Saturday, February 17, 2024

Freedom to be “wrong”: the only real advantage of democracy

Several things came together. A friend sent me this post by N S Lyons. Then, independently, a short  conversation on Twitter followed upon the statistics showing that today’s young people get almost all their information from the social media, while old people rely (as they did in the past) on television. And, finally, and perhaps for this post most importantly, my own recent thinking on the following questions: What do you see as the main gain from democracy, as opposed to dictatorship?

Let me start with Number 3. When I thought of that, my answer was: the freedom to read and listen to whatever I want, and to say whatever I want. And I think this is all. I do not believe that democracy leads to higher growth, less corruption, or less inequality. No evidence for any of these things. To put it perhaps too strongly, I think democracy has no effect on any real social phenomena, but it does allow people, on a purely personal  level, to feel better by accessing more diverse information, and to express any option they have. (Note that this freedom applies only to the political sphere,  not to one’s place of work which in capitalist democracies is ruled dictatorially.)   

But that definition of the advantage of democracy has recently been under the attack by the people who think that social media lead to “fake news”, fragmentation of public opinion, polarization of politics and all kinds of noxious phenomena. And then they paint the picture of some fantasy-world of everybody agreeing on all issues and espousing the liberal values in which they believe. For me, this is precisely the undermining, or the destruction of the most (or the only) valuable part of democracy.

N S Lyons quotes in extenso Polish political philosopher Ryszard Legutko who equates the modern liberal project with the communist project. And indeed the similarities are strong. In both cases, a certain view of the world is supposed to be based on scientific understanding of the way the world works, and everybody who does not see it in such a way must be either “re-educated”, or,  if stubbornly clinging to the wrong views, considered morally flawed. Thus the  disagreement is with the people who are cognitively or ethically deficient.

I write this as somebody who believes in Enlightenment and economic growth. But I do not believe that people will ever have the same opinion on key matters that relate to the organization of societies. There will be always important differences in values and backgrounds. Any attempt to impose one’s views other than through discussion (while not seriously thinking that one will be successful, see my post here), or to hold others as “morally challenged” if they do not agree, is not only bound to fail. It is wrong. The segmentation of the space for public discourse is not just inevitable; it is, on balance, a good thing. Between a uniformity of opinion that is imposed through the control of the media (epitomized by television) and plurality, or even endless multitude, of views afforded by the echo-champers of the social media, one should choose the latter.

We should not be afraid of polarization and disagreements. They are much better than unanimity. Now, I am not addressing here only an enforced unanimity that comes from having one newspaper and one TV channel (It reminds me of an old Communist joke. “We just introduced the second channel. What is on the second channel? A KGB official who says, “And you comrade, you do not seem to like the first channel?”), but uniformity which comes from the current liberal project.

I remember that in the 1990s, a Dutch friend pointed out to me, the heathen, the advantages of Dutch democracy and called it “vibrant” (as opposed to enforced unanimity). But when Geert Wilders and people like him appeared on the scene, she no longer thought it was so “vibrant”. It turns out that to her “vibrant” meant that everybody would agree with her fundamental beliefs and that the dispute should center on entirely peripheral matters. She represented the pensée unique that followed upon the fall of communism when the liberal view of the world and neoliberal economics were taken to be “normal” and “common sense”, not an ideology.

This was rudely challenged by Islam (which understandably on many issues has an entirely different take), by the financial crisis of 2008,  by China’s Sonderweg, the rise of illiberal democracies, Trump’s presidency and then 75 million votes, Russia’s move to Euroasianism. It clearly does not reflect today’s realities.

The expansive liberal ideology creates unnecessary conflict by insisting that on all important political and social issues people must share the same opinion, and by denigrating those who do not. Very often they dream, especially if older, of the return of a world of three American TV channels and two weeklies that always had the same news and the same cover page. This allegedly created a consensus of sensible people. But it did so only because others had no say. That world, I think fortunately, will never return because the Internet has made it impossible. But rather than thinking that this is a bad development, we should embrace the freedom to think whatever we want, and to say whatever we want (however strange it might seem to others). For this is  probably the only real advantage of democracy.

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