is something we haven’t understood before in our generation. We haven’t been conscripted to fight for ours or other people’s freedoms. We haven’t faced rations or a great depression. We have been lucky. We have been asked to stay home, wear masks and take care of one another. This is our first test in social responsibility for a very long time. And apart from a handful of individuals, we have passed with flying colours. Perhaps it can form the case study we use in classrooms to teach the next generation about how freedoms, rights and responsibilities are intertwined, inseparable and invaluable.

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