Democracy’s Pink Sunglasses
The classical example of how we’re clouded by our own perceptions of reality, and truly unable to see things as they really are, is the notion of wearing pink sunglasses all the time: the more people try to convince that the sky is blue and the snow is white, you will not experience those colours, because you have those pink filters permanently in front of your eyes. So no amount of “persuasion” will allow you to see the world differently, because, well, it’s not the way you see it. Reality, in fact, is having a bunch of people, all wearing differently coloured sunglasses all the time. The more astonishing fact is that in spite of this most of us can agree (even if just by consensus) on what we experience, because, fortunately, even though all glasses are differently coloured, they are similar.
We also have an extraordinary gift: we can, to a degree, imagine how others see the world, and are relatively accurate about that. This means that if I wear red sunglasses, I can imagine how someone who wears pink sunglasses sees the world. I cannot experience it, of course, but I can imagine it: I know that we both are not seeing things as they are and that both have our perceptions filtered in a slightly different way. But we can imagine how the world would like if we had differently-coloured sunglasses, mostly because we’re pretty good at imagining things.
Most people, however, never use this amazing gift. They just wear their sunglasses and stick to the unshakeable conviction that the world is really pink; if others don’t see it pink, well, it’s a problem with their sunglasses.
The point here is that to get a consensual opinion on things, you have three traditional approaches. The first is just to invite people with very similarly coloured sunglasses to emit their opinions. So even though their opinions might not be exactly the same, their respective sunglasses are so similarly coloured that the opinions about how they experience the world is not really different, and the details are too small to be noticeable to either party. The second approach is just to hand out sunglasses with the same colour to everybody and force them to use them, assuming (wrongly) that you can change people’s opinions by doing that. The problem here is that people are rarely, if ever, willing to use sunglasses they haven’t chosen for themselves, unless they really have no option.
Democracy (in the conventional, modern sense) is the third approach. It proposes that all people have different sunglasses, but that there is a majority that is prepared to agree with a certain shade, even though it might not precisely be the exact shade we wear. Under democracy, we postulate a certain world-view seen under a certain colour, with which a majority of people will agree; but we also defend the right to wear your own colour and emit your opinion (publicly) about what you think that is the best colour. There is no “perfect” colour: the shade varies according to the amount of people willing to adopt it as a “standard”, reference colour for everybody else. If a certain world-view, expressed by a specific shade, is accepted by the majority, then that’s the one that gets picked. For a while. Then we vote on a different one 🙂 Democracy means that we will never get the “best” colour, and very rarely the exact colour we would like to have, but that we have to work with compromises about what colour gets accepted by the largest number of people — and not discriminate against the ones who insist using different colours.
(A fourth approach exists: removing your own sunglasses and seeing things as they really are. This is in the province of spirituality, so I’ll drop that from the discussion now 🙂 )
Enough about sunglasses 🙂
One of the biggest criticisms I get when expressing my opinion in public is that I read too many opposing and conflicting opinions, and base my own on both — which often leads to paradoxes. In fact, I humbly admit being able to quote Prokofy Neva and, say, Morgaine Dinova, on the same sentence, and this sometimes shocks the audience, because they see it as opposing views and impossible to reconciliate; you’re either friends with one or the other, but not both. Well, I happen to be friends of both, but that doesn’t mean that I fully subscribe to all their opinions. To get back to the sunglasses examples, I recognise that Prokofy Neva uses blue shades, while Morgaine Dinova uses red ones — so their views will always be opposed — but I read their opinions as if filtered through purple sunglasses: a lot overlaps that way, and a lot of the more “extreme” views will be filtered out that way. If you wish to get an example from the real world, let’s get something dramatically extreme to make a point: when viewed through violet sunglasses, a certain sociopath and mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century and a Peace Nobel prize winner shared a lot of things in common: both subscribed to vegetarianism; both were fond of children and animals; both had little use for worldly goods and were ascetics. One was responsible for killing millions and throwing the whole world into a war; the other was responsible for preventing a war that could have killed millions. So, the point here is that there is “common ground” between even the most extreme examples. If you focus on the “middle ground”, you’ll always find some point where even the most opposing opinions will coincide.
Of course, this is just taking two examples. If you start adding more and more opinions, they will become more and more harder to reconcile until there is a special shade that will “fit” to all of them. I argue that there will always be something in common with all opinions (this is mostly because we are all human beings, after all, and there are things we all share), but it might not be relevant. Like in the extreme example above, when discussing the lives of both persons, it’s of little relevance that both were vegetarians, for example. Pointing at vegetarianism as the root of the problem would be pointless; it’s a piece of data that doesn’t support either opinion. Our dictator wasn’t more of a dictator because he was a vegetarian; our Peace Nobel prize winner wasn’t more peaceful because he was a vegetarian. In this case, the two extremes — and how they’re unrelated to the “middle ground” — are very easy to spot. In most cases this is obviously not so easy to do.
The point here is that looking at “opinions” from wildly different sources, and trying to find some “common ground” between them, in order to go ahead with the best option that will benefit the largest number of people, is very, very hard — specially if there are many opinions and most of them conflicting ones. But the first step is to accept that others have valid opinions, too — we just see them under a different light than they do, and thus reject them because they’re the wrong “colour”. But we humans are able to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” and imagine how they see the world, even if this amounts mostly to “imagination” and is not a guarantee of understanding exactly how they think. Again, as said, the only way to completely solve the issue is not by carefully picking an opinion that is consensually accepted — because that will always be impossible; there will always be someone with a slightly different stance on things that will not “fit” — but to look beyond the coloured sunglasses, but that’s not for the faint of heart.
No, instead, what we humans have come up with is representative democracy. In theory, we vote for people who have similar world-views as we do, which, in turn, collectively have a pretty much aligned world-view among themselves (on a party-based system), and, while it will be impossible for all representatives to agree with everything — since they come often with opposing views — they are able to work on compromises, and, when those fail, the majority will decide. Representative democracy is good for finding a “middle ground” for every type of opinion because of that; even abrupt swings towards extremism tend to get leveled out over enough time. In a sense, this is its biggest strength: the majority will always be moderate in their views, and it will be the moderates that will lead the opinions. But it has also a problem: deep structural changes are hard to do, usually because these rely on more extreme views (but which can push things ahead!), and for those, moderate approaches are not good. That’s why innovation comes mostly from corporations, which are not democracies; while safeguarding fundamental rights are the province of governments elected via representative democracies.
It can be argued that a direct democracy will take this “moderate” view to even higher extremes, since a further level of “filtering” gets removed that way. And, in fact, the only country in the world which is an example of a direct democracy (Switzerland) is a pretty conservative and moderate country. Representative democracies have a bit more agility in terms of pushing new ideas ahead, because the representatives (assuming they’re well intentioned — which, sadly, most aren’t) will not be exactly aligned with the people that voted on them. They will share similar opinions in the most important issue, but not on all — not even most. This means that a representative assembly, even one with a majority of moderate representatives, will have some flexibility in innovating and “thinking out of the box”. Not much, but just a bit. Enough to get things moving in a different direction than their voters expected them to move, and this, surprisingly, will push society ahead. If the expectations were high and the direction is too un-aligned with the voters’ wishes, then they have no chance of getting re-elected. But the slight change will nevertheless have happened. For better or for worse, but, as history shows, in most cases it has been for the better (or we wouldn’t be living under democracies any longer).
Representative democracy deals with the “pink sunglasses problem” neatly, by assuming right from the start that no single individual is able to be aware of everything in order to make decisions. Instead, a group of individuals are elected in order to keep track of the important things, by keeping in touch with the issues that are important to them. This is in stark contrast with direct democracy, where all individuals vote on all issues, no matter if they are aware of them or even have adequate knowledge of the relevance and implications of their decisions. A typical example is taxes: in a direct democracy, given the chance, individuals would almost always vote collectively to abolish taxes, since this is something that affects collectively the whole population, and nobody wants to pay them — it would be an easy choice. However, a few individuals might understand that abolishing taxes means that governments have no funding to run a country successfully — but they would be such a tiny majority that they wouldn’t have a chance to get a vote, no matter how persuasive their arguments might be. Representative democracy places some responsibility in the hands of the elected few who are supposed to understand why taxes are necessary, and even though they recognise the universal desire to keep them as low as possible, they would trade that off with the necessity of having enough money to invest on the collective good. This can be seen as a “filter” to the “wisdom of the crowd” (which I affirm that is inexistent; a mob’s collective intelligence is the lowest IQ divided by the number of its members…): “yes, we see what you want, but your wishes are not consistent with a working model, so we’ll try to do your best to respect your wishes while we maintain a reasonable infrastructure”. If we are so totally opposed to the way our views are “filtered”, we simply vote them out of office.
In this optimistic and idealised model (even I am not that naïve to believe it’s as simple as that!), what we have exchanged is the infinite number of shades of pink for our sunglasses to a selected, defined, pre-determined amount of colours, and elect a few to wear the sunglasses with the colour that most closely resembles ours. When we’re unhappy with those shades, we pick different ones. The “sunglass example” is flawed to a degree: we don’t wear always the same shade. And as we change sunglasses, we view and experience our surroundings differently all the time. Having a mechanism — general elections — to replace our representatives with a different set (with different sunglasses) is thus crucial. This is what representative democracy is all about.