Sunday, 9 October 2016

On majorities or why voting is the least important attribute of citizens

In 2007, at the start of my first class on political communication, the professor began her lecture with the statement that “As political scientists, you fill find that the majority is most often wrong”. 

Beyond the wow factor, there is considerable truth in the statement, and this became more and more obvious with Brexit and the spectacular assent of populists like Donald Trump in the US. What is most surprising are not the events in themselves, but the utterly deficient understanding of democracy that became blatant as a reaction to them. While some doubtlessly rejoiced at the decision of the predominantly English working class to remove the United Kingdom from the united Europe, reactions from those opposed to the decision of the overall majority could be summarized by the phrases „We need a better majority (that we need to create)” and „we need better education (to create that majority)”. However, better education does not create a better overall majority. Well educated people are those capable of thinking for themselves and articulating their own opinions. These opinions are, however, as diverse as each individual, so there are rarely educated people that can agree to the fullest extent on anything but the most basic of things, and this is assuming that they are all pursuing the same overall goal. At best, what education does is create better individuals (which is by all means welcome and necessary) but not better majorities. In fact, the more educated a population is, the more diverse it’s opinions are, and the smaller the groups that can agree on anything become. This holds especially true the more you increase specialization, simply on the virtue that nobody can be an expert in everything and that there are always many more things that a person does not know than things that they do. As such, in any decision on policy that is to be taken democratically, there are always the opinions of a small but highly specialized minority that have greater grounding in reality than the opinions of any other group. In other words, on just about every conceivable issue, the opinion of the majority is much more likely to be wrong than the opinion of a specialized minority. So what does this say about our democracy today?

In broad terms, the way we practice democracy today is deeply flawed. Majority-based mechanisms such as some elections and referenda reduce complex issues to binary choices (yes/no, leave/remain, party A/party B, etc.) and allow the opinions of a majority – however slim – to completely override the opinions of any minority group. „That’s how democracy works” some would say. But democracy is not about the majority. It never was. „Democracy” means „power to the people”. In ancient times „the people” was only a small landed minority of men who could claim to be citizens (the demos). Today, “the people” is everyone: the majority AND the minority. So power should be exercised by everyone and in the interest of everyone. As such, the guiding principle of a democracy is not the majority, nor even the vote, but reaching a compromise. In fact, the best way to understand liberal democracy is as the political system in which decisions are taken after considering every point of view expressed. This is why proportional representation exists, this is why freedom of expression is so highly regarded in liberal democracy, and this is why anti-democratic forces appeal to a majority and often demonize minority groups, be they political, ethno-religious, social, professional or of any other kind. The very insistence of liberalism as a whole on individual over collective rights can itself be explained through the desire to protect a minority (the individual) from the majority, whatever that may be given the context.

Any country where any given minority is not allowed power proportional to its number of supporters cannot be considered a genuine liberal democracy. Any country where the opinions of a minority are disregarded entirely in favour of a majority cannot be considered a genuine liberal democracy. This does not mean, however, that a democracy caters only to the few. Quite on the contrary, a democracy will seek to cater to the needs and interests (not always the will) of a majority on any given issue, but it will do so in a way that tries to give some consideration to other opinions as well. The key here is, once again, compromise. This is, in fact, how parliaments are supposed to work: majorities needed to pass certain bills are meant to be formed on a case-by-case basis between various interest groups following negotiations and amendments that grant something to everyone. To paraphrase author Cristopher Paolini, a good compromise leaves all parties equally dissatisfied.

Referenda and binary types of elections take away nuances and simplify complex issues until a compromise in no longer possible (after all, one cannot both leave the EU and remain at the same time). Far from being a democratic tool of „empowering the people” these mechanisms only create artificial divides within society and are more akin to populist tools for legitimizing refusal to consider the opinions of perhaps more knowledgeable minority groups.

What, then, can we do about improving our democratic systems? First of all, we can seek to improve the political and decision-making system to better represent the will of constituents. It is not democratic if some opinions are dismissed outright or even banned because they upset or unsettle certain groups. This is also true of extremist opinions, which should be heard and dealt with institutionally (even if the groups themselves are barred from public offices) given that support for such ideas is bound to originate in some other underlying social issue. Ignoring the opinions of extremist groups and the underlying issues around which they frame their identity (via stances such as “no negotiations with terrorists”) has allowed the extremists to champion the framing of issues that society feels strongly about, which has thus far encouraged support for them, and opened the gates of abuse by allowing non-extremist groups to be labelled as terrorist and excluded from formal political channels. In turn, this has historically led to escalating tensions, growing discontent and, eventually, armed uprisings. To be clear, extremist groups (especially those that are openly anti-democratic) should be barred from public office, to prevent them hijacking the system, yet their opinions and demands must not be ignored. The battle with extremism can only be won ideologically, through good policy. Bismark’s Germany, which was a democracy (although not a republic), managed to avoid a socialist revolution precisely because it listened to the worker’s grievances and demands, and enacted social reforms that reduced discontent, thus removing some of the issues that socialist movements used for rallying support. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, which was not a democracy, did not do the same and saw his country turning against him. Decades later, the main political parties of the Weimar Republic considered it wise to accept a Chancellor from NSDAP and saw how a system can be professionally hijacked from within by a small extremist party, because Germany at the time lacked the institutional strength to stop it from happening. In a democracy, majorities do not override the other voices. This is why the events in Turkey since the attempted coup have not been democratic. The will of the majority has been imposed, and a process of silencing all other voices has started. Erdogan claims to represent the will of the people, but he is in fact representing his own will, which is shared by some of the people, since the people are seldom of one mind. Had he been of any another opinion, he certainly would have found another group of supporters to endorse him. It is, however, equally true that extremist groups can and do try to hijack democratic institutions even from within, as cases such as the Nazi party show, and some great care must be taken to avoid slipping into either one of these traps. Democracy is therefore a balancing act of various and often contrasting opinions, flanked on the one side by the risk of uprising from factions given too little consideration, and on the other by the risk of being hijacked by factions given too much. The wisdom of those offered as leaders by political parties during elections, and the institutional design of the state should reflect this, and be focused on steering clear of such risks.

In a similar fashion to the so-called “tyranny of the majority”, rule by a given minority, no matter how knowledgeable, is far from democratic or desirable. In Romania, for example, the ruling communists (who were a minority at the time of taking power) considered that socialism would bring everyone prosperity, and made policy accordingly, even though the majority of people opposed, say, collectivization. This ignored opposition to forced collectivization even lead to armed resistance in the mountains. Several decades later, the failure of imposed socialism became evident, and was in large part caused by people not behaving as the socialist paradigm expected. Socialism in the radical sense perceived by communists might indeed have brought about prosperity for the whole of society, but only if the members of said society had worked as hard for the common good as they would for their own gain. Such a behavior does not come naturally to most people. Understanding a democracy as a system in which decisions are taken based on compromise means that the groups in charge of making such decisions are themselves willing to compromise and pursue stability over maximization, and the common good over the greater gain. However, this is a decision that must come at the groups’ own volition, not imposed from outside. As such, “improving the majority” might require improving the way we think about human nature itself, and nurturing an environment where personal fulfillment is linked not to maximization of gains but to development of communities.

In this sense, voting becomes the least important attribute of the citizen. After all, voting is done one day every four years, but the citizen remains a citizen every single day. As such, more important than voting is to be well informed, to get involved in civic and community actions (from protesting to clearing snow), to question the authorities about plans to develop your community and to be active as a citizen. If all you do is vote and be passive the rest of the time and detached from political reality, the benefits to your community (and for yourself) will be much smaller than if you never vote but instead take an active part in debates, civic initiatives or collective actions. Ideally, a citizen would be involved in both, within the available time and resource constraints. The way to a better majority starts with an individual pledge to be involved in (or to form) the network of people that can be partners of the authorities (or adversaries if need be) for better governance.

Societies change over time, and what emerges is determined by popular beliefs, factual truths, and policy. To make policy based solely on popular belief is, needless to say, foolish. To make policy based solely on factual truth is impractical, given how hard the truth is to determine oftentimes, or dangerous if it goes too much against popular beliefs. In other words, people will fight for ideas they believe in, even if those ideas have no basis in reality, so it would be foolish to elaborate policy that does not take such ideas into account. For example, Japan’s attempts at rapid modernization lead to an armed uprising of samurai wanting to preserve their old privileges. To encourage peace and minimize destruction, the government eventually reached a compromise by incorporating former samurai into high offices, and integrating some aspects of the former society (such as Bushido) into the new one. The same pattern can be seen in France during the Revolution, in post-revolutionary Russia, and in many other cases where compromise between progressives and conservatives was needed to avoid or to end conflict. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, the majority is most often wrong, yet this does not mean that their voice should be overlooked and replaced solely with expert opinion. If that were the case, then experts would be the only ones able to vote. Indeed, the majority might support hateful, discriminatory or even murderous policies, but a truly democratic framework is one where such ideas can be mitigated institutionally, and their causes addressed rather than ignored, suppressed or even persecuted. This requires not only a genuine commitment to democracy, but also a culture and an institutional framework focused on compromise rather than majorities, addressing causes rather than mitigating effects and, perhaps most of all, the courage to accept small steps rather than large strides in a direction that is most often uncertain.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

On the burning of Sodom

Let’s be honest, Sodom was not burned because the degradation of morality had led to homosexuality, nor was it because the faith had been forgotten, given that the inhabitants of Sodom could still recognise when they were visited by an angel of God. Sodom burned because, upon setting their eyes on the angel, the people of Sodom could only manifest their appreciation of its beauty in a carnal manner. 

They tried to rape God’s emissary. If you try to rape the ambassador of China for example, it is quite likely that more than a few of your cities will burn. This is not an issue of homosexuality, since all angels are genderless, asexual. In this case the crime was rape.

Moral degradation means falling back to an animalic state, foregoing all that makes you human. One of the things that separate humans from animals, indeed one o the most powerful, is the capacity for self-restraint. Humans are different because they can control their base instincts and their animal urges. Without this self restraint, every man would go about raping 5 or 6 women per week, not counting all of the murders, robberies and other such antisocial behaviour. In the case of Sodom, the inhabitants had grown so decadent that they could no longer show restraint and knew no other way to appreciate beauty than carnally. For this reason, and likely none other, they were deemed vermin, and were treated as such.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Why wisdom should replace religion

Let's be honest, we have too little wisdom and too much religion. As explained before, wisdom is an underrated virtue, whereas religion is, bluntly put, faith turned into politics. Neither wisdom nor faith lead to murder. Here, then, is an argument why wisdom should replace religion.

Short story: Because it does not focus on the destination (i.e. what is after death or what is the point of all this) but rather on the journey there. Since nobody KNOWS the answer to any fundamental question, those who seek wisdom know not to listen to anybody claiming to know it. Prophets might claim to know the Truth so as to gain political support, and some might be genuinely convinced in the truth of their beliefs. Yet, in the paradigm of the wise, truth is always a matter of perspective, and the Truth of everything should be pursued individually, because only those who start the journey from scratch can fully understand its meaning.

Texts, legends, stories, rituals, traditions and other such religious practices are merely shortcuts on the path to understanding, and they are misleading. Imagine climbing Mount Everest all the way to the summit. Starting from sea level and reaching the top is a much more spiritual endeavor than parachuting a few hundred meters from the summit. Yes, these few hundred meters are going to be difficult, even with a map, the right equipment, and training. However, you will still have picked up from a shortcut left to you by predecessors. You will trust their judgement and their decisions as to how to reach the summit.

This approach is great for science, as it means you don't have to reinvent the wheel, or map out a new path to reach the summit of Mount Everest every single time. You merely use tried and tested things to create, discover or innovate. Yet it is not the case with religion, nor with wisdom. Any study of religion on the path to Truth relies exactly on questioning and reinterpreting your predecessors' versions of what they believed to be the Truth, in a way that cannot be proven or disproven effectively for lack of a way to measure effects of a particular theory. Religion demands that you believe what others have believed in the past, and accept the answers given to you, even though there is no way to test their validity beyond reasonable doubt. Going back to the metaphor, it is akin to making you use wooden wheels to get around, even if there are no trees where you live.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is all about rediscovering the wheel with every generation or climbing Mount Everest without any shortcuts. The point is not to reach the goal, to find the Truth, but to pursue the goal, to experience the journey... to craft your own wheel. This is the only way one can shape their own identity. There is no satisfaction in being dropped off by helicopter on the summit of Mount Everest, any more than there is in being told what to believe. Yet journeying there, feeling every footstep, seeing every sight, is the true prize. Wisdom is not about finding answers, but pursuing them. Truth is in the pursuit, not the destination, because the destination is irrelevant. Say you are told the Truth at a young age. What, then would be the satisfaction in life? What would you live for? What if knowing the Truth is the same as not knowing it? Nobody knows. And because nobody knows, wisdom should take the place of religion, and each person should find their own beliefs.

What kind of appreciation would you have for a Truth that took no effort to discover? Similarly, what faith can you have in a Truth delivered to you? It is not your Truth, but that of whoever believed it. Having a message appear to make sense to you is no reason not to pursue your own Truth. Who knows... in place of the wheels you were told to use, you might just discover wings.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

On idiots

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has - are words attributed to Margaret Meade. That is all they are... just words. Some live by them, most nod their heads and agree, then make up excuses not to show up at the next rally, not to do or say things differently. Most agree that the streets should be clean, then throw the first wrapping or piece of plastic on the ground  to avoid holding it in their hands to the nearest bin. Same with parking, cleaning up after your dog or enacting legislation... or any rule really - It's good as long as it is in my favor or as long as someone else does it for me

To those who are against protesting because it never changes anything: You are all idiots in the most basic sense of the word ("idiotas" in old Greek meaning one who withdraws from public life).

Why is it that whenever you mention protesting for a change to the system, the first reaction you get is that protesting never changes anything and that only a fool would try to change the system? 

The system changes all the time! But idiots never notice or never give it a second thought, worried about something trivial or cosmetic. Whenever a new policy is enacted or law passed that changes the rules of the game, it usually appears so natural that you never give a second thought to it or its implications. The government is always changing the rules of the game to favor itself and to leave you out of it, especially if the constitution does not account for whatever it is that’s changing. If, for example, your constitution was written when there were no computers or internet, then whatever freedom of speech or privacy you are guaranteed in the constitution might not find itself applied to the digital realm. That is why, for example, no country allows the postal service to read the content of your correspondence, but even the most developed and consolidated democracies have been OK with reading your e-mails in recent years.

Changing the system is not some ideal act that hipsters and anarchists wet dream about. It’s a necessary update. If you think that some old people from the 90s (1990s, 1890s or 1790s) knew better about your world than political activists today do, then you’re the problem. Those people were the activists of their time, the "anarchists" who went against the establishment. New realities mean that you NEED to change in order to adapt. You couldn’t live today according to the laws of Hammurabi, could you? No, and the reason you don’t is because someone went and changed those laws to suit the new realities. Finland and Estonia guarantee broadband access in their constitutions because this is the reality they want to live in. They don’t care what vision someone had in the 90s, this is a different time with different problems. They also didn’t wait for some global disaster to change their ways. They were simply aware of the world they lived in and decided to tweak their systems in response. It’s called ‘forward thinking’ and it’s something governments are generally bad at. That is why you need activism. This is how change happens in any meaningful way. The state or the "establishment" does not care about development as much as about stability and order. True change does not come without forcing a few hands.

To protest is therefore a duty... not every day, not all the time, but for fuck's sake, get off your ass ONCE IN A WHILE and make it known what the world you want to live in is like! Waiting for politicians to act or for others to act for you because you pay taxes is like waiting for your boss to send you on vacation without requesting it. It doesn't happen until you are literally one foot in the grave!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

On parenting

Let’s be honest… Most people are bad parents. I say this not because every human residue is allowed to reproduce (or is even encouraged to do so) but because few, if any, parents have any clue what a good parent is supposed to do. Sure, they might know how to raise a child, as one would raise a cow, but childrearing is about more than keeping them alive and well until they’re old enough to refuse to vote. Each interaction you have affects the way they perceive life and the world at large, and some parents know nothing but to replicate what was done to them or do what they wanted to be done to them. Poverty, lack of time, lack of education or emotional baggage you have from growing up is not an excuse to be a shitty parent. Nobody is forcing you to have kids if you are in any of these situations and nobody is encouraging you to experiment with your kid by turning them into a champion of your own failures. Bad parenting starts at conception and can continue even after death.
If you’re reading this, the next part might not apply to you, but it does apply to a damagingly high number of twats who believe having a kid is like owning a car.

Here is some common sense:

1.       Be more than just a provider. If you are too: busy, awkward, lame, outdated, far away, dumb, scared or arrogant to talk to your kid long enough to earn their trust and know their problems, you are a bad parent. Trust is not given by default just because of the title ‘parent’. Your kid is a person, not a pet or a chicken in the barn. Putting food on the table and a roof over their heads is not enough to qualify as good parenting. If providing for your kid is such a chore that you literally cannot invest the time or energy to befriend them, maybe being a parent is not your thing.

2.       Explain stuff. Shit like ‘because I said so’ or ‘just do as you’re told’ make you more than a bad parent, it makes you a shitty person. Yes, kids can be snotty and annoying as an itch you can’t scratch… that’s no reason for you to be the same. Kids are not dumb, they will understand if you explain stuff to them. If my dog can understand that she is not to bark in the house, your kid can understand when it is inappropriate to raise their voice or why they should not eat dirt.
Whatever question your kid might have is no harder to answer and explain than what side the toothpaste comes out. If they do ask hard meaningful questions that make you think, congratulations, you have a bright kid, don’t kill that curiosity. A kid once read the word ‘homosexual’ in a movie subtitle and asked his mom what that meant. It may be tough to explain it to an 8 year old, but ‘a man who wants to marry another man’ is definitely a better answer than ‘go to bed now!’, which just kills curiosity and makes the kid unwilling to ask you anything in the future. The thought process is: ‘Being sent to bed is punishment. I am getting punished for asking what that word meant. That must be a bad word. But if it’s a bad word, why was it on TV? Why were they watching? Why can they watch and not me?’ etc. Notice the ‘me’ vs ‘them’ dichotomy? That’s what happens when you pull rank instead of trying to explain stuff.  See point 1. If you won’t explain stuff about the bloody world you birthed your kids into, then maybe you’re not cut out to be a parent.

3.       Learn to be assertive. Kids can be difficult, yes, not just in their teen years (hell, I remember myself back then) but they do understand authority, even if they question it. Learn the difference between assertive and threatening. One will earn their respect, the other will make them hate you.

4.       Ask questions. In addition to helping you bond with your kid, this also makes them think. Ask them anything: ‘What do you think God is?’, ‘Why is blue your favorite color?’, ‘How do you think fish breathe underwater?’ … and let them figure it out for themselves. This is the foundation of education and this is a skill they will use in life. Don’t take the easy way out by telling them what to be and what to think because they may not question anything you’ve told them, not even in their rebellious stage. This leads to the last point.

5.       Take the way best for your kid in the long run. This implies that you think and assess what they get out of each and every interaction with you. Taking the easy way out is the coward’s way and it is the cornerstone of shitty parenting. Once you have a kid, your past life is essentially over and never returning. If you understand that, you are on the way to being an at least decent parent.