What happens when we can longer find the moral arguments to defend democracy?

The following was developed in response to an exchange I had with Paul Bernal on his excellent blog about the UK government’s proposed surveillance powers.  In the discussion in previous class on the issue, a student from the former soviet states in Central Asia expressed concern about trusting the government with surveillance powers.  In sum, he expressed the view that you could not trust the government.

The UK students in the class were unable to raise strong arguments in defence of their democracy or their government. They just resorted to saying that their government was different.

The incident itself was not noteworthy, as the class was not focused on discussing politics or political theory.  Instead, what struck me about the exchange was the deeper question.

How do we educate our young, our students, to understand and defend democracy?

The students in that class represent future voters and citizens within the democracy.  Their choices, attitudes, and actions will decide the democratic future.  Those choices, attitudes, and acts will often be transmitted and translated through politicians. However, democracy’s vibrancy depends on more than politicians.

We have to carry the responsibility.  We have to engage in the conversation each day. Are we ready for it?  Can we do it? If we were in another country, could we defend democracy? Would we have the arguments political and moral to make the case for democracy?  If not, why not? The question is whether we, in our families, and in our schools educating our children and our student to be good citizens?  Michael Sandel raised these questions and others in his Reith Lecture series A New Citizenship 2009.  He was arguing for a new politics of the common good. He said that this was one driven by citizens engaged in democratic argument.

“[W]hen we engage in democratic argument, the point of the activity is critically to reflect on our preferences, to question them, to challenge them, to enlarge them, to improve them.”

His hope and his vision is one that is easy to embrace, but are we prepared, are we able, to engage in such a democratic argument?  I do not mean, are we PhDs in political science spouting Socrates and Rousseau. What I mean, are we in a place to reflect on our own preferences, to search our democratic souls, to listen to what is being said and critically reflect it within our own lives?

Some would argue that twitter and other social media fora allow the democratic debate to exist.  Yet, I would suggest the opposite.  These are usually places to broadcast but rarely for dialogue or debate.  Soon, the 140 characters turns into for or against with no hope for nuance or understanding. I am not suggesting that we return to some halcyon period; say Athens, or Rome, or Paris where democratic debate flourished.  I am asking where it is occurring today, if it is not occurring in the schools.  If a class full of students, who are being educated, cannot muster such an argument, what chance do we have in the public domain?  What chance do we have in the public square?  If we are not equipped with some ideas, some passions, about democracy and its rectitude, how can we defend it?

Is democracy worth defending?

The question seems to follow if we cannot develop a democratic argument.  Perhaps, we cannot defend democracy because it is not worth defending.  Perhaps, we have passed into a post-democratic age in which our opinions will be manufactured for us so that we can simply endorse any which match our pre-selected preferences.

One has to note the hyperbole around recent political initiatives such as ACTA, SOPA, and PIPA.  In the ensuing debate, there was little evidence that most participants had read the bills, or understood what they were trying to do.  Instead, there appeared to be a small source of information, which most commentators repeated, retweeted, or repackaged. To be sure, information is needed to make an informed choice. Yet, what was clear is that most people were taking the opinions given to them.  Few, beyond policy think tanks or activists (pushing their own agenda) seemed to engage directly with the bills or the process around them.  The tendency was to accept the hyperbole that these were “censorship”, they were “corporate”, they were “against freedom”.  How many people had made up their own minds or simply accepted what was given?

Instead of democracy, we seem on the cusp of a digital demagoguery. Instead of the best debate, it is the loudest voices, the most followers, the most retweets, the most klout that determines whether an idea or proposal is “good” or “bad”.  If we were to resist, how would we do it?  Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps we have gone past the point of return because we cannot talk publicly about these concerns because the market place does not allow it.  Instead, we appear already full and thus unable to absorb a new idea.  Yet, the issue is not whether we are listening; it is whether we can sustain the argument for ourselves.  I am not suggesting we remove our proxies, people who have views that promote ours, I am suggesting that we have to understand what motivates those proxies before we can have them as our proxies. We have to make the argument for ourselves before we can accept it.

Is technology our savior or our master? Will democracy decide?

Finally, the issue of technology needs to be addressed. Technology, as such, is neutral. It is a tool.  It can be used for good or evil purposes.  What make it dangerous are the people who use it. What is dangerous, at least according to Hobbes and those who founded modern liberalism, are people? Because people are dangerous, we need to create institutions and societal edifices to restrain those people. To put it succinctly, if all men were angles we would not need government (pace James Madison).  Thus, the problem of surveillance is not the technology nor is it the government.

We need to stay vigilant, because that is the price of freedom.  Technology may enable that or it may hinder it, but it will not change it. The problem is whether the people in government can be trusted. Most importantly, are we sufficiently vigilant about how the people in government are encultured and educated that they are less likely to turn despotic and ultimately tyrannical? Things can change and we can change things, if armed with the right knowledge, but that requires us to move beyond mere opinion.  If we are to move beyond mere opinion, which dominates the Twitter/blogosphere, we need to educate ourselves.

Perhaps instead of a wakeup call, it is time we went back to school and learned why a democracy is worth defending.  Perhaps, we may find that it is not, but we will never know until we test our arguments, democratically.

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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