Friday, August 24, 2012

The tyranny of opinion

I wish I could blame this post on the fact that we're in an election year.  However, there are two problems with that idea.  First, in this American democracy, nearly every year is some kind of an election year.  Second, the problem I'm about to describe -- or maybe attack -- is not by any means limited to election issues or election years.

My problem is this:

We seem to have decided that people's opinions Matter.  Not just that it's significant what you think, so your parents / spouse / siblings / friends ought to ask you from time to time "What do you think about that?" and then listen politely while you share your important opinion.  I'm all for that, as anyone who's asked me "What do you think about that?" can testify.

My problem is that we think people's opinions Matter in a larger scale.  We think that opinion polls are newsworthy.

Since a picture is worth a thousand words (in my opinion) here's an example, just lifted from the website:

This kind of thing -- which you can see on any news site, any time of day or night, because these opinion polls are EVERYWHERE -- leads to a variety of disturbing questions.

1. Does a news story being read by more people make it more important?
2. Has this practice taken the responsibility for judging newsworthiness away from the reporter / publisher and handed it to the reading public?
3. Does a story being unpopular make it less important?
4. Does my preference of one of the UK's royal princes make any difference to anyone but me?
5. If I actually view the results of such an inane poll, what does that say about me?
6. So What?

The problem with all this is that it is an indicator of a much larger assumption that lies near the core of our troubles as a society. The problem is that we have adopted the "majority rules" mentality that is one cornerstone -- not the only cornerstone, or even the most important -- of our democracy.

Here's what I mean.  Revolutions used to be messy, violent things.  To take over a country you had to come in with a dedicated, fight-to-the-death group of idealistic guerrillas and fight a bloody war with the Evil Dictator.  All this fuss and bother is no longer necessary.  If the majority opinion rules, then all one has to do to take over the country is change the majority opinion and get people to vote your regime into power.

Think I'm joking?

Most of us assume that such a thing could never happen.  We assume that people have more common sense than that.  We assume that there is a reservoir of commonly held belief at the core of our society that keeps us from adopting weird ideas and voting for stupid things.

Remember what happens when you assume things?

In the founding of the United States, our commonly held beliefs were encapsulated not in the Constitution -- that is the instrument of how we live together as a republic.  No, our commonly held beliefs were summed up more than any other place in the Declaration of Independence.  It was in this document that we summed up the evils of tyranny and our sacred belief in the equality of human beings.

Let's pause for a moment there.  In a comment reminiscent of The Emperor's New Clothes, a couple weeks ago in church I heard Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi point out that it is not at all "self-evident" that all people are created equal.  In fact, if you go with what is self-evident you'll come up with something much more akin to Darwinism.  People are not equally smart, or strong, or capable.  (If we're equal, why weren't you running in the Olympics a couple weeks ago?)

What the Declaration of Independence is saying is that we are of equal value and therefore deserve equal treatment under the law, hence equal rights.  This is not a self-evident fact.  Did you know that Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence did not say "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ..."?  Instead Jefferson first wrote: "We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable, that all men are created equal and independent ..."  The word "sacred" is of course not at all like "self-evident" -- it states that this belief comes from the existence of God, deriving from his very nature.

Somewhere along the way, Jefferson was convinced -- some say by Benjamin Franklin, others by his own reflection, since the revision is in Jefferson's own handwriting -- to change the text to "self-evident."  It's a little like saying, "Look!  It's obvious!"  Trouble is, when a culture's assumptions change, what is obviously true changes as well.

Over time the Declaration of Independence and its assertions about what is "self-evident" came to be assumed, then taken for granted, then ignored.  As a republic we cut the anchor rope and now we are adrift, floating wherever the winds of public opinion take us.  It is a dangerous way to live.

Any group of revolutionaries, sufficiently motivated and armed, not with Kalashnikovs but with a good Public Relations apparatus, can, over time, turn the winds of public opinion.  If these Revolutionaries are able to hold their course over a few decades, their guerrilla cause will go from an aberration, to an alternative, to an equal option, to the dominant belief of the masses.

An ancient Roman philosopher once said, "A sailor without destination cannot tell fair wind from foul."  It is more true of us today than it has ever been.

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