Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Fifth Principle

This originally appeared in Outwords, April 2010

The fifth principle of the Unitarian-Universalist Association calls us to affirm and promote “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Democracy, of course, is one of our contemporary secular deities.  Much like the “God” of previous epochs, democracy is seen as universally positive and as having a right to dominion over all peoples.  In the past we would invade countries and murder and enslave their populace in order to “save their souls” and convert them to “the one true religion.”  Nowadays we are much more evolved and enlightened as a people, and we no longer wreak havoc among the poorer countries of the globe in the name of “God.”  Enlightened as we are, we now bomb, maim and kill people in far away countries in the name of Democracy and in order to convert them to the one true political system.  As the old man said, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” 
We seem to take it for granted in this country that we live in a democracy.  This proposition, however, I find rather dubious.  For most of us, it seems, the actual practice of democracy takes place on one day, every couple of years.  But outside of election-day the vast majority of our day-to-day lives seem to me to be carried on in anything but a democratic fashion.  At work, for instance, most of us are required to give up, at least while on the clock, the right of free speech (if you don’t believe this, try talking about your wages with a co-worker).  Unless we are at the top of the workplace pecking order, we are probably rarely asked to participate in the decision making processes of the place in which we spend a majority of our waking life.  If we are at the top of the pecking order the situation isn’t much better, as we’re asked to act, essentially, as a type of minor autocrat.  
In the larger economy too, outside individual workplaces, there is little that resembles any sort of democratic process.  While taking my economics degree, one particularly silly professor claimed that a capitalist economy was, in fact, a species of democracy: “dollar democracy,” where everyone gets to vote with their dollars.  As any thinking organism must soon realize, though, this set-up is a democracy only if you yourself happen to be an actual dollar bill.  Then, indeed, you have just as much say in the economy as everyone else (i.e. as all the other dollar bills).  However, if you have the misfortune to be a Human being, instead of a dollar bill, the capitalist system appears anything but democratic.  In short, our economic system is undemocratic because power is unequally distributed among the members of our society.  The economic system responds only to the demands of those with the dough, and those without any may as well not exist. 
Democracy relies on open communications between members of a group.  Open communication is only possible between equals.  In situations of power imbalance, those with less power end up lying to those above them; telling them what they want to hear and generally brown-nosing in order to gain a higher position and more power for themselves.  Because of this, hierarchical authoritarian systems always end up making quite poor decisions, as much the information received by the man at the top (it is still generally a man) is misinformation and flattery.  The pragmatic justification for democratic decision making is that by encouraging all members to participate in the process, decisions can be reached which take into account all the information available to the group, rather than just that information available to one member of the group.  
Truly democratic processes require equality between group members, which means that in order for any democracy to function, each member of the group must feel themselves equal with all other members; not better and not worse.  This is why the fifth principle first mentions the right of conscience and only then democracy.  The right of conscience means that we don’t have to agree with each other; that you and I can disagree without either of us trying to impose our opinions on the other.  If I feel secure in my value as a member of the group and affirm the value of the other members, even those with whom I may disagree on some issues, then and only then can dialogue take place.  Dialogue is the foundation of democracy.
We do not have a culture of dialogue in this country, only a culture of debate.  Rather than engaging in respectful conversation with one another, we are presented with two slightly different proposals over which we are expected to argue.  Whoever argues the best (or most vociferously) gets to implement their policies for awhile, until somebody else can out-debate and/or out-insult them.  No matter what side of the political spectrum they are on, most people seem to be of the opinion that those who do not share their views are either evil or stupid.  This attitude is at least a prevalent on the left as on the right.  This is a childish attitude, however, and not suited to adults (who seem to be a dying breed in this country) and can never lead to dialogue, only dissension.  So, if we are truly concerned with democracy, we must be willing to grant to all equality with ourselves.  The minute that we think that another person is evil or stupid or crazy we immediately cut ourselves off from the possibility of communication and dialogue with them and undermine any chance of real democracy. 

No comments: