Monday, January 30, 2006

Is Democracy a good thing? Follow-up on a Monday mind-stretcher

This is the much-delayed follow-up to the previous Monday mind-stretcher asking about democracy in a pluralistic society. Some examples of clashes are taken from the modern political scene, though the same framework is useful for evaluating more than just the current hot-button issues.

Multiculturalism: Pretending all cultures are the same?
The modern brand of multi-culturalism denies that there are significant differences among cultures or significant problems with peaceful coexistence, despite millenia of recorded history to the contrary. The essential condition of a pluralistic society is that all cultures respect each other. But the question has never been seriously confronted: what if all cultures do not value the idea of respecting those who are different? Has any culture succeeded in respecting those who do not share its core values? Is it even possible to embrace people who despise your core values and still hold to those core values?

Closely related to cultural pluralism is religious pluralism. The modern brand of religious pluralism is based on the often-repeated "all religions teach the same", which is more a denial of the realities of pluralism than an honest attempt at it. If we're all the same, then exactly what differences are we respecting? The problem has a number of levels:
  • It is assumed that all differences are superficial. Is that assumption warranted? Was this a conclusion based on a thorough knowledge of the differences, or was it an assumption based on hopes of peace? How much factual basis does this idea actually have?
  • Glossing over the differences is disrespectful of those differences. This is at odds with the stated purpose of pluralism.
  • Since true pluralism requires welcoming differences, true pluralism is impossible without a knowledge and recognition of those differences.
  • Pluralism requires that all religious and cultural differences are immaterial to governing a country and to living together peacefully.
  • It requires that all differences are of the type that the right reaction is to welcome them.
  • It requires the assumption that all cultural and religious approaches are peaceful and constructive approaches, and that there are no dysfunctional cultures or religions.
Without an honest and detailed look at the actual differences, there is no basis for supporting these assumptions. There are some deeper differences beween cultures. We are in need of a better framework for handling these differences than simply hoping they are not substantial. As a nation, we have not squarely asked the question whether there is such a thing as an irreconcilable difference in culture and what we would do about such a difference if we found one.

Democracy and voting for leaders
Democracy means at least voting for a leader. Even that minimal level of democracy assumes that the people ought to have control over their leadership. It's not exactly an intuitive idea, at least in perspective against world history and most world cultures. Would you expect the right to vote for your boss? How about your CEO or equivalent? Do we assume that all cultures must respect the idea of government of the people, by the people, and for the people? Are we assuming, in trying to spread democracy, that nobody is allowed to disagree with us on that? If there were a culture in which most people wanted a monarchy, would we respect that? If the people of Iraq wanted a theocracy, would we still be talking about their right to self-determination? If there were a culture in which people believed they owed it to the ruler to submit, even if the ruler was abusive and corrupt, would we respect that culture? Should we?

Does democracy include voting for laws?
Voting for laws is even more problematic than voting for leaders. Some people would base law on consensus: whatever people can agree on is fine by them. When social consensus and tolerance are the rule, there is theoretically nothing stopping this from becoming the rule of the lowest denominator. Whether enacting the law of the lowest denominator is politically acceptable is one question; whether it makes for good laws or a good society is a separate question with possibly a different answer. If we studied different cultures and found that lowest-denominator laws led to a more dysfunctional society with more personal wreckage, would that affect our theory of law? Should it? Do cultures advance more by aiming higher or by aiming lower? Do we share enough of a sense of direction to agree on which direction is higher and which is lower?

Some cultures hold a theory of law as divine command in which the exact laws and penalties are seen to be eternally fixed and universal. The Muslim concept of law runs along these lines. The U.S. has not given serious thought to this difference in the efforts to spread democracy in Muslim countries. It has also not given serious thought to this difference within our own country. If a culture believes that an immutable divine law says that a woman's testimony should count less than a man's testimony, and a non-Muslim's testimony less than a Muslim's, do we respect that difference? Are we willing to say "that is not a universal, immutable divine law"? If we are unwilling to say it, are we prepared to live with the consequences? If we are willing to say it, are we still divided amongst ourselves as to why we say it?

The Christian concept of divine command theory is somewhat different, since Jesus did not set up a worldly government by means of an army and a law code as Mohammed did. The Christian concept of divine command is less by specific decrees and more by general principles: that laws should have the aim of establishing justice, protecting innocent life, rewarding the good and punishing the bad, securing public decency and order. That the law should show no favoritism is a cornerstone of the Christian concept of justice. In this view the exact laws and penalties may vary based on the specific problems and resources in a culture, but the line between right and wrong is not negotiable. Does the assumption of an objective right and wrong allow for respect of laws based on tolerating the lowest denominator? Does an omnitolerant morality respect the view that some things may not be negotiable to some people?

Some people see law's job as protecting freedoms. Does freedom have limits? In traditional Christian thought, freedom is highly valued but should not be used as a cover for sin. Other traditions do not recognize the concept of sin. Still other cultures do not think that freedom is necessarily a good thing. What we see as simple freedom of speech and intellectual honesty, to follow truth wherever it goes, is valued in our culture but may be banned in another. For example to question whether someone like Mohammed, given his track record, was actually a holy man -- some non-Muslims would see this as a fair question that deserves open evaluation. However, traditional Islam sees the question itself as a capital offense based on the contents of their specific law, viewed as immutable divine command. Islamic culture values submission above freedom, values top-down control and respect for authority. Democratic societies punish offenders but typically refrain from cruelty and avoid the death penalty except in extreme cases. Muslim societies place a high value on severe laws that control through fear, which is seen as a legitimate method of maintaining order.

I know this post is a bit more dizzying than most. Part is the amount of ground covered. Part is my seeking, however inadequately, to map out ground that has not been explored very thoroughly at the popular level. Part is that there is a serious look at other views without denying the deeper nature of the differences or the fact that these views make sense to the people who hold them.

The reason for broaching the subject is that the questions are urgent. The need for answers is pressing. Our complacency and misunderstanding of the problems have fueled the problems. U.S. democracy has historically enjoyed a reasonably wide consensus based on widely shared core values. We have an ideal of unlimited multiculturalism; we have cultivated the habit of tolerating and accepting nearly any view that people are willing to defend. We have assumed that the broad consensus we once enjoyed would continue to carry our country along. The problem is that the consensus has fallen apart. This version of democracy only works with a consensus, which is to say a shared culture to the extent of sharing core values. The U.S. no longer has a consensus on core values.

No comments: