Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sufficiently Benign

The freedom to entertain and express opinions, however offensive to others, has been regarded since Locke in the 17th Century as the pre-condition of a political society.
Orthodoxy, conformity and the hounding of the dissident define the default position of mankind, and there is no reason to think that democracies are any different in this respect from Islamic theocracies or one-party totalitarian states.
A Point of View: Is democracy overrated?
The answer to the question is, of course, "yes." "Democracy;" which we normally take to mean a representative democracy, or a republic; is overrated. And it is such for the same reason that a lot of other things are overrated - in the eyes of its advocates, it's capable of being all things to all reasonable, intelligent and sensitive people.
And while we are willing to accept that democracy goes hand in hand with individual freedom and the protection of human rights, we often fail to realize that these three things are three things, not one, and that it is only under certain conditions that they coincide.
Here in the United States, especially for the more politically conservative, the understanding is not even so much that these three things go hand in hand, but that democracy creates the other two out of whole, enlightened, cloth. Pointing out that Americans have, throughout much of their history, have preferred to purchase individual freedom and rights for themselves by taking them from others is viewed as an unfair and unwarranted criticism of a great and unfailingly noble people, disseminated by the envious or spiteful who seek to undermine not only a belief in democracy, but the (self-serving) best social order the world has ever known. But the simple fact is that simply having a system of government in which individuals, directly and/or through appointed representatives, can influence the rules of the social order does not make those individuals any more enlightened, or any less self-serving, than anyone else in the world. (Of course, we all understand this - of those that we disagree with. The alleged Rachel Maddow quote {which I still think is bogus}: "Here's the thing about rights. They're not supposed to be voted on. That's why we call them rights," is often trotted out in an effort to protect things that are felt to be too objectively correct to be subject to the whims of those less enlightened than themselves.)

The understanding that free thought, non-conformity and dissent are non-threatening is inobvious. Many of us have a certain dependence on (and thus, an interest in) a given social order, and therefore would be threatened in some way, were it to collapse. And for the most part, we do not understand social order as infinitely resilient. In this respect, enlightenment is not the understanding that anything is permissible. It is the understanding that anything that is sufficiently benign is permissible and a willingness to accept certain personal and collective risks in expanding the set of actions, ideas and opinions that should be considered sufficiently benign. Democracy does not, in and of itself, create this willingness. Instead, it widens the pool of people who are entitled to participate in the determination.

Commitments to individual freedom and human rights represent a tension that surrounds the discussion of the sufficiently benign, but they do not move in lockstep. While there is a point at which greater individual liberty curtails human rights and vice versa (This boundary may be considered the furthest extent of the sufficiently benign.), it is quite possible to reduce one without a corresponding increase in the other. Autocrats and dictators, while often assumed to be inherently overzealous in curtailing the sufficiently benign in order to protect their own narrow interests, are no less human than the rest of us, and are often (well respected, at least at one time) members of the societies that they rule. Democracy would draw from those same populations to "crowdsource" the required extents of human rights and individual liberties. It's a mistake to assume that just because factions among them are capable of electoral victory, that they lack narrow interests of their own.

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