March 17, 2017 by Cláudia
Democracy is an ambivalent concept with unclear delimitations. Where do we draw the line? The answer is not obvious and perhaps there’s really no definite answer at all. A recurring debate revolves around whether or not should a democracy englobe undemocratic sentiments. Whether it is contradictory to do so or, on the contrary, it is contradictory to reject different ways of thought.
What sparked me to write this post was a controversial event that happened very recently in my University: a speaker was insulted and threatened to the point of cancelling his conference because he would be tackling Trump, Brexit and Marine Le Pen and it was assumed he was going to do it from a fascist perspective. Roaring democrats acclaimed this decision, stating that “fascism is dangerous and we cannot let it seep into our democracy“. It was acknowledged that this was against freedom of speech but accepted that freedom of speech could be limited when this meant a “threat” to democratic values.
This was not an isolated event: all the time people violently attack (mostly verbally but sadly not only) whoever says something that goes against their beliefs. Atheists make fun of religious people (“schizophrenics!”), vegans treat meat eaters as terrible people, sometimes with terrible violence and aggression, and the same happens between left and right political inclinations. Now, I know it’s part of the human nature to resist difference. I know it’s not easy to believe something is right and have to accept other people believing the opposite. But isn’t that part of living in a democracy? Wasn’t freedom the main value we were looking for when we conceived it?
What’s the difference between a fascist society in which ideas of freedom were forbidden and a democratic society in which non-democratic ideas are not accepted? I know this can be hard to accept at first – I, too, believe some ideas are wrong. But if we claim to be a democracy, shouldn’t we allow everyone to speak their minds? In the specific case of my University, what justifies cancelling a conference? Couldn’t we just not go to see it? Why do we have to limit other people’s freedom just because we don’t agree with them? It is my personal decision to not go to the conference since I don’t believe in a racist discourse and it would also be my freedom to go to the conference and in the end contest what the speaker said. But to forbid a person to speak his mind is to interfere with other people’s freedom and, to me, that is an undemocratic attitude in itself.
I know how this can cause some resistance at first. Am I supposed to let other people have ideas that completely go against what I envision for the society? In terms of political identity, a lot of people would say Yes, I know that my interpretation is better and it would be better for everyone if this is how the world is. But if we think about it in other terms we can understand how unsensible and unsustainable this attitude can be.
Let’s start by thinking of my personal case: I am a strong supporter of animal rights. I don’t think we should eat them, kill them, use them for entertainment or exploit them in any other way. This is my personal belief. But I would want it to be universal. I think the world would be a better place if it was universal. So, by the same logic, I would forbid everyone to eat animal products, I would forbid all zoos, circus with animals, aquariums and so on. Would everyone agree with this? Of course not! Because even though I believe it would be the right thing to do, I can only control my own actions and use the means I have available to influence other people’s actions. I can’t impose my beliefs on everyone else because, even though I think people would be better off, it is something that has to come from the inside and not something that can be imposed.
Another example would be in terms of consumerism and waste production: I have read a lot about it and I have made a lot of changes in my own life to reduce my waste production. If the world doesn’t change drastically the way it deals with Earth we will probably not have any more Earth to live in. The irresponsible way in which most people live today is actually harming me – with pollution, cancerous in every product, chemicals in my food etc. But even though the whole world would be better if everyone acted in an environmentally conscious way, I cannot possibly punish everyone for not doing as much as me (just as people that are doing more than me should respect my own path and that it’s a journey).
These would be the changes that I would impose, and most people would not be happy. Probably not because they don’t care about animals or because they don’t care about our planet’s health, but mostly because no one likes to be told what to do. Other people would impose things that I probably wouldn’t be happy about and even if they are positive changes to the world I have to reach my own conclusions in my own time.
And that also applies to democratic values. If a democracy is truly a democracy, then it should accept that some people will have different values and opinions. To be tolerant just as long as other people agree with you is easy. The real challenge of democracy is to give voice to everyone. To continue this mentality of not accepting anything that goes against democratic values will lead to a political correctness dictatorship.
Everyone has its own path and story. Everyone develops in their unique and individual way. Everyone has its own reasons to believe in something and to have certain values. And everyone grows. So we need to respect that we are all in different stages of growth, that we are all people trying to figure out what we believe in and who we are. Trying to forbid someone from expressing his opinion will only lead to more antagonism and fanatism. Some people argue that letting him speak could lead to the spread of his ideas. And it could. But to antagonise him and offend him as a person for his ideas will have no other effect other than radicalise what he thinks even more. Because we don’t think clearly when we’re attacked. We go in defence mode.
If we are truly democratic, then we can attack ideas without attacking people. We can disagree with someone but still let him speak his mind. We can acknowledge our differences but focus on what we share. I haven’t met one single person with whom I didn’t share anything. And I’ve met people that have very different values from mine.
It’s time we stop focusing on what separates us and start focusing on what unites us.