Over the last few days, the comments in my controversial, disgust-inducing post have moved from outrage to debate. People who came in appalled at my use of such a crude analogy have begun to see the point behind the analogy, even if they don’t agree with it: that your body is as much your own private property as your house or your business is. If you are forced to throw open access to your property, you may as well be forced to throw open access to your body.
There are two points of contention now: is is patronising and patriarchal or even correct to compare a body to property? Secondly, even if you do accept that a body is property, isn’t your body more intimately connected to your dignity and right to life than your property?
I’d like to start off by trying to bring you around to my point of view. Let’s take the easiest case first: you think that a body is a special case of property, and has much more inviolable rights than any other sort. You’re willing to compromise a little on what you’ve bought or inherited, as long as your body and your dignity are given the uncompromising respect they deserve.
But where does the boundary between the body and property begin? When a street harasser leers and stares at a woman, he isn’t touching her body, but he still violates her personal space and her dignity. If he goes on to scribble graffiti on her scooter- violating her property- he’s still violating her dignity.
What I’m trying to say here is that the line between your body and your property isn’t such a sharp one where your dignity is concerned. And my ‘slipping’ from property rights to rights over a woman’s body is justified.
But what if you believe that a body isn’t property at all? Or that the comparison itself is outrageous and reduces people to things? Read this very well-written essay, please, which explains much better than I can why comparing people to property is not just correct but desirable.
But what if you remain unconvinced? You think that the logic in that essay is faulty, or that the author started from false premises. That it’s an axiom or an article of faith that people cannot, must not, be property. In fact, forget what you think? Suppose it’s indisputably true that a body is not property?
My point holds even then. If you do not respect property, it is impossible to respect dignity and life.
If you say that the right to property does not automatically lead to the right to life and dignity being established, you’re correct. A Dalit might own milllions in assets, but a Brahmin might still refuse to eat with her. But the right to dignity and the right to lilfe are meaningless if the right to property isn’t present. I’ll explain how.
We live in a world where you have the right to life and dignity but not the right to property. You are an asthamatic and you need a nebulizer to survive. Now I take your nebulizer away. You have no property rights, so you can’t protest when I say that your nebulizer should be used as a toy for a poor child instead of the eliltist purpose of maintaining your good health. And despite your right to life, you die because your property rights weren’t protected.
You’ll point out that this is a ridiculous example. For starters, the world is not made up of asthma patients. Even if it was, it’s obvious that taking away a nebulilzer endangers your right to life. You can prevent it on the simple grounds of protecting your right to lilfe rather than your right to property.
Okay, so let’s examine Example Two:
We live in a world where you have the right to life and dignity but not the right to property. Since you have no right to property I sieze all your money, all your real estate, everything you have. Even when you earn something, I sieze that, and use it for the greater good of society. Without any money, you starve, and eventually die of malnutrition. But before you die, you suffer the indignity of being weak and frail, struggling to be productive at work, and being unable to provide for your family. But hey, that’s eventually. I’m not directly violating your life or your dignity. You’ll be alive for a few months before starvation kills you. You’ll hold on to hope for a few weeks before you lose that and your dignity with it.
Again, you could point out that this is a stupid example. Even if it doesn’t kill someone directly, it doesn’t take a genius to see that starvation will eventually kill someone. I am clearly violating your life and dignity, even if I’m doing it by degrees.
So now let’s move on to Example Three:
Once again, we’re in our world without property rights. Once again, I take everything you own and everything you earn after that. I get away with it because you reallly don’t have a right to that property. But I acknowledge your right to life, so I make sure you get enough to eat every day. I acknowledge your right to dignity, so my security guard beats up anyone who mocks you, or tries to assault you in any way. Your right to life and right to dignity are both being secured by me. Of course, instead of eating just enough to prevent starvation, you could be spending your money on food you actually liked. Instead of depending on my security guard, you could depend on the locked door of your own house. But you’re still alive, right? Nobody’s violating your dignity, right? What you could be doing is just hypothetical.
But isn’t your dignity being violated by the very fact that you’re utterly dependent on me? No better than my slave? Isn’t your life under threat because I could change my mind any time?
Isn’t it your definition of dignity that should matter, not mine?
Isn’t it your right to property, and your right to use your property any way you feel like which ensures that you can protect your dignity as you see fit?
Let’s start from the beginning.
- Tejal made an assertion that debating access to institutions was irrelevant as long as you were prepared to accept the existence of the institutions themselves.
- Tejal further suggested that we should question the system that allowed the existence of such institutions.
- The system that allows the existence of such institutions is the system of property rights that allows a property owner to use his property as he sees fit. This system gives him the right to keep criminals, miscreants, and troublemakers off his property. As a natural fallout, it also gives him the right to debar law-abiding or well-behaved people who he is prejudiced against.
- I am willing to question the existence of this prejudice. I am willing to accept non-coercive methods to mitigate its effects. But if I try to dismantle the system that makes it possible, I’m also dismantling the system that gives me the right to keep thugs off my property. I’m dismantling the system that prevents anybody from the Bajrang Dal to the CPI(ML) to the Bombay Quiz Club to the FIFA from demanding I hand my money over to them. I am dismantling the system that gives me the right to decide where my personal space begins and ends, and who I allow inside it.
You don’t need to believe that a human being is property, or that humans own themselves. You don’t need to believe that the rights to property are as important as the right to life. But that doesn’t matter. Property rights guarantee your right to life no matter what you believe. The one protects the other.