How To Save Democracy and Ourselves
-Updated Sept 2018-
For the People, By the People
As was so eloquently expressed by US President Abraham Lincoln in his famed Gettysburg Address, a government is made up by its people in order to serve the interests of its people. This is the very basis of democracy. Concordantly, legal systems are then established to represent the regulations by which people are thereby governed. Such laws of the land are therefore written and passed with the intended purpose of protecting and benefiting said society. In simple terms, they are passed because people want them.
People therefore make up the foundation of the governance system. It is society that generates the demand for rules and regulations, and it is then government’s role to respond to that demand. That’s pretty much how things work in a system designed to represent the needs of the people (a.k.a. democracy). As time passes, new needs arise, which result in new laws, government organizations, etc. It should then come as no surprise to the reader that, at some point, new laws need to be introduced. Whether this is due to the inability of existing laws to effectively address an issue, or from the desire to revise established laws and update them to better reflect society’s evolution, governance is by no means static.
Democracy As a Living Organism
Things can, and do change. It may be hard fought in the majority of cases, but ultimately it is up to the people that form society to provoke this transformation. Hopes and frustrations motivate individuals to champion a cause (see Mead Quote), inspire and mobilize communities, and form organizations that support their beliefs. As people come together to march in protest and call for change, pressure and awareness grow (as well as the risk of potential retribution), until those in government respond to the demand, or lose their place to those that will.
At least this is how democracy should work. As surprising as this might seem of late, there are also numerous examples of it going down this way. Of course, in an ideal world governments would genuinely represent the interests of their people (that’s what we’re aiming for) and civil unrest would be relatively obscure. However, if the representative mandate doesn’t hold true, then there should exist a series of checks and balances within the system itself that will work to eject or fix that which is deficient. Barring that, people will lose confidence in the system, and the population will rise up against those in power and demand change. The will of the people is essentially the fail-safe.
Vive la Révolution?
Unfortunately, this no longer seems to be the case. Not because society has lost its ability to effect change on government, far from it. There are countless examples of passionate individuals and organizations achieving change (I love sharing those stories), and they continue to illustrate the fact that people really do still wield the ultimate power in society. Rather, for the vast majority of citizens, the status quo has become too firmly rooted. Changing social policy can appear insurmountable (see Proven in Action), and the average person has consequently become jaded and dismayed at their own seemingly limited capacity to make a significant impact on matters of government.
There is certainly an abundance of reasons why many now share this feeling of disillusionment. It may result from the belief that their voices are not being heard, or that they can no longer effect the changes they wish to see in the world. It may also stem from a conviction that special interests have indeed become too strong, and that the government system is too corrupt and entrenched to change.
Apathy For All
Another cause of political indifference may be that citizens themselves have become too busy and ill-informed. The sheer number of people and institutions out there now generate so much information, across so many platforms, that it is difficult to keep up. The internet is an amazing source of knowledge, but it’s also flooded with copious amount of misinformation and falsehoods, and it has become a skill to be able to navigate through it all. It can all seem potentially overwhelming to the average citizen.
Meanwhile, those that were elected to represent society carry on with their daily affairs. In the best of cases, they sincerely have society’s long term interests and well-being at heart, and will pursue this mandate ethically and persistently. In the worst instances, they are influenced by the pressures and corruptions that surround them, and succumb to self-interest, greed, and delusion (see Pulling the Strings). This might seem a wicked balance to have found ourselves in and yet, despite the adversity, there is hope!
Freedom Through Education
The solution to many of the social and environmental challenges we currently face is an educated and informed population that chooses to act morally when faced with reason and understanding. Indeed, as a species we do possess the right tools (empathy and intelligence) for solving the innumerable problems that confront us! However, we have also created for ourselves plenty of obstacles that work to impede our capacity to solve them. As a result, the critical components to overcoming so many of these complex issues reside in our ability to decipher relevant information, combined with the strength and will for continuous improvement.
Education as a Pillar of Democracy
To achieve this we need quality education. Of course, such education is not limited to our time spent in school, but is the culmination of our experiences, as well as the shared experiences of our elders and those who came before them (I’m personally a big fan of studying history). We know that learning comes in many forms, however a fundamental aspect of education includes the need to grow and develop our own critical thinking.
The quest for knowledge is paramount, but so too must be the commitment to determine what is truthful and relevant. It is harmful to both ourselves and others to have our minds filled up will falsehoods and prejudicial nonsense (a.k.a. unsubstantiated conspiracies, fake news, corporate marketing, etc). Such fraudulent information is dangerous and can have a devastating effect on the social fabric.
We must therefore train ourselves on how to evaluate that which is presented to us (see The Illusion of Choice), and as we integrate this practice, teach others to do the same. Although we should learn this during childhood, it is never too late to adopt the habit of analysis and investigation, so that we don’t simply ingest what is easy, and cultivate the willingness (it takes effort) to find the truth. The pursuit of facts will in turn, bring up the questions of purpose and relevance. You may be asking, “What then? What are we to do with this information once we have discovered that it is genuine?” Well, in this humble writer’s opinion, insight and valuable information should be shared with others for the purpose of bettering society.
Navigating the Maze
Therein lies yet another challenge. The sheer volume of information shared daily is staggering! From the moment we turn on our screens in the morning, we are bombarded with information. This doesn’t lessen throughout the day (or night), and the future seems set on feeding us even more. Consequently, it is vitally important that our societies learn what to do with it all. We must therefore learn how to filter what comes at us, how to differentiate reason from nonsense, and ultimately, how to make the best choices from what we have discovered. If managed correctly, this steady flood of perception will guide our decisions and lead us, and our corresponding governments, towards some form of progressive evolution. A better world is possible!
As other, incredibly wise, humans have said before me, we need not have perfection, but continue our work towards it, so that today is better than yesterday. This has become a motto for sustainability. Given that the challenges of a warming planet, dwindling resources, and environmental destruction are so frightening and immense, it is natural for any sane individual to be potentially daunted by the task. I’m frequently asked how we can hope to achieve this given all our flaws and the current state of the world. My response is often to offer concrete examples of how we are improving, and encourage the individual to apply the practice of improving upon yesterday (the Japanese call it Kaizen). Be inspired by others and learn from them. Ultimately, education and empathy will help us surmount these complex problems.
Hug It Out and Develop Empathy
Empathy and emotional intelligence are integral to resolving the planetary crisis of rapid environmental destruction and global warming, and they are also essential in supporting the institutions of democracy. In addition to the cold hard facts, we need a shared understanding, as well as the need to encourage and develop a sense of hope and optimism. Society, particularly its youth, need to know that promising ideas can be manifested into reality, and the institutions we create will work to encourage the intrinsic hope that motivates exploration and innovation. It might sound like a lot to ask for, but we are certainly capable of it.
The key to saving our democracy, and the environment at large, is therefore education. More specifically, a holistic education, that combines the growth and development of a critical approach necessary for tackling the world objectively, with a culture of empathy and compassion that will guide our future decisions. It is absolutely twofold. We can search for the truth and hone our reason and logic, while still being mindful of others and nurturing the spark of hope and creativity that ignites all the more when we apply it in the service of others and the environment.
Bring Back Civics Studies
One way of achieving this is through a better understanding of our individual role in society. Civics courses will help. Civics, “the study of the rights and duties of citizenship,” should be reintegrated into our schools and raised among the social conscience. Governments, as well as social leaders (from celebrities to corporate executives), have a responsibility to encourage citizen engagement, and be the example to others. Politicians in particular need to be held to a higher standard, as their role is exclusively designed to be in service to the public. Some reminders seem necessary at this point.
Thankfully, the public discourse is gravitating once again towards the nature of government, and the roles it plays in representing all the people that make up a society (this includes the disenfranchised). Furthermore, democratic institutions exist to serve and protect all aspects of a society. This includes the water, soil, and air, as well as all the other life forms that share the planet with us. If our social empathy is not yet developed enough to warrant compassion for the birds, squirrels, elephants, and polar bears (etc), then simply the motivation for self-preservation should compel us to watch over the environment and learn to live with it.
Contemplating the Natural Course
Historically, this was the case. Humans learnt to live off the land, and use what was available, without exhausting what nature had to offer. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution (early 19th Century), that science was used as a means of justifying our dominance over the natural world. Of course, scientific progress itself is not at fault for our present ecological erosion. This was entirely our doing. Scientific achievement is not at odds with the world. Rather, it is how scientific advancement was used, manipulated, and taught, that contributed to the rampant hubris and environmental decay that we see today.
It is not too late to change course. Society can certainly reclaim the priorities of the education system, and rehabilitate the humanities. We can teach compassion, empathy, and understanding. Indeed, we are born with these sentiments (even babies demonstrate empathy, and do things to make others happy), but many of us train it away during our upbringing and education. This is why the conventional education system (designed during the Industrial Revolution), itself won’t cut it, and why I highlight the need for a holistic education when discussing the redemption of our democracies. Education is the key, but it must encompass the nurturing of empathy and compassion.
The Opposite of Love is not Hate, it’s Indifference – Elie Wiesel
Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel best explained this by pointing out that the Germans, during the time of the Holocaust, were some of the best and most educated in the world. Despite their education they were still able to carry out mass atrocities and genocide. This proves that the state, as well as science and education, can be used in the service of evil, while the population at large is either blind to its own malice or has rationalized it away. Why it is so fundamentally important to develop a critical awareness that will encourage others to question their own actions and motivations objectively, while allowing for compassion and empathy to flourish.
The responsibility for educating ourselves and our children need not be left to the state. Public education can certainly be a force for good, but parents and guardians also need to participate, encourage, guide and teach. We need to share our stories with each other, and support our friends and neighbors as best we can. Through the application of critical thinking and mindfulness, we can absolutely enrich ourselves, broaden our understanding, and acknowledge our shared humanity. We can gain inspiration and motivation from one another, and together save our democracies and our planet.