Democracy? What's that?

by Antistoicus

Note: this is copyrighted.

Some hosts will pay lip service to the notion of democracy under their roofs. I do not. My home (or any place I hold title to) is my fiefdom, even when I have guests over, and I make the rules unilaterally with a self-imposed sense of restraint.

I think that this is a good approach for a wide variety of situations, whether it is a party or a discussion or prayer group or ritual group that one is hosting for, as the case may be. What keeps it from degenerating into a seizure of total rule by one member (with cult like implications for religiously oriented groups) is that the role of host rotates, and that an excessively pushy host will find that none come in response to his invitation. The price to be paid for this brief burst of authority, serving as a deterrent to those who would play this role more often than is their due, is the large amount of work and responsibility that is dropped on the host's shoulders.

The other approach that I've seen tried, that of setting policy for events by a poll of the membership, doesn't seem to work for small gatherings. I've seen it result in backbiting politics and broken relationships everywhere I've seen it tried. Having seen this happen to my Jewish, Christian and Pagan friends with about equal speed, I think that I can say with confidence that the problem isn't faith or lifestyle, but human nature itself, and perhaps the structural realities of small scale politics.

For example, let us say that we have a small town, which, for some obscure reason, decides to set up a system of primaries for its mayoral elections, limiting the final race for a given term to those candidates who had won their respective party primaries (registered parties only). Let us further assume that there is a law on the books that all mass meetings must be announced and conducted in a completely democratic fashion. That sounds nice and liberating and above board, doesn't it?

Now, let us say that out of the 1,000 people living there, 800 are Libertarian and 200 are Stalinists, but the Stalinists are the only ones currently mobilized with a registered party, because the other parties were harassed into disbanding, a few years back. If Democracy worked the way we so often casually assume that it must, this wouldn't matter. The next mayor would be a libertarian, because that's what 80% of the people want. But you know what? Under the given rules, it just won't happen that way.

The reality that this simplistic analysis would ignore is that even if everyone wishes to take part in an event, it takes time for people to become aware of the existence of the event, and time, as the event continues, for people to gather. At that first meeting of the Second Libertarian party of Smallville, the organizers could consider their effort a tremendous success, if they managed to get 10% of their potential support to come. But that's only 80 people. The Stalinists hear about it, and pack the meeting with 120 of their supporters.

The Stalinists can then start ejecting the more outspoken of their opponents from the meeting, leaving a timid remnant who go along, in order to be able to "work within the system". As more Libertarians drop by, in subsequent meetings, they, too, find that they must accomodate the established leadership, or be ejected. And, in most likely, given the human nature to embrace that which has become habitual, regardless of its lack of merit, in time those who decided to "work within the sytem", will often become part of the system.

The moral of this little fable? Short term democracy can have some very anti-democratic long term results in small scale settings, especially when it is made absolute, and one of the factions, momentarily, significantly outmasses those others which have already mobilized, and is not especially concerned with ethics or pluralism. It is an unsustainable system, waiting for exactly that eventuality to arise.

The relevance of the fable? In lieu of the Stalinists in Smallville, posit the Politically Correct and their activist kindred, in the small social circles that came to characterize the America of the 1990s. Like, for example, our particular Pagan community. In place of the Libertarians, place the rest of us, who had had enough and wanted the freedom to speak without being silenced, and to live life on our own terms, not those of the self-appointed "leaders" around us, on their pseudo-messianic crusades of ego gratification, or of puritanical intolerance. The change in respective ideologies won't be that great, nor will the difference in the realities they have lead to.

Some may argue that we have overstated matters, here, that the circumstances are not so severe as all of that. But, this is an illusion. Usually, dissenters are greeted with an environment so thoroughly hostile that they can not enjoy any aspect of their presence there - they can't even feel comfortable talking to each other. Usually, this will be enough to drive people off. But once in a while, a vocal dissident will tough it out and start to be heard. Make no mistake, the cheerfully smug facade will break at that point, and someone will be ordered to stop being so "obnoxious" (by someone whose idea of counterargument is a personal attack), or leave.

One might say, that the dissenter had called the host's bluff, or, perhaps, the bluff of the one the host feels the need to appease. Feeling confident that others would back down, our would-be member of Thought Police might assert that "yes, of course I would respect a difference of opinion", seeking the legitimacy that would come from the expectation that he would show such a consideration, were the situation to arise. But let someone take him up on it, and a far different attitude is seen.

No truly distinctive (or individual) vision may be effectively pursued on these terms. One's group will simply be transformed into a clone of the ones already established, by fashionably nosy individuals who will want to see it "brought back into line".

Question :
"Fine. So what are you going to do, sob about it?"
Answer : click here

Some questions that have been asked with dyspeptic fervor of tyrants, such as myself are to be found below. (Note : Before one is left with a picture of me holding the severed head of an errant guest, I'd like to point out that the rules I do impose are extremely lenient, by most standards. If, for whatever reason, you are curious about them, this link will take you to a page on which some of them can be found. These, I adopted after some heard the name "Aphrodite" mentioned, and some peculiar reactions followed. Sometimes middle school never gets out, I suppose. Others, found in the Uniform Base Code of Morality, are more general principles I felt the need to spell out, so when I said "if somebody was being obnoxious, he'd be asked to leave", one would have a fairly clear notion of what it was, that I would consider actionably obnoxious, and why I felt that this definition was a useful and appropriate one for my purposes).

As a good host, I seek to make those rules no more restrictive than I must, hoping to show my guests as good a time as possible, but some must be made. The best summary I can think of, for the extremely permissive set of rules imposed at my gatherings, mentioned at the other end of that link, is that as long as you conduct yourself with at least a reasonable degree of dignity, you'll probably be accepted, though maybe a little startled, from time to time. Some questions, now ...

1. "As long as you conduct yourself with dignity" ... who defines dignity? Who decides that your idea of what dignity is, is right and someone else's is wrong?"

I do. That's a privilege that comes with being the host, and I am not going to apologise for exercising it. This is my show, and it is both my right and my responsibility to make it a pleasant and productive one for those who I would want to be my guests. If what I come up with has limited appeal, then I will find myself with very few guests, as people filter off to events that better meet their needs - as they should. But I'm not going to pay lip service to the foolish position that has seemed to define much of this decade, that I need the unanimously granted permission of those around me to take a firm stance. Or that reasonability and wishy-washiness are synonomous.

If someone, in my view, is making the event unpleasant, I'll talk to him. If he responds with the sort of defiant belligerence that I feel is reflected in the relativist's rant (what I call the question above), or worse, I'll toss him out immediately, with no further discussion. That is a promise to some, and a warning to others. Nobody's visit is going to ruined at my place, because the host was too indecisive to act.

2. "But what if you object, and your guests don't? Or what if you don't object, and your guests do?"

What the guests have to say will be considered very carefully in that final decision, but that final decision must made by the host (that's me). If, for no other reason, because in granting the possibility that politicing will get the troublemaker what he wants, the host would be creating an incentive to attempt it. This can translate into his guests being hassled by a very unpleasant individual, or group of individuals, either on or off the host's premises.

It is his responsibility to stand between his guests, and unpleasantness. The problem with settling such issues by small scale democratic means, is that it invites politicing, with holdouts heavily pressured to give in, at each point. Experience tells me, that one can see a "consensus" develop, that is more a reflection of the fear that each feels of being scorned by the others, should he assertively break with their collective position, than with what most of those present individually acknowledged that they wanted, before the politicing began.

It is sad that groups so often work that way. But if the very standards of acceptability are being set by majority vote, what will keep the majority from degenerating into a mob, that tramples those would refuse to join it? Maybe, individually, the people in it are nice, but weird things can begin to happen when otherwise nice people come together to form a group that they get attached to, and they become afraid of losing their connection to it. The group will itself can take on an unhealthy character, almost independent of the wills of those in it, which it eventually may end up distorting. Nothing that it does can be viewed as "objectionable" under the standards that it sets for itself, because in denying the individual the right to disagree with it, it has denied itself the capability of self reflection. It will simply redefine "right" to be whatever it is, that it does. So, should we wonder that it will be so easily manipulated, by the most dishonest or unpleasant around us?

Every moment that an individual, like the host, for example, subordinates his sense of what is right, to the decrees of the group, the group dynamic moves a little further in this unwholesome direction. People get used to the idea, that this sort of capitulation is natural, and the institution of groupthink gets a stronger foothold, as it is acted upon.

What I would seek seek in building a group, as I've said elsewhere, is the opportunity for true freedom, and when politicing takes the place of open discussion, that is precisely what is lost. For this reason, I would not create an environment that fosters "behind the scenes" activity. One can appeal to a host's sense of reason or fair play, but one can't do likewise with a mob.

3. "Isn't this a little condescending? It sounds like you expect to be the only adult in the group"

No, not at all. That's exactly the scenario that I'm acting to prevent. But I am aware, from past observation, of the sort of behavior that tends to arise in groups run by majority whim, without any degree of leadership - even leadership that is merely of the moment. (Here, I only claim the role of leader, when I am the host - inviting others to assume that role, and their own individual styles of leadership, when they host. Which I sure hope that a good number will).

In such a case, the more hiveminded band together, and tend to drive the more individualistic out, by ganging up on them, and making life unpleasant for them, until they leave. Those they would drive away, include those I would like to keep, so I'm going to write the rules, while I'm the host, in such a way, as to thwart this effort. Denying them control over group policy, depriving them of the opportunity to have their group will empowered, may make attendance for them sufficiently frustrating, that they will leave before I even know who they are. This will keep some unpleasant confrontations from arising. But, if some should elect to stay, my promise to eject the uncivil remains in place.

4. "What makes you so confident that your little set of rules will work for people, like that?"

Well, it isn't really my little set of rules, as I didn't originate them. All I did was remember them, having observed them being lived by, in a happier time, in a freer place. I saw them work in a way, that the rules today, don't. I am not so old - in fact, I'm not very old at all - that human nature could have changed very much in the time that I've been around.

I remember how so much freedom went away, slowly but relentlessly, and it wasn't through the exercise of free individual choice. It was through the use of peer pressure, and institutional reprisals when that didn't work, to stomp out the spontanaeity, and freedom of choice in lifestyle that used to be taken for granted - and the use of social engineering to keep it from reemerging. It doesn't require confidence in one's own insights to remember the questionable things that one has seen - just that honesty which those who would script the lives of others, refuse to ever show.

Let's continue.