Thursday, August 27, 2009

Majority - we all agree, therefore, it is right.

What does it really mean when a news clip starts with the sentence, "a majority of the public..."? We live in a democracy where the rule of the majority is not only inevitable but a tool through which governments are elected and policies are justified. So intrinsic the concept of majority is in our society, that it is difficult to even talk about democracy without mentioning the word 'majority' somewhere in the sentence. A majority of New Zealanders think mobile phones should be banned in cars, a majority of the public think health care is a right not privilege, a majority of the people think David Bain is guilty. If we were subscribing to the Greek view of direct democracy, would we be adopting these ideologies because the majority thought so? If that were the case, then billions of dollars would not be spent to conduct studies about effects of policies all over the world. We would not be weighing up consequences and we would not be comparing pros and cons. We would simply leave it up to the majority to decide. And we would have policies like that in Saudi Arabia where the majority do not believe that women should have a right to vote or drive or receive higher education or have a profession of choice. We would not have an adversarial justice system where the onus is on the state to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And perhaps torture would be justified in the interest of national security.

There is no doubt that in the interest of effective governance, the use of majority consensus not only simplifies many processes, it almost most certainly is the only way things can get done as well as elect presidents like Bush. But does the number of people that watch a movie dictate a "good quality movie"? A book? A piece of art? As a society it is perfectly within our rights to throw our arms up in the air and say that it is impossible to take every situation and weigh up the merits of every different options based on every different circumstances. But unless we really do that, no outcome can be claimed to be the "right" outcome. It is just the preferred outcome. Humans made it possible to go to the moon, to take salmon gene that allows it to survive in cold waters and put it in a tomato so we can have it in the winter, to make skyscrapers that withstand earthquakes. Surely we should not have to leave it up to the majority to decided what is suitable for us to have a better society because the alternatives are too complicated. And if we had left it up to the majority, New Zealand would not have been the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, blacks would not have the right to vote in the 50s, and homosexuals in this country would be criminalised as late as the 80s.

In the end, one only invokes the 'majority' to justify policies that do not have merit on their own, especially when that is the only justification. No one would justify women's suffrage by saying that a majority of the public would like to retain a women's right to vote, no one would justify criminal liability by saying a majority of the public believe that murderers should be punished, and no one would to justify the condemnation of genocide by saying that majority of the world's population thinks genocide is an abominable act. The majority number gives us an indication of the individual’s choice and preference, which is of course important in a democracy, but it does not tell us what is fair, just or right. So now, in the year 2009, when more people than ever are educated, when we have access to more information than ever, when we were more aware of long term consequences of our actions, when we should be doing everything to promote a more peaceful and civilised society, a majority of the New Zealand's public want the right to smack their children in order to discipline them and the government elected by the majority would like to usurp select committee processes, ignore Treaty implications and remove Maori seats in the Auckland Supercity Council.

Is this what most people want?


Is it right?

Surely not.

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