Tag Archives: democracy

Questioning free speech

Too often over the last year I’ve seen ‘free speech’ used to silence argument. Most problematically, those of us who defend human rights are told we have to be inclusive and tolerant of hate speech, or we aren’t really tolerant at all and the left is one big hypocritical lie. Or we’re told that by being inclusive we’re supporting Muslim fundamentalists, as though there is no scope for nuance in any of this.

“I may not like what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

Now, when it comes down to ‘like’ I’m fine with this. I don’t need to like anyone else’s ideas or agree with them. You may favour a different actor to play Batman. You may hate a book I loved, support a different political party, etc etc. But there is a line, and on the other side of that line is speech that isn’t ok. Not matters of taste and preference, but talk aimed to destroy the rights, freedoms and lives of people. You don’t like gay porn? Fine, by all means say so and don’t watch it. You don’t like gay people? I find that weird and prejudiced, but there we go. I won’t like you, and we’re still at the ‘like’ level. You announce that gay people should be punished for being gay? We now have an issue over your ‘right’ to free speech. Feel free to swap in any minority group, women, any pro-abuse or pro-exploitation talk, and any talk of eco-suicide being somehow desirable, or other living things being expendable for human profit, and I’ll take issue.

What we’re talking about here isn’t just hot air. ‘I don’t like’ is free speech – it may be vile and uncivilized, but it is just speech and personal opinion. As it happens, I don’t like right wing supporters. As soon as that speech becomes a call for action, it changes. I don’t want to see people lose their rights, dehumanised, made more vulnerable. There’s a lot of other hateful outcomes I don’t want either. If someone is calling for an action I would fight against, I’d rather fight it at the talking stage – it’s better that way. Human rights do not award a select few the ‘right’ to diminish others. Refusing the idea that some should have the right to dominate and punish others over matters of difference is not an attack on the ‘rights’ of a would-be oppressor and I’m tired of seeing it suggested otherwise.

Free speech doesn’t mean a right to be listened to, taken seriously or supported. It does in fact mean that anyone else who wants to challenge what is said has the right to speak it. However, I think we need to deal with the idea that speech is somehow safe, that it’s ok to say things that would lead to destroying lives. Speech that calls for action needs treating in line with the action called for. This is why we already have laws about inciting violence and hate speech.

Free speech may be a key part of democracy, but it doesn’t work without responsibility. Use that freedom to express ideas and intentions that would damage democracy – crushing the opposition, denying rights to specific groups and the such – and as far as I’m concerned, the person doing it has lost any right to hide behind the ideas of democracy to protect their toxic thinking. Use free speech to undermine freedom and equality, and there has to be a robust response. Democracy is a collection of values and ideas, using one to undermine the others is not legitimate.

Faced with haters who want to harm others, we will not have the luxury of being able to uphold every last good principle we possess about peace and inclusion. I’d rather we try to head this off while it’s more a question of hate speech than violent action, because that is the road to least harm. And on reflection, I don’t think we should allow hate speech to qualify as free speech, and should challenge and reject it accordingly.


Democracy, Druidry, Dissent

What’s the difference between democracy, and mob rule? Part of the answer is the safeguarding of dissent. The other part of the answer is all about inbuilt checks and balances, but I don’t want to get into that today. Without dissent, what you have is a tyranny, a majority rule that crushes difference. As a Druid, a member of a minority faith group, I feel very strongly in favour of anything that allows a peaceful minority to get on with its own things even when that’s not what the majority wants to do.

Dissent keeps us healthy. A government of yes-men can’t examine its assumptions and actions terribly well. This is one of the main reasons democracies include opposition parties in the decision making process. Criticism, doubt and scrutiny help keep politics more honest and more reasonable then they would otherwise be (consider how all-powerful monarchs have tended to behave). A government that is not dealing with robust opposition gets arrogant and ignores or even abuses segments of its own population.

Radical change in a country does not, and should not happen overnight. For people who are largely oblivious to politics, the whole Brexit thing may look like sudden drama, but it isn’t. The Brexit vote was made possible by years of dissent and disagreement, and by people who did not agree with previous democratic votes and choices being entitled to keep grumbling about that, keep agitating, keep campaigning. I might not like the outcome but I absolutely support the right of people and parties to act in this way.

There are a lot of people who have been drawn into UK politics by Brexit who would not normally be involved, and they do not have much idea how democracy works. This is clear from the number of them who are saying ‘we won so you have to shut up and accept it’. This is not what democracy means, and democracy needs defending from this fundamental misunderstanding.

Imagine what would happen if once a vote had been taken, on anything, it could never again be discussed or re-voted on. We wouldn’t be leaving Europe, for a start. Assume that ‘one vote decides everything’ politics was in place and most of us wouldn’t even have the vote. It took years of dissent and campaigning to get votes for women, and to get rid of the land ownership requirements that excluded many men.

We have to be able to change direction at need. We have to revisit ideas, and challenge established thinking all the time, because the reality around us – physical and political – also changes. A hundred years ago, the politics of what happens when the fossil fuel runs out was not an issue on people’s minds. What will we have to think about a hundred years hence? Who knows!

Whatever your politics are, I call upon you to defend the systems that make democracy work. I know democracy barely works, I know it’s a flawed, problematic, clunky, questionable system, but right now it is the best system we have. If you can think of a better way of doing things… what a good job we do still have an option on dissent.

The king of birds

So the birds decide to choose a king, which you might think looks a good bit like democracy. They gather together to talk about the qualities a king should possess. This seems like a good idea, because those who will be led should have a say in who leads, and choosing the qualities of leadership is very important. Wisdom, perhaps. Knowledge, compassion, generosity, problem solving skills…

Rather than thinking about the qualities they want in a leader, each bird thinks about what he or she does best, and tries to make a case for why that should be the defining factor of a king. None of them are thinking about the implications of being ruled by someone else – only their own scope for getting the title. The biggest birds who are able to shout the loudest soon dominate the debate, drowning out the smaller, quieter and softer voices. Between them, they agree that being the biggest and strongest bird is the quality for kingship. This is in no way unusual. Being biggest and strongest was often what kingship was all about for people, too.

Having decided that power and strength make a king, the biggest and most powerful birds decide that seeing who can fly the highest will be an acceptable way of deciding which if them is most powerful. Thus it has always been, where the richest decide the means by which the richest will be chosen king. Those who rule by force arrange the trials that establish their rulership by force. It is the job of those who are to be led, to watch and cheer for their tyrant of preference and generally go along with the process and never, ever to question the basis on which kingship is decided. The birds know the routine, they all enthusiastically get involved with the flying contest. Especially those who know they can’t win. Joining in makes them feel part of something, and they like that.

All except for the wren, who hides on the back of an eagle, judges the timing perfectly and when the eagle thinks it’s won, the wren takes off, flying up a few feet to win the crown. Subverting the whole kingmaking program so that wit, tenacity and imagination win the day for a change, instead of brute force.

I don’t know about you, but if I must be led by others, (and sometimes it is a useful way of getting things done) I prefer to be ruled by one who has wit, vision and ingenuity. I prefer to be led by one who cannot rely on force to back up their points, but must instead reason and co-operate. I prefer to be led by one who knows what it is to be small and vulnerable, and who does not assume that the loudest voice is the most important. I also prefer to be led by someone with a sense of humour, and the wren also wins by being funnier than anyone else, turning its tiny form into a tactical advantage to beat the eagle from within its very feathers.

Here’s a song for the Occupy movement, featuring wrens… http://youtu.be/21IbgTewrMs do saunter over.


Democracy is in danger, from us

Yesterday I was out in the streets of Stroud with a lot of other people, raising awareness of the Trans-Atlantic trade deal under way and its grim implications for democracy. I think big corporations have too much influence as it is, giving them more power is not a good thing. http://www.38degrees.org.uk/ttip is you haven’t signed the petition yet.

I had a lot of really good conversations with people. I had a lot more where I said ‘this is a real threat to democracy’ and people shrugged, or said ‘I’m not interested’ and walked away. I can’t help but feel if I’d said ‘this is about a real threat to your television watching’ they would have cared. Such are our priorities.

People died to get us the democracy we have. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than many of the options. And yet we’re so complacent about it, and so blind to our own power and responsibility. We’ll abdicate power to any outfit that wants it. We’ll shrug, not wanting to make the effort to know, not wanting the inconvenience of getting involved. I can’t help but feel that if we act that way, we will get what we collectively deserve, namely a ticket back to the dark ages with our hard won rights stripped from us.

We all have power and we all have responsibility, it’s just that the vast majority of people prefer to ignore it. If we all decided, today, to fix all the inequalities in the world, sort out long term sustainability, deal with climate change and protect species from extinction, we would be well on the way to fixing every problem there is within the week. All we have to do, is do it. All we need, is the collective will, and that collective will is made up of individuals getting their bottoms into gear. Democracy is us, and if we bare our necks to the teeth of the corporate vampires, we really shouldn’t be surprised if they bite us.

I love 38 degrees. People led, people funded, doing what it can, and getting results. Every time you see a UK news item where the government have changed direction, there’s usually been a campaigning group in the mix, pushing for just that. Hundreds of thousands of people have roared, and something has shifted. Some of those wins are small, but every win counts. You can tell it works because they’re trying to legislate to shut us down around elections.

I think crowd-based campaigning, coupled with crowdfunding, are the future. When we come together to make things happen, we make things happen, and that enables a lively, active kind of democracy. Anyone who shrugs and walks away loses their voice in that, and may not like what it gets them, but that’s also part of what democracy means – choosing not to speak up means choosing not to have a voice. If enough of us can’t be bothered, then a small minority rules unchallenged. It’s like feudalism, only without the leprosy. Although saying that, if we privatise health so that the poor cannot afford care, (and TTIP makes that more likely) we open the door to get our mediaeval illnesses back. Because everyone loves the romance of weeping sores and untreated cancerous growths, right?

Please vote!

Today (22nd May if you find this later) we have elections for many district councils, and for the European Parliament.  If you are able to vote, please vote. Not only that, please vote with your heart, vote for something you believe in, make the best choice with what you’ve got. If you’re considering a protest vote, make sure you know what the party stands for, because they could get in, and a big protest vote will influence the mainstream, so don’t push in a way you don’t actually want to go.

People have died to get the right to vote, and people still die for democracy. It’s not a perfect system, but it beats the hell out of feudalism and tyranny! Democracy only works if we all show up and participate – voting is only one part of that, but it’s the most obvious. If we don’t vote, the ruling elite has more reason to consider us a bunch of ignorant sheep which it can steer round and predate at its leisure. It’s important to make politicians aware that we do pay attention, we do have opinions and we do expect them to perform. Voter apathy fuels political arrogance. Let’s not do that thing.

Your vote counts. In the Euro elections, it’s proportional representation, which means every vote can make a difference. Europe is a confusing entity, and we don’t get enough information about how it works, which makes it hard to make informed choices, but failure to engage isn’t going to fix that.

At district council level, not that many people get to vote for each candidate in the first place, so every vote carries weight. At both levels, people who are elected are making choices about how your money is spent, how your resources are organised. Choices are being made that affect your life. If it bothers you that you don’t seem to have much say in that… here’s the opportunity to have some say.

Democracy is hard work. It requires you to pay attention, form opinions, show up, make your voice heard, and take part. It requires you to know stuff you may prefer not to know, and to have to think about things it might be nicer not to have to think about. The alternative is being a cog in a machine whose overall shape is a mystery and whose purpose is defined by someone else. There’s no mid-ground here. The consequence of not participating, is tyranny. In face of that, voting is the least you can do.

Why you need to get political

This is not a bid to convert you to any political party or perspective, just to the idea of politics. I’m finding a lot of people for whom politics is ‘too depressing’ or ‘pointless’ and if that’s you, please read this. It will not contain any actual politics, only ideas about politics.

It is all too easy to see the ruling classes as some kind of separate species, whose affluence and power divides them from the rest of us. There’s so little difference between the main parties most places, that voting hardly seems to make any odds. New faces, same old shit. I have a great deal of sympathy with Russell Brand, Billy Connolly etc that ‘voting only encourages them.’

The word I want you to think about in this context, is ‘them’. If you live in a democracy then in theory, there is no ‘them’, only us. In theory, anyone can get involved and make changes. The problem is that most of us sit round wringing our hands in despair, feeling powerless and useless, and like there’s no point even trying. We switch off the news because it’s too depressing. I have been there, I have done it, I know what it is to feel utter futility and misery in the face of politics. I’ve also come to the conclusion that it really isn’t the answer.

There are now a number of campaigning groups around the world, that do not have anything to do with traditional parties: Sumofus, Change.org, 38degrees avaaz, and no doubt others. (add them to the comments if there are groups you’re keen on that I’ve forgotten.) Petitioning, harassing and challenging conventional politics, these outfits have the tyrants in the UK so frightened that they’re trying to bring in gagging laws. 38degrees is bigger than any of the UK political parties. Hate politics? Hate politicians? Sick of feeling powerless? Get yourself over to one of these groups, and make some noise, and watch the wins. These groups confer opportunities to back whatever campaigns matter most to you, to start your own, to level the playing field. They do make a difference. A blend of consumer power, public shaming and fear of what we’ll do at the polling stations gives these groups real power.

You could join a political party. There are loads, many of them small, idealistic, crazy and unlikely to win anything, but they make one hell of a good protest, and if enough of us defect to little parties, we will destroy the vice-like grip large parties have on our countries. There is still scope for democracy to work, but we need to actually vote, with our feet, our cash, and our energy. Find a lovely crazy party that you can get along with. Join it. Stand for election. Make some noise. Stand as an independent. If you prefer.

If you’re really mad and brave, join one of the big parties. They all have falling memberships, which means in theory the voice of the individual is growing. You could join, go to meetings, vote on ideas, propose policies. After all, every policy a party has starts somewhere. Why not with you?
You can. Remembering that you can is not easy. Real differences can be made. Whether you like the Greens or not, Caroline Lucas as a lone Green MP gets more news time and more national influence than any back bencher from the main three parties. She demonstrates what can be done if you have the will and the determination. Lone independent politicians frequently punch above their weight, too.

There is no need for hand-wringing and hopelessness. Pick a place to stand. One you can bear. One that feels comfortable, manageable, useful enough. Go and make a difference. I promise you, that as soon as you act, you will be making a difference. What keeps the same stupid attitudes and people in places of power, is our collective disbelief that we can change anything. History is full of public movements that made radical change. Not so very long ago most people did not get to vote. We got shot of feudalism. We won the unwinnable fight to give the poor and women the vote, when it had seemed most of us would be disenfranchised forever. We had a Labour movement, we can have another. We have an environmental movement. Other countries have managed to enfranchise their original peoples. Anything can happen.

I’m sure lots of people told Mandela and Ghandi they were wasting their time and it couldn’t be done. We do not have to quit. We do not have to accept what we’re given, and anything you do will make a difference. The giving up in apathy contributes to keeping in power those who abuse our trust. Whatever you do, give up on apathy, it is no answer. Rebel, resist, reimagine on whatever terms suit you, but do not support what you hate by letting it beat you.

What is government for?

I’ve been reading John Keane’s ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ – slowly, because it contains a lot of history otherwise unfamiliar to me, and is a book about the same size and weight as a house-brick! Yesterday I ran into a thought form that stopped me in my tracks. To paraphrase Mr Keane: Should government reflect society or counterbalance it?

Democracy is mostly based on the idea of majority rule, but this can lead to two obvious problems. One is that the majority are given the power to oppress the minority, or minorities. Secondly is that those who accumulate wealth, fame and power can easily use that to try and get their own way. If democracy reflects the social and economic dynamics in a country, can it be fair? We tend to assume that the democratic systems we have are pretty much the best thing available, so this questioning of core tenets really interested me.

What happens if the basic job of government is to counterbalance society? Government would then exist, to a fair degree, to right wrongs, protect minorities, ensure fairness, prevent money from controlling all advantages and generally try and keep the playing field as level as possible. It would be a system that prioritised the needs of the weakest, least able and most vulnerable on the grounds that those who are wealthy and successful can reasonably be assumed to be capable of taking care of themselves. And you wouldn’t turn them into some kind of minority to pick on here, no French revolution style execution of aristocrats (I refer you to majority rule). Would counterbalance government be viable? I like it as an idea, but I don’t know if it would work and I’m pretty certain a lot of people would hate it.

The current system encourages us to think about our needs, to vote from a place of selfishness, and perhaps with some eye to enlightened self-interest. It can be a bit short term. I have noticed repeatedly that people who are successful tend to ascribe that to their brains, efforts and other things that make that both deserved, and likely to continue. It isn’t entirely true. Anyone can fall. Illness, misfortune, accident, assault… anyone can end up a victim of crime, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then your life falls apart. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how clever you are, you can’t think your way out of debilitating illness, buy off a terminal disease or be talented enough not to get hit in a random motorway accident you didn’t see coming.

What keeps many of us (not me!) from wanting to invest in a safety net for other people, is that ‘we’ think ‘they’ don’t deserve it, and we refuse to believe we could end up in just as much trouble. That could use a rethink. There but for the grace of (insert random element here) go any of us. People who have wealth, money and power fear that other people are going to take that away from them. We are, culturally speaking, so terribly afraid of each other. It reduces our collective scope for co-operation. What would happen if we set up government to counter balance, rather than to reflect? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth thinking about.

In case you were wondering, it’s not an entirely hypothetical idea. Uruguay was exploring it in the early twentieth century. I knew almost nothing about South American political history before this week. It is fascinating seeing how fiction authors I’ve read; Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Louis de Berniers, fit into that context. There is always more to learn.

The Goddess of Democracy

I’m currently reading John Keane’s “The Life and Death of Democracy”. He starts by pointing out that the original idea for democracy probably didn’t start in Greece, but came from somewhere in what is now Syria, Iran and Iraq. There’s irony. Furthermore, the Greeks had a goddess of democracy: Demokratia.

I suppose it should have been obvious that she would be out there somewhere. The Greeks were polytheistic, they had deities to cover most aspects of life and death, clearly this one should have been in the mix. I wonder why she is so unmentioned? It could be that the idea of democracy being founded so clearly in an unsecular society, is an uncomfortable one. It’s those wise, philosopher Greeks we want as the ancestors of political tradition. It may not be comfortable for many who uphold democracy as the greatest modern good, to find it tangled in with ancient religion. Pagan religion at that.

Greek democracy was seriously flawed in that it entirely disenfranchised women from practical participation in the overtly democratic bits. But, women could be priestesses, oracles and goddesses, and if you postulate that those presences intermingled with politics, women suddenly don’t seem quite so marginalised. Not a perfect scenario, but a less flawed one. Greek democracy also depended on slavery, and there are no excuses there.

To what extent does democracy still depend on slavery, though? We call it other things, but wage slavery locks many into long hours for little gain, the fruit of their labours largely enjoyed by others. We depend also on those hidden workers in distant lands who work for a pittance in dangerous conditions so that we can have the cheap merchandise our economy thrives on. That too is a form of slavery, and before we grumble too much about the Greeks, we need to tackle the monstrous inequalities our own systems generate. We still have a political elite, for the greater part moneyed, well connected, and coming from an increasingly narrow bandwidth of political, law and media training. We still have dynasties of ruling families, especially in America.

I do wonder though, about Demokratia and the implications of seeing democracy as a goddess. If that was your world view, you would see participation in democracy as a sacred act. Corruption and apathy would become crimes against deity. Every word spoken would have serious implications, and that sense of the Gods listening might keep a person focused on their sacred duty to serve.

I doubt the Greeks would recognise what we have now in terms of democracy. Such a small percentage of our population actually participates, for a start. The good of the majority hardly enters the equation, much less the good of all. And of course for those nature worshipping ancient Greeks, our political disregard for the natural world would have seemed like nothing short of madness. I’m entirely with them on that – it is insane and suicidal, and yet we continue to put short term economic gains before the viability of our home and planet.

I wonder what it would be like to live in a democracy where politicians took their words and work seriously as acts of service. Where a consciousness of higher purpose kept people on their toes. That doesn’t have to be about any specific religion, you could do it just as well from a place of humanistic atheism. The point is the quality of the service given, the much needed sense of humbleness now sorely lacking in public life, and people who step up to give, rather than to take. Imagine around that, too, a culture where having an excess at the expense of your neighbours would be unthinkable. A culture in which to hold ostentatious wealth while others go hungry would be the most shameful thing imaginable. So many modern politicians claim to be Christians, but it’s funny, I don’t remember Jesus saying ‘Screw the poor and remember the bottom line’ even once. Some genuine Christian values (compassion, love thy neighbour etc) would not go amiss, rather than this modern lip service to religion so often coupled with a total disregard for its most basic tenets.

The modern gods of Democracy have names, too. We call them Dollar and Pound, Free Market, GDP and Growth. These we worship, and these we sacrifice to. We sacrifice the lives of our poor, and the future of our children, to these deities. For a culture that claims not to be polytheistic and riddled with superstition, we are surprisingly devout followers of the gods of economy. We trust in Free Market to solve our every problem and handle our every need. Future generations may look back at our simplistic faith and roll their eyes. The Greeks may have been a good deal wiser than us when they chose Demokratia as their goddess, rather than money.