Democracy is, amongst other things, an experiment in trusting people to make decisions that are good for themselves, their group and the larger collective.  How’s that going for us?

Democracy is either an extremely optimistic notion or one helluva crazy idea, or possibly both. Whoever dreamed it up either had to be stoned or completely oblivious of the tawdry material he was working with.  The idea that human beings would use reason to debate constructively with one another to make decisions that would be for the common good, is one that would have failed the most preliminary of tests, had it been tested, that is. Even in the most educated, sophisticated and well meaning of communities this would be a very tall order.

Here are some reasons why Democracy is an optimistic and crazy idea:

  1. Human beings are prisoners of their brain. The brain, as it has evolved through millennia is equipped to perform basic involuntary functions so we can breathe, pump blood, periodically cleanse the body of toxins and perform the other physiological functions to keep the body chugging along.
  2. The brain’s primary function is not analytical thinking, its’ main task was to keep us alive.
  3. Thinking conceptually and objectively does not come naturally to us and requires much training, something that most of us do not have the time or energy for.
  4. The chemistry and biology of our brain make us primarily emotional and reactive creatures that are particularly impervious to reason.
  5. We are inherently egocentric creatures that tend to, despite some capacity for altruism, be trapped in our subjective universes, mostly motivated by our own perceived needs, fears and anxieties.
  6. We are also sociocentric creatures that have been conditioned since childhood to privilege those who we know (our own kith and kin) over those that we don’t; and to view anything that is different from what we have grown up with as alien, dangerous and threatening. Bigotry, racism and sexism are, with rare exceptions, par for the course for social creatures.
  7. Democracy challenges us to transcend much of this and inspires us to listen to those who might disagree with us; negotiate with those who might have ‘harmed’ us in the past; collaborate with those whose needs might be different; and coexist with those we might find abominable.
  8. It might be easier to get all of human kind to climb mountain Everest without training or oxygen.Getting this biological, chemical, egocentric and sociocentric species to desist from killing each other and to “play nice” has been one of the problems that has occupied tribal chieftains, feudal lords, prophets, god men, monarchs, mafia dons, school teachers, parents, kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers; since we first stopped communicating primarily in grunts and realized that there might be some value in hunting in packs.

    Sure Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi, Confucius, Martin Luther King, Marx or Mandela, like reformers down the ages, demanded that humans challenge themselves to be better than who they are. Not all of them, incidentally, were democrats or even thought democracy was a good idea. They knew that the human material was mostly brittle, and, at best, unreliable. They didn’t wish to tax the meager capabilities of their human material beyond what could be fairly easily monitored and controlled. To that end they, or their followers (along with their propaganda departments, apostles, evangelists and enforcers), found creative ways to control the behaviors of the masses. To this end they distilled the leaders aspirations, dreams and wisdom to some basic tenets and commandments that they hoped would, if followed, create a less cruel and rapacious society. Sure, as incentives they sometimes promised paradise after life (Christ, Mohammad) and sometimes a kind of paradise even here on earth (Marx, Confucius). Knowing that rewards in the afterlife would have limited cache when faced with the immediate gratification that would accrue from indulging the dictates of the flesh and emotions, they also tried to control such transgressions through threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation. These terrible visitations in the hereafter were augmented by punishments that would have painful consequences in the present life ranging all the way from simple cold shouldering to excommunication, exile, and even torture, stoning or death.

    Essentially, the template for stability and order in the old world was pretty simple: if you did what we told you to, everything would work out just fine.  All that was required from you was one simple thing, call it what you will, Belief, Faith, Obedience, Acceptance or complete and total Submission, whatever- as long as it was given not partly or in half measure, but wholly and completely.

    The secret to a good life, in terms of safety, orderliness and predictability was in following this template diligently. To do this you needed to have faith that the plan had been well designed, the tenets were sacred and what was needed from you was to follow the rules that would eventually help achieve your family’s prosperity, your personal salvation and world peace, preferably in that order. Most importantly, you needn’t worry your pretty head about the details or even the larger picture. Better people, more knowledgeable, capable and wiser than you, in the form of gods, prophets, monarchs, mullahs and patriarchs of all stripes had already put in the hard work. Your salvation was in dedicating your life to The Plan.

    In the next post I will examine ways in which human beings, starting with the ancient Greeks, challenged the historic assumption that those in power, the strongest, the richest, the most brutal or even the wisest had the right to determine how the rest of us lived.

    Meanwhile here’s a question for you:
    What are your thoughts on the balance between carrots and sticks to maintain order and harmony in society?

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