Monday, April 30, 2012

True democracy – do we have the stomach for it?

22. July 2011 is a date that we Norwegians will never forget. Yet many of us would like to say that it hasn’t changed us. But come on, let’s be honest with ourselves and each other here: No one can go through something like this and not change in any way. No one. Nor, in my opinion, should we want to, because that would be a quite spectacular display of inability to learn from even the most dramatic of events. I say, in this case - as so often in real life - the question is not if we change, but how we change. As individuals. As a society. As a nation. As a democracy. And as members of the human race and citizens of the planet Earth, both of which I personally hold above any and all national, ethnical, religious or political boundaries.

If we keep our minds open to it, there is always something new to learn and there is always something that can be changed to the better. Even after a tragedy like this. And that’s one of the major strengths of an open democracy where people can and do speak their minds: Somebody will always have learned something and if we listen to what they have to say and discuss it with them, we can all learn even more and our entire society can benefit from it in some way none of us have even imagined yet.

One interesting point I have seen raised in the wake of the 22. July attacks is that we should allow the people we consider “extremists” more room in our public debates. Yes, it may seem problematic to some, but consider this for a moment: If democracy is really such a great system, then shouldn’t we trust it? And if we actually trust our democracy, then why would we need laws against certain types of “unwanted” expressions and opinions? Isn’t democracy all about letting everybody speak their mind?

It seems to me like we do have a problem as a democracy when certain thoughts and opinions are considered “unwanted” and a person is practically excluded from participation in an open and public debate once he or she becomes known to have “unwanted” thoughts and opinions on things. First of all, it’s hardly a true democracy when it works like that for some people and second, I believe excluding people in such a way can actually do more harm than good.

For starters, if a person is practically excluded from public debate on the grounds that we don’t like what he or she has to say, then that fact alone goes a long way towards breaking down that person’s respect for our democratic system as a whole. Such people can very easily end up spending countless hours hiding in a room all by themselves, with nothing but their own dark thoughts to keep them company, and/or they get in touch with other “misfits” and join some shady group or another, seeking a sense of community and belonging that the regular society hasn’t given them. Typically, people within such groups will also have some sort of internal democracy and open debate within the group, but that’s just the thing – it’s all within the group, and only the “right” type of opinions are expressed there. So, while the rest of us gradually grow more “rounded” and “colorful” from participation in an open debate involving many different points of view, the “extremists” will only grow more and more “extreme” from participating in their own closed internal debates. Obviously, this is not a good thing and it’s not something we should want to make any kind of contribution to bringing about. In a society - any society – it is practically never a good idea to exclude anyone.

So, next time you hear somebody saying something you don’t like - whether it seems selfish, hateful or just plain stupid – don’t get angry and resort to name calling, but listen to what they have to say – and then tell them what you think about that. No, it’s not easy and it will not always be pleasant. But if you consider yourself a true democrat, I think you should at least give it your best shot.

Or, as a respected Norwegian politician once told a political opponent, "I don't agree with anything you just said, but I'd still die to defend your right to say it."