Searching for Equal Rights

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Someone searched Google for "do women really enjoy equal rights" and got my Equal Rights and Gay Marriage post. I was wondering what the person was looking for, because that sentence is ambiguous. It could mean "do women really have equal rights?" That's a usage of 'enjoy' that seems to me to be departing from the English language, at least around here, but in parts of the English speaking world, particularly among more educated people, you might see it. I would lean against this interpretation, just because I can't imagine someone wanting to ask that question and wording it that way, but I guess it's possible.

It could also mean "do women really enjoy having equal rights?" or "would women really enjoy having equal rights?" assuming they don't have them. That was my first thought as to its meaning. After reflecting on that for a bit, I realized that there's another divergence of meaning, this time over 'equal rights'. It's not an abiguity, this time, though. The words 'equal' and 'rights' mean the same thing in both cases, but what counts as equal and what counts as rights are matters of debate, and that's why someone might even think to ask the question while others would think the answer is obvious. If certain things count as equal rights, then I don't see why women wouldn't enjoy them. If other things count as equal rights, I can understand why women wouldn't want them forced on them to make them be just like men in every way. Amazingly enough, the post this search led the person to, even though it's about gay rights, does get into that issue a little. If the person read far enough, this badly formed, ambiguous, open rather than quoted, sentence actually might have found the what the search was designed to find. Of course, it was on page two of the Google search (and now isn't even there anymore), so that lessens my surprise a bit.

4 Comments

I don't think the sentence is that ambiguous at all. It's a common convention of language that rights are "enjoyed" when they're possessed. And when it's asked if there's "really" a given right, it typically refers to substantive (or material? my brain just went numb) rather than formal rights. We might say that a woman has a formal right to work when there's no law forbidding her from doing so; to the extent that those in power won't hire her because she's a woman, she doesn't enjoy the substantive right.

I'm not sure what you're getting at. I know full well the differences between the fact of legal and moral rights and the reality that people don't always honor them.

It is a convention of language to say that someone enjoys a right when that right is legally recognized. That convention occurs more often among people who are older, more educated, and perhaps in the more recently British-influenced parts of the English-speaking world.

That doesn't change the fact that the sentence can simply mean "Do women appreciate the things that people call equal rights?", which may be answered in the negative by someone who thinks some of those so-called rights are not rights but a social narrative that harms women and forces them into a masculine mold, e.g. the 1960s second-wave feminist attitude that women should be freed from such things as breast-feeding because men don't have to do it.

Therefore, there is an ambiguity. The sentence as written can simply be asking whether women have rights that are equal to the rights men have, or it could be asking a more sophisticated question about whether the rights people claim are required equality requires are even things women would want.

That doesn't change the fact that the sentence can simply mean "Do women appreciate the things that people call equal rights?"

I suppose so. Conventions and metaphors are always subject to ambiguity.

That convention occurs more often among people who are older, more educated, and perhaps in...British-influenced parts of the English-speaking world.

You're just not used to this phrasing. I hear it plenty (among my 20-something american pals and associates).

I love disagreements over tiny, tiny things like this. Good post!

I'm used to it. I see it in writing frequently, and I've heard it on TV and in the mouths of people I know. It just seems to me that it's used more among people who learned Queen's English than among Americans, and it seems to be more common among those who are older and those who are more educated.

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