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Fun With Pedantry

November 8th, 2007 · 6 Comments

From The New York Times‘ coverage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act:

The Democrats also carved out a blanket exemption for religious groups, drawing the ire of civil liberties advocates who argued that church-run hospitals, for instance, should not be permitted to discriminate against gay employees. The civil liberties groups wanted a narrow exemption for religious employers.

No, actual “civil liberties” groups would want the whole thing scrapped as a burden on freedom of association, because “civil liberties” are immunities from government imposition (like being compelled to hire persons of a certain description). The phrase they’re looking for is “civil rights.” Sure, it’s not unusual for a group to brand itself as a defender of something it opposes—the astroturf shill group for the sludge industry calling itself Citizens for Clean Water and so on—but that doesn’t mean reporters have to play along with the labeling.

Update: (1) That last sentence was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek; I’m not suggesting this is any sort of deliberate con or whatever. (2) I’m making a strictly semantic point here that doesn’t turn on accepting any particular theory of rights—a libertarian one, for instance. Traditionally, though the lines get blurred frequently, a “civil liberty” has meant a freedom from government compulsion or intrusion, while “civil rights” include broader privileges that may be invoked against private actors, such as the right not to be excluded from certain facilities on account of race or other factors. How you weigh the civil liberty in this case (not to hire people whose sexual practices you disapprove of) against the civil right (not to have your sexual orientation factor into your employment prospects) is another question. I’m inclined to say people should have the expressive freedom to hire according to their own principles, even when I think those principles are stupid and bigoted, but you don’t need to agree on that point to accept the linguistic distinction.

Tags: Language and Literature



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 dan // Nov 8, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    umm…sure. or one could note that “civil libertarians,” in your strict sense of the phrase, are such a vanishingly small and irrelevant force in contemporary politics that they played no role in this debate over what would presumably have been one of the bigger items on their legislative agenda, if they had one. From this, one might be tempted to conclude that, rather than trying to “brand itself as a defender of something they oppose,” they were more likely to have been unaware of any academic distinction between the two phrases; hard-core libertarians are too fringy a fringe group for anybody to bother trying to steal their language. Sorry to break it to you, but…

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Nov 8, 2007 at 10:41 pm

    The word “libertarian” appears nowhere in my post. I’m pointing up the distinction between a “civil right” and a “civil liberty” traditionally recognized by literate people… admittedly perhaps also a fringe group. This has nothing to do with “hard-core libertarians” and “their language,” except insofar as “their language” is “English.”


  • 3 Julian Elson // Nov 9, 2007 at 12:06 am

    Accepting your view of civil liberties, do you really think that it’s impossible for exemptions to laws which themselves impinge on civil liberties to be worse for civil liberties than consistent enforcement of the aforementioned impinging laws without such exemptions?

    Obviously, you wouldn’t approve of a law that said “campaign advertisements are prohibited one week before the election,” but taking such a law as a given, would you really approve of loosening that law’s civil liberties-impinging grip by creating a very specific exception like “campaign advertisements are prohibited one week before the election, except those sponsored through religious organizations?”

    Now, admittedly, the civil liberties groups in question — assuming that the article is referring to the groups it refers to later, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force — were not (as far as I know) saying anything like the hypothesized argument of “this act impinges on civil liberties generally, but these specific, narrrow exemptions make it worse, not better.” Still, opposing specific exemptions to laws which impinge on civil liberties doesn’t automatically disqualify them from being civil liberties advocates if they viewed the exemptions as making the laws worse, even if supporting the law more broadly does disqualify them from being civil liberties advocates as such.

    Or do you think I’m still confusing civil liberties and civil rights?

  • 4 dan // Nov 9, 2007 at 8:10 am

    It’s not that I disagree with the distinction, or even that I don’t recognize it’s sometimes useful. Go forth and educate the world. It’s your implication of nefarious intent I find objectionable, and more to the point, implausible.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Nov 9, 2007 at 9:34 am

    Oh, I don’t actually imagine there’s any nefarious intent; the last sentence was somewhat tongue in cheek.

  • 6 David T // Nov 20, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    I would take issue with you that “civil liberties” was traditionally used only with reference to *governmental* imposition. Was the ACLU going beyond its jurisdction in supporting anti-lynching legislation decades ago, long before its 1960’s turn to the Left? (Lynching, to be sure, was sometimes actively supported by the state, but often the state took a passive role, either unwilling or unable to stop it. Now of course you may say that stopping lynching is a *legitimate* use of state authority, but that is another matter.)

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