Thursday, July 18, 2013

Arthur Answers Roger, Part 2: Political philosophy & friends

This post continues politically-themed questions from Roger Green, this time more philosophical in nature. Roger asked:

Do the 5th and 6th paragraphs of this article, ostensibly about Scalia, but largely about Frederick Douglass, reflect your attitude about civil rights, and gay rights in particular?

This is what Roger is referring to (though the whole article is worth a read):
In his fights against slavery and for equal rights, [Frederick] Douglass thought deeply about the meaning of democracy. In his speeches and essays, he attempted to distinguish his own views from the ideas of false prophets of democracy like Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, who championed the majoritarianism favored by Justice Scalia. Sen. Douglas’ understanding of democracy, the great abolitionist declared, is nothing more than a democratic version of might makes right. “By a peculiar use of words,” Douglass wrote in 1860, “[Senator Douglas] confounds power with right … By his notion of human rights, everything depends upon the majority.”

According to Douglass, majoritarian democracy lacks a sound “philosophical theory” at its foundation. It is not “genuine” in the sense that it lacks any justification for itself beyond power. The fundamental flaw in the majoritarian conception of democracy, Douglass wrote, was that it violated “the only intelligible principle” on which democracy can be based: the equal dignity of each human being. “The right of each man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he concluded, “is the basis for all social and political right.”
That’s precisely what I think. We use majority rule as a convenient means to an end—to make decisions so society can move forward because consensus and unanimity are too time-consuming and difficult when there are immediate needs. However, while it’s true that the just power of government is derived from the consent of the governed, it’s also true that the consent must be based on the premise that all people are born equal and must therefore be equal citizens.

It is indeed merely “might makes rights” if all citizens are not equal, and majority rule is sometimes even anti-democratic. For example: All the referenda that took away or prevented marriage equality. We saw repeatedly how extremists were able to manipulate the process to harness fear of and prejudice against LGBT people to in order to exclude them from the rights, privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship. That’s an insult to democracy itself because it’s using the mechanics of democracy—majority rule—to oppress citizens who ought to be equal.

When I was an LGBT grassroots political activist, one of my close colleagues used to say that his motivation for activism was, “how dare they!” How dare a group of citizens use their privileged position in the majority to deny LGBT people their human and civil rights? I agreed with that, of course, and it’s how I feel whenever those who command the power of the majority use that power to suppress or oppress minorities. That’s NOT what democracy is all about!

Roger also asked (and I’m bumping this up because it’s timely):

I was reading Mark Evanier's column and he wrote recently: "The other e-mail was from someone who seems pretty happy Trayvon Martin is dead because, you know, he was a druggy gang member who probably deserved it. Martin may not have been guilty of something at that moment but he was foolish enough to go up against an armed man so he brought his death on himself. Or so this guy believes. I don’t think I’m going to consider him a friend any longer."

Did someone's politics/values/thoughtlessness ever end a friendship with you?

No. I’ve also never unfollowed/unfriended/uncircled/whatever someone on social media because of their political speech. I did once mute someone on Twitter (a Leftist!) because I thought the speech was too strident and unhelpful, but I didn’t unfollow. I have a very high tolerance for disagreement and wouldn’t reject someone JUST because we disagree. We might have very heated arguments, but I separate the person from the idea/speech.

Theoretically, it could happen if someone did or said something just to hurt me or someone I care about, but that, too, has never happened to me. Quite frankly, I’m more likely to dump a friend if they hurt someone I care about than if they did it to me because I tend to be as protective of as I am loyal to those I care about.

For me, it all comes down to the fact that I’m far from perfect and I can easily get carried away in the heat of the moment. If I want someone to overlook my excesses, then I must also overlook theirs. Like I said, there might be a theoretical limit to how much I’ll take, but I haven’t hit that limit yet, fortunately. But that doesn’t mean that a friendship with someone with whom I have a fundamental disagreement won’t just wither and die; they do for all sorts of reasons, but that’s a pretty good one.

And that’s it for this post!

The previous posts in this series:

Ask Arthur
Arthur answers: Māori, Gays and Expat Longing
Arthur Answers Roger, Part 1: Political Me

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