Women’s rights? – just say No!

You what? “Say no to women’s rights” – you’re kiddin’ me, right? What kind of misogynistic claptrap is this…?!?

I’ll admit it: I’m being deliberately provocative here. (Did get your attention, though, didn’t it? ūüôā¬†And don’t forget¬†I did warn you that what I’m doing these days could be a lot more challenging for many folks? – well, this is what that looks like. ūüôā¬†)

So¬†cool it, okay? Calm down. It’s almost certainly not what you might think I’m saying. And don’t panic: ultimately this is more about a practical design-issue in ‘big-picture’ enterprise-architectures than about anything else. Serious, sure: but not misogynistic. Honest.

It’s true that there are specific problems around all closed-category ‘rights’ such as purported ‘women’s rights’ and the like – and I promise I’ll come back to those later. But that isn’t the real point here anyway. The real point is this: the whole concept of ‘rights’ could well be one of the most disastrous mistakes that humans have ever made.¬†And we¬†need to find a way back out from that mistake if we’re ever to achieve some kind of sustainable society.

In terms of well-meant stupidity, the notion of ‘rights’ is right up there with the toffee spear [thank you Terry Pratchett!] and the lead balloon: it doesn’t work, it’s never worked, in fact can’t work, because its cause of failure is built right into its very roots. Scrambled misunderstandings and misuses of the notion of ‘rights’ represent a¬†huge failure-risk, right at the roots of all of our current ‘really-big-picture enterprise-architectures’.¬†And to be blunt, the concept of ‘rights’ is so riddled with calamitous unintended-consequences that we really need to remove it, totally and permanently, from every aspect of every law in every land.

An assertion to which, at present, you might well disagree.

Which is fair enough, of course.

But perhaps allow me to explain?

(And yes, as usual, this is going to be a bit long… but I think you’ll find it worthwhile.)

The right emotions?

First, though, ask yourself this: why is it that that defence of ‘rights’ is, well, so¬†visceral? Existential, almost, for something that’s actually just an idea? What’s going on there?

[By the way, there’s an additional source of confusion here that may be specific to the English language: ‘right’ as in ‘it’s my right’, versus ‘right’ as ‘factually-correct’, versus ‘right’ as ‘proper’, the socially-proper thing to do. When all those meanings get conflated together, life gets even more, uh,¬†interesting…]

So try this, as not so much a thought-experiment as a feeling-experiment. Let’s play around with that headline a bit, and feel what happens:

  • Women’s rights? – just say No!

If that statement makes your blood boil, notice that it does so. In which case, why? And how? – how can a simple statement reduce some people to paroxysms of rage? Notice how you might well want to lash out at me, silence me, all the rest of it – when in reality I’m just the messenger. Ne tirez le pianiste, s’il vous plait? And when you’ve calmed down a bit, notice that you could have read it an entirely different way: for example, that the most important part of ‘women’s rights’ is a woman’s right to say No… in which case, what’s wrong with saying that? Hmm… just what does that tell us about ‘rights’, then?

Anyway, let’s try another version of the headline with a different ‘right’, and see what happens here:

  • Human rights? – just say No!

A bit bland, yes? A bit abstract? ‘Human rights’? – have to think about it, rather than feel it? And why would anyone object to that, anyway? – whatever that ‘it’ might be? Hmm…

Okay, try this one:

  • Right to silence? – just say No!

That one could well feel a bit abstract too – unless you’ve somewhen found yourself on the wrong side of a so-called ‘justice’-system, in which case it won’t be abstract at all… Right, okay, here’s¬†another one:

  • Right to education? – just say No!

This gets a bit complicated, yes? Kind of muddled mixture of trying to think it out, then work out what that negation means, and then the emotions, and so on. But let’s have¬†another one¬†that might have a bit more impact:

  • Right to party? – just say No!

Whatever the¬†Beastie Boys might say, the idea of a ‘right to party’ is not as simple as it looks – especially in any real social context. Likewise this one:

  • Right of way? – just say No!

That ‘right’ can get¬†seriously complicated in a social context, out on the highway – yet notice too the enormous amount of emotion that can get tangled up with that ‘right’ as well? Odd, that…¬†So let’s¬†ratchet it up even more:

  • Right to life? – just say No!
  • Right to choose? – just say No!

Whichever way you’d take it, that one’s really tangled… kind of like there’s a huge emotive polarity there, yet can’t actually get a grip on it? – at least, perhaps not enough grip to work out what to throw at me for saying it, for which of those two phrases, and why? Which should definitely bring us back into ‘Hmm…’ territory, perhaps? Anyway, one final example, just to bring us back down to ground again:

  • Right to high-speed broadband-internet – just say No!

Before you go ‘Huh???’, note that in Finland, access to broadband is a ‘right’ that’s enshrined in law. And in this case I would hope that the “just say No!” part might get you to see what’s really going on here.

The key point is this: rights are a fiction.

They’re a description of a desirable outcome, in an idealised world that may never exist in the real one.¬†A map of an imagined territory.

That’s it.


Which means that all that emotion is a bit odd… but that’s something we can come back to later. First, let’s deal with this fact about fiction.

Rights are a fiction

Rights‘ are a fiction; responsibilities are real. The desired-outcome of each so-called ‘right’ can only arise when someone takes responsibility for enacting the conditions to create that outcome (a point that should be obvious when we think about ‘the right to high-speed broadband’). In a societal context, each ‘right’ is actually created by a complex interweaving of mutual responsibilities – so it’s actually the responsibilities that we need to pay attention to here, together with a solid understanding of those mutualities and interlocks, and the social checks and balances and other conditions that support them.

A ‘right’ is just a very simple shorthand way to describe a desirable outcome that arises only when someone – perhaps individually, more usually collectively – enacts a specific interplay of some very complex mutual interlocking responsibilities, under appropriate forms of governance. To ensure that those outcomes actually do occur, we need keep the focus always on the responsibilities, and the mutuality of those responsibilities – and not on the so-called ‘rights’.¬†Given this, though, it’s easy to see that some serious problems are going to arise if anyone thinks that the ‘rights’ are somehow ‘real’ in their own right, and forgets about the existence or mutuality of those real responsibilities that make it all happen.

Part of the difficulty here, of course, is a straightforward map-versus-territory mistake. The ‘right’ is the over-simplified map; the responsibilities are the real-world territory. It’s easy to see that if anyone thinks that the map ‘is‘ the territory, yeah, it’s gonna get messy for a while… Oh well: common-enough kind of mistake for folks to make, anyway.

Yet where the heck does all that emotion come from? – because no-one would doubt that there’s often a lot of emotion there…

Rights and the ‘terrible twos’

Want to know where the emotion really comes from? Next time you hear yourself (or anyone else) talking about ‘my rights’, do you notice the inner two-year-old that’s actually saying those words? A very angry two-year-old, lost in a possessive temper-tantrum, demanding that the world be other than it is – declaiming that it’s everyone else’s fault that it’s not that way? And in its rage, claiming that it has the ‘right’ to punish those others for failing to deliver what it wants?


A two-year-old wants the world to happen in the way that it wants: it has a very clear sense of a personal right to that desired condition of the world.¬†There’s no concept of mutuality here:¬†it sort-of understands the notion of Self, and of separation of Self relative to the world, yet still views everything ‘Other’ as a semi-autonomous extension of its will – everything not-Self as subject of Self. (Yep, we’ll see that word ‘subject’ coming back again later.) So when it wants an outcome that it cannot immediately grab for itself (i.e. Other-as-object), it asserts that it’s only¬†others – the possessed not-Self, its ‘subjects’ – that are responsible for delivering that outcome. It has a ‘right’¬†to an absence of responsibility, an ‘anti-responsibility’;¬†responsibility is always Somebody Else’s Problem.

So we’ll see an awful lot of declamation of ‘should‘ coming out of that two-year-old, often accompanied by an awful lot of tears and tantrums; and since there’s such an explicit denial of mutuality, such angry assertion of absence of responsibility, we’ll often see an awful lot of ‘should‘ coming back the other way, trying to reestablish the mutuality, reassert the responsibilities that any human of any age will have in any social context. That often-fraught, often-furious clash of shoulds is what every parent will know all too well as the dreaded ‘terrible twos’…

And¬†that‘s what’s¬†actually going on, underneath, in the background, in almost every aspect of the ‘rights-discourse. It’s not about responsibility: it’s about the¬†evasion of responsibility, a desperate attempt to find some way to convert every difficult choice, every difficult action, into Somebody Else’s Problem.


And evasion-of-responsibility – “any attempt to offload responsibility onto the Other without their engagement and consent” – is the formal definition for another all-too-well-known term:¬†abuse. Evasion-of-responsibility¬†is abuse. And when evasion-of-responsibility ends up somehow being enshrined in law – which it very often is, as we can see very quickly once we start looking¬†with a mutual-responsibilities lens at most forms of law – what we have is not ‘rights’ at all, but full-on state-sponsored abuse, backed by all the societal force of law.


Which just might be why things so often get into such a mess whenever someone introduces the idea of ‘rights’ into the picture…?

What’s actually going on here?

Whenever we come across the notion of rights, what we have in that context are the following:

  1. A description and declaration of a desired social outcome (the purported ‘right’)
  2. A complex set of mutual interlocking responsibilities (the means to deliver the purported ‘right’)
  3. A set of societal checks and balances (to provide governance for the purported ‘right’ and the mutualities that underpin its continued delivery)
    but, all too often:
  4. An evasion of responsibility and/or denial of mutuality, often expressed in practice as systematic Other-abuse.

The first three items are what make the ‘right’ happen; the last item is why¬†it so often doesn’t happen.

And whenever we see a strong focus on the first item – ‘my rights!’ – that somehow fails to¬†acknowledge the matching mutualities – ‘my responsibilities’ – then what we actually have there is not ‘rights’ at all, but¬†active Other-abuse. Which pretty much guarantees that whatever-it-might-be is not going to work.


Yet extremely common. And, because it at first looks like it works, but actually doesn’t, is addictive.¬†Very addictive.

Recognise this yet? In just about everything in our current culture, everywhere around you, at work, at home, everywhere else? And in your own behaviour too?


Yup. This is serious. If you want to understand why so many things are so disastrously wrong in so many aspects of our culture, all you need to do is look at all those so-called ‘rights’.


The subject of rights

Just one more step before we start to sort out the mess. This is around the notion of ‘Other-as-subject’ (which, as you’ll see, will also take us right back to the beginning here, and explain why, even for women, ‘Women’s rights’ is¬†not such a good idea…).

For this we’ll use a Spiral Dynamics lens. (We’ll ignore that model’s theory of social development, which to be frank is just millennialist garbage. Oh well.) This gives us a set of colour-coded values-perspectives, within which we can see who supposedly has ‘the rights’, who doesn’t, and who is deemed to be the ‘subject’ of whom:

  • Beige: ‘Survival’: Self only, no social context, hence neither ‘rights’ nor responsibilities, and no subject
  • Purple: ‘Family/Tribe’: “Mother/Father is right” – all others are subjects of patriarch/matriarch
  • Red: ‘Feudal’: “might is right” – monarch is peak of fealty-tree of overlord-rights (‘down’) versus subject-responsibilities (‘up’)
  • Blue: ‘The Law’: “God/The Law is right” – the purported ‘agents of the Law’ have rights, all others are subjects of ‘the Law’
  • Orange: ‘Democracy’: “individual rights” – all are sort-of-subjects of everyone else
  • Green: ‘Collectivism’: “group rights” – all groups are sort-of-subjects of all other groups
  • Gold/Turquoise/Coral: ‘Systems’: “only responsibilities are real” – no ‘rights’, no ‘subjects’

Although the only values-perspectives that are stable in this sense are the ‘Systems’ group, all of the other values-perspectives can work. In functional form, all of them represent an appropriate context-specific balance of mutual responsibilities: for example, parents will usually take on responsibilities on behalf of the children, and so on. There is, however, some tendency to drop into a ‘racket‘ or codependency in which each party can evade responsibility by blaming the other: those types of social-dysfunctions are all-too-common in all of the non-‘Systems’ values-perspective types.

Yet as soon as the idea of ‘rights versus responsibilities’ comes into the picture – especially when accompanied by any notion that others are the ‘subjects’ of those with ‘rights’ – each structure rapidly becomes dysfunctional in its own way. ‘Rights’ are equated with ‘privilege’ – literally, ‘priority in the law’. Hence¬†in a police-state or a rigid theocracy, for example¬†(dysfunctional-Blue, in Spiral terms), the ‘agents of the Law’ are deemed to be ‘above the Law’: they have the purported ‘right’ to act as they wish, without any mutuality of responsibility to the ‘subject’-population – which gets to be seriously abusive, seriously-quickly, in almost every single case.

Most organisations are still run on what is essentially a feudal model – hence the dreaded org-chart and its ‘report-to’ relationships – with an often-thin overlay of ‘the Law’. Again, it can work: but because of the ‘rights versus responsibilities’ problem and the inherent tendency of a feudal structure to form codependent relationship-pairs (the ‘boss’ blames the ‘workers’, the ‘workers’ blame the ‘boss’, no-one takes actual responsibility for anything), most organisations seem to range between somewhat-dysfunctional to seriously-dysfunctional – a fact reflected in the painful prevalence of Dilbert cartoons…

A typical would-be ‘democratic’ or ‘collectivist’ model starts out with a commitment to full mutuality of responsibilities, which is what actually underpins any notions of ‘universal human rights’ and the like. Yet as described so well in Orwell’s Animal Farm, once the ‘rights’ dysfunction takes hold, this quickly deteriorates into a morass of “some animals are more equal than others”. In¬†the ‘democratic’ model,¬†the assertion is that “I have rights”, whilst in the ‘collectivist’ model it’s more often “we have rights”; and both¬†models assert that only¬†others have responsibility, and in general do not have rights (or at best, rights that are inherently subject to and of lower priority than those of ‘I’ or ‘we’).

Which brings us back to the notion of ‘Women’s rights’.

The wrongs of rights

The notion of ‘women’s rights’ is a very good example (one of many possible examples, I hasten to add)¬†of a ‘collectivist’-model concept of ‘rights’. By definition, it’s exclusive: only women have these rights, they acquire these rights by fact of birth, the rights are not transferable, and, in principle at least, there is no way that anyone from the Other-class can acquire those rights.

[Note that there’s nothing inherently ‘wrong’ with that kind of exclusive-category, of course – it’s just a category. It’s what happens next that gets, uh, interesting…]

In itself, the existence of the category does make sense: clearly there are a few concerns or experiences that are specific to women. Which means that we need to consider specific outcomes around those concerns. Most of the time, then, when people talk about ‘women’s rights’, what they actually means is the desirability of certain outcomes that are, by their nature, specific to women.

(And in case anyone’s still angry at me about the headline for this post, I perhaps ought to emphasise here that to me those outcomes are indeed desirable, for everyone’s benefit, and that achieving those outcomes is extremely important.)

[By the way, that list of items that are ‘specific to women’ does¬†not include sexual assault or domestic assault. In many sub-types of those two categories, women are actually the majority of perpetrators – not victims. (And yes, I have done the meta-analysis on that, several times, as part of my professional work, so I do know what I’m talking about there.) Which means that any claim that women should have ‘special rights’ in those areas solely because they are women is, frankly, a flagrant attempt at yet another form of state-sponsored Other-abuse. Not a wise move, as we’ll see shortly…]

To achieve those outcomes,¬†we need to focus on the mutual responsibilities that make it all happen.¬†But the ‘rights-discourse’ just gets in the way: especially that addictive return to arbitrary assertions of “I have rights, you have responsibilities”.¬†Hence all too easily, all too often, instead of helping something happen, it all just dissolves into a chaotic mutual blame-game, with everyone eventually sidestepping their responsibilities, partly because the mutualities are not acknowledged or enacted, and partly because anyone who does take responsibility for anything will immediately get blamed for everything – which kinda acts as a fairly serious disincentive against doing anything at all.

[Note that this is not specific to ‘women’s rights’ – I’m just using this as a worked-example because its inherent-exclusivity makes it easier to see what goes on in this type of ‘wicked-problem‘ or ‘mess’.]

As someone’s who’s worked professionally in that field from time to time, I can confirm that the whole gender-issues space is riddled with people – most of them women, as it happens, but by no means all – who are utterly addicted to Other-blame. They’ve literally built their careers on it. And it guarantees that things can’t and won’t work – which is then used to justify even more Other-blame, in an all-too-literally vicious cycle. Oops…

[I sometimes describe these people as ‘cuckoos’: “a parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests, that hatch out into monsters that destroy the hosts’ own children”. It’s a bit unkind, perhaps, but it is a painfully-accurate metaphor…]

The tragedy, of course, is that the ‘subjects’ of that relentless Other-blame and Other-abuse will eventually crack – which is how a structurally-abusive version of ‘women’s rights’ in one era will¬†create the conditions for an ever-more-abusive misogyny in the next. That’s why it’s called a ‘revolution’: it goes round in circles… And when everyone in the game is stuck in ‘toddler-mode’, endlessly demanding their ‘rights’ and trying to do so by trying to make everyone else lose, no-one is going win anything. And hence we don’t get the outcomes that we need.¬†Which means that, in this example, ‘women’s rights’ all too easily becomes women’s tragedy – created by self-styled ‘women’s advocates’ themselves.


And because all of this is driven by addiction, there’s no rational way to resolve it. The only viable option is to bypass the whole miserable mess, and reject the entire concept of ‘rights’. Everywhere. Every possible form. Every possible so-called ‘right’. It’s a mistake: so don’t fall for the mistake. Simple as that.

Hence the second half of that headline here: whatever ‘right’ it may claim to be, Just Say No!

Which, of course, leaves the rather important question of what we do next…

Rights without rights

How do we tackle this problem of supporting the desired outcomes of ‘rights’, without resorting to ‘rights’ themselves? For enterprise-architects and others who are charged with designing what is, in effect, a social-architecture, within an organisation or a broader social context, this is a very real and very urgent problem.

So let’s turn the last part of this rather-too-long post into a straightforward how-to on exactly this point.

Jump back for a moment to the ‘What’s actually going on here? subhead. What we saw there was the following:

  • definition – the description of the desired outcome (the ‘right’)
  • means – the delivery-mechanisms, described in terms of interlocking mutual responsibilities
  • governance – checks and balances to ensure it all works, especially over the longer term

And we have the known problem-areas, the symptoms that indicate that delivery of the outcome is at risk:

  • risk-symptoms – evasion of responsibility, denial of mutuality, and/or arbitrary assertion of ‘priority’ or ‘privilege’

And if we phrase it like that – definition, means, governance, risk – it should be clear that it’s actually a straightforward design for service-delivery: little different from any other type of service-design. So let’s tackle it that way.

First, what are the desired outcomes?

We’ll notice straight away that there will be a lot of those in any context, quite a few of which will conflict with each other. Which means we’re going to need some means to help us evaluate priorities between outcomes.

Which is where whole-enterprise architecture comes into the picture, showing us how to identify and define the core Vision or ‘guiding-star’ and its concomitant values.

Once we have those, we then turn to specification, design and evaluation of service-delivery and service-governance.

Which again should be well-known territory for enterprise-architects and the like: it’s about specification, design, protocols, inter-dependencies, coordination,¬†validation, management, and all the other things we need to do to evaluate and ensure service-viability over the longer term.¬†And I won’t write anything more on that here, because it’s all in the books such as Doing Enterprise Architecture and The Service-Oriented Enterprise and Mapping the Enterprise, and in articles on this blog such as ‘Enterprise Canvas as service-viability checklist‘. No big deal, really: just the routine slog of “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”, that’s all.

Which leaves us with the risk-symptom – the tendency to misuse any notion of ‘rights’.

And there’s a really simple answer to that: Just Say No! Don’t allow it to exist, at all, anywhere in the architecture. As soon as anyone makes any mention of ‘rights’, move the discussion straight away to what actually needs to happen:

  • What is the desired outcome? (The ‘right’ is a map of a territory: what’s the territory?)
  • What are the responsibilities that are needed to achieve that outcome? (For enterprise-architects, we would probably phrase that as the services and business-processes that would make it happen.)
  • What are the interlocks and mutualities of those responsibilities? (We would probably talk here about protocols and service-choreography and the like, plus a whole lot about checks-and-balances across the system.)
  • What governance is needed to ensure that everything ‘stays fair’ for all stakeholders – because without it being seen as ‘fair’, it isn’t going work? (That’s what in Enterprise Canvas is the role of the ‘guidance-services‘ – particularly the validation-services – and also the Investor and Beneficiary relationships.)
  • How does all of this link up with and remain aligned to the overall shared-enterprise Vision?

We’ll probably have to recurse or iterate many times through that loop, or parts of that loop – but it’s all straightforward enough, if we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by the fiction of ‘rights’. Rights are a fiction, it’s only the responsibilities that are real:¬†the only way to achieve what we think of as ‘rights’ is to not have ‘rights’.

So again, whenever anyone makes any mention of ‘rights’ – any so-called ‘right’ at all – Just Say No!

Because it really is the only way that works.

2 Comments on “Women’s rights? – just say No!

  1. Tom,
    interesting post, and quite a change of direction, or a refocusing for you at least…
    a few thoughts. i think responsibilities as you have defined them are as fictitious as rights as you have characterise them. both are products of a social arrangement and both are ‘created’ each through performative utterances, promises and demands by sovereigns. there is probably a whole cluster of terms, that are equally groundless but nevertheless entirely intelligible but also undefinable, accountability, authority, sovereignty, property, obligation, justice, fairness, … the list goes on. all seem like fictions in one sense, but are nevertheless the substance of the social, political, legal, moral world.

    I think, that EA, has to actually become more comfortable with such topics, and to become more like the old political economy of earlier ages, to be less wedded to the instrumental paradigm and less enthralled by the achievements of technology, less a variety of engineering.

    Understanding how such ‘fictions’ work together to ground the social world, is i think the missing link in all this. rather than saying no, we should highlight the connections between such notions, and actually say yes-but, yes-and, yes-even-though and so on. i would extend this to the whole modal vocabulary of ‘can’, ‘should’, ‘must’, not to mention notions of ‘ability’, ‘capability’, and ‘obligation’ all require the recognition of a realm over and above the manifest world of the actual – and even the EA obsession with the TO-BE state can only be articulated with respect to this realm.

    the notion of responsibility, i take it is grounded in the obligation to give some account, to explain why and how things turned out how they did. if i am responsible for X, this means only that i am obliged to give an account to the sovereign, ( or to my boss, or the parliment or the local authority), for the state of X. responsibility is not basic and perhaps there is no basis as such for the whole fabric of society – it is an intelligible network. responsiblity may very well be a driver for me in discharging my duty, but it no closer to the core of the social reality than rights, which are after all created through sovereign decrees grounded in notions of legitimate authority and co-determine whole systems of obligations ( and obligations feel like close relatives of responsibilities..)
    so i think your change of direction, could prove very productive indeed, but i also think the way forward is in making talk of rights, responsibilities, etc intelligible, and then go on to present the whole field systematically.
    ps. also, tom check your skype account, i left a message for you a few days ago.

    • Robert – many thanks, of course! There’s so much here that I’ll need to put my responses into several distinct posts…

      Quick pick-ups, with more later:

      – Responsibilities as fictions: yes, of course that’s so, from a technical perspective, anyway. The big difference is that responsibilities are directly actionable; rights are so abstract that they’re actionable only indirectly, usually via actioning responsibilities and the mutualities and interlocks between those social-responsibilities. I’d argue with some of your list of “equally groundless” – some are definitely at different levels of ‘groundlessness’, and som (particularly ‘sovereignty’ and ‘property’ – have huge unaddressed complexities in much the same way as rights; but that’s for another time!

      – “EA has to become more comfortable with such topics” – yes, strongly agree, in fact that’s the whole point of my change of direction, to get these topics more out into the open.

      – “Understanding how such fictions work” etc – yep. That whole modal vocabulary, for example – most EA is still very stuck in simple binary-logic, when almost all of the business-issues are much more modal.

      – “I think the way forward is making talk of rights, responsibilities more intelligible” – that’s what I’m aiming to do here (though at the moment perhaps seeming to make it more complicated for most folks? ūüôĀ )

      – re Skype: I’m on Skype only erratically these days (i.e. when I remember to turn it on…) – if you want to chat/DM via Skype, it’s probably best to send me an email first, because that’s the only thing I do see regularly (though often with an hour or so’s delay…)

      Many thanks, again – more later.

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