In fantasy and folklore, we sometimes encounter a kind of fairy (or other supernatural being) who must obey certain rules. Fairies can be dangerous, they’ve got magical powers, and they’re evil enough to hurt or kill humans for sport, but if you’re sufficiently knowledgeable about all the rules, you might still be able to handle them. They might, for instance, try tricking people into signing a contract which seems advantageous at first glance but actually, if you read and correctly interpret the fine print, means that you have to be the fairy’s slave for eternity, give up your firstborn child to the fairy, or something along these lines – but to straight-out violate a contract is impossible for fairies.
As we all know, humans don’t work like that. Suppose that a gym teacher explains to the pupils that they’ll play basketball this class. Lotta, one of the class “dorks”, is happy to hear this, because she plays basketball in her spare time and is quite good at it. The kids are divided into teams and start playing, but popular Pelle can’t stand that Lotta easily dribbles past him. He grabs the ball and runs with it as if it were a rugby game. Pelle’s friends soon follow his example. What should Lotta do? Complain to the gym teacher, of course. But if the teacher isn’t immune to the class dynamics, if he thinks that Pelle and his buddies are a bunch of great guys whereas Lotta is whiny and annoying, he might not listen, but brush her off with a “what’s most important is that you get some exercise and have fun”, and Lotta is dismissed. The gym teacher is no fairy, and the rules of basketball combined with the fact that he said at the beginning of class that they would play basketball cannot magically bind him. At the end of the day, those who hold the power in this situation – Pelle and the teacher – can do as they please.
Legislation and decisions made based on said legislation are also human practices, and will therefore function as in the gym class example, not as in fantasy stories about fairies. However, many people seem to have a hard time understanding this. Christine Bylund discusses this in her doctoral dissertation Anakrona Livsvillkor (in Swedish, unfortunately for my non-Swedish-speaking readers, but it can be bought online or read her as a free pdf for those who know the language Anakrona Livsvillkor ). Swedish law entitles disabled people to the assistance required to live an ordinary life, but when there are cuts in public expenses, we see more and more decisions made where people are denied their legal rights, they might even be denied the assistance required to live in their own apartment, or in worst case scenarios vitally necessary assistance. However, disabled people who have experienced this are often met with incredulous stares. Many people believe that if you’ve been denied your legal rights, this is always possible to fix if only you point this out to the right authority. If the law gives you certain entitlements, they must be provided to you, right? The relevant decision-makers can’t possibly deny you, right?
Of course, it does happen that people get what they’re entitled to by going to some higher authority or court. But even setting aside the fact that not everyone has the required resources (in terms of time and energy, finances etc), there are no guarantees. Regardless of level, your case will be decided by humans, not fairies. When a certain idea – for instance, that “living a normal life” is for normal people, it’s nothing that disabled people can demand as a legal right, it’s down-right unrealistic of them to demand such a thing – is sufficiently wide-spread, when a sufficient amount of people happily and with no sense of shame ignore the letter of the law, it’s possible to have your legal rights denied without being able to do anything about it. Laws only work as intended if they’re backed by norms that are sufficiently wide-spread among those in power.
There’s also a connection here to abortion rights, and the recent decision made by the US supreme court that this is no longer to be considered guaranteed by the constitution. Many have worried for years that this day would come, and for just as long, The Satanic Temple has used this worry to recruit more members and donations. They claim that they can guarantee their members access to free and safe abortions by appealing to the constitutionally protected freedom of religion, and argue that abortions are part of their religion. They’ve never won any of the court cases they’ve started, and very likely never will, but their “fight for abortion rights” is a real cash cow for the organization’s leaders. However, the fact that this scam works when they recruit members and beg for donations, once again seem to depend on the idea that politicians, judges and other high officials work the same way as fairies. If only one finds the right words from the US constitution to recite in court, then abortion rights will magically manifest, regardless of how misogynist and conservative the people involved are. But that’s not how reality works.