Monday 26 June 2023

Ideas Animate Democracy

Keith Tidman

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once advised, ‘Life can only be understood backwards … but it must be lived forward’ — that is, life understood with one eye turned to history, and presaged with the other eye turned to competing future prospects. An observation about understanding and living life that applies across the board, to individuals, communities, and nations. Another way of putting it is that ideas are the grist for thinking not only about ideals but about the richness of learnable history and the alternative futures from which society asserts agency in freely choosing its way ahead. 

As of late, though, we seem to have lost sight that one way for democracy to wilt is to shunt aside ideas that might otherwise inspire minds to think, imagine, solve, create, discover and innovate — the source of democracy’s intellectual muscularity. For reflexively rebuffing ideas and their sources is really about constraining inquiry and debate in the public square. Instead, there has been much chatter about democracies facing existential grudge matches against exploitative autocratic regimes that issue their triumphalist narrative and view democracy as weak-kneed.  

In mirroring the decrees of the Ministry of Truth in the dystopian world of George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four — where two plus two equals five, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength — unbridled censorship and historical revisionism begin and end with the fear of ideas. Ideas snubbed by authoritarians’ heavy hand. The short of it is that prohibitions on ideas end up a jumbled net, a capricious exercise in power and control. Accordingly, much exertion is put into shaping society’s sanctioned norms, where dissent isn’t brooked. A point to which philosopher Hannah Arendt cautioned, ‘Totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorising human beings from within’. Where trodden-upon voting and ardent circulation of propagandistic themes, both of which torque reality, hamper free expression.


This tale about prospective prohibitions on ideas is about choices between the resulting richness of thought or the poverty of thought — a choice we must get right, and can do so only by making it possible for new intellectual shoots to sprout from the raked seedbed. The optimistic expectation from this is that we get to understand and act on firmer notions of what’s real and true. But which reality? One reality is that each idea that’s arbitrarily embargoed delivers yet another kink to democracy’s armour; a very different reality is that each idea, however provocative, allows democracy to flourish.


Only a small part of the grappling over ideas is for dominion over which ideas will reasonably prevail long term. The larger motive is to honour the openness of ideas’ free flow, to be celebrated. This exercise brims with questions about knowledge. Like these: What do we know, how do we know it, with what certainty or uncertainty do we know it, how do we confirm or refute it, how do we use it for constructive purposes, and how do we allow for change? Such fundamental questions crisscross all fields of study. New knowledge ferments to improve insight into what’s true. Emboldened by this essential exercise, an informed democracy is steadfastly enabled to resist the siren songs of autocracy.


Ideas are accelerants in the public forum. Ideas are what undergird democracy’s resilience and rootedness, on which standards and norms are founded. Democracy at its best allows for the unobstructed flow of different social and political thought, side by side. As Benjamin Franklin, polymath and statesman, prophetically said: ‘Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government’. A lead worth following. In this churn, ideas soar or flop by virtue of the quality of their content and the strength of their persuasion. Democracy allows its citizens to pick which ideas normalise standards — through debate and subjecting ideas to scrutiny, leading to their acceptance or refutation. Acid tests, in other words, of the cohesion and sustainability of ideas. At its best, debate arouses actionable policy and meaningful change.


Despite society being buffeted daily by roiling politics and social unrest, democracy’s institutions are resilient. Our institutions might flex under stress, but they are capable of enduring the broadsides of ideological competitiveness as society makes policy. The democratic republic is not existentially imperiled. It’s not fragilely brittle. America’s Founding Fathers set in place hardy institutions, which, despite public handwringing, have endured challenges over the last two-and-a-half centuries. Historical tests of our institutions’ mettle have inflicted only superficial scratches — well within institutions’ ability to rebound again and again, eventually as robust as ever.


Yet, as Aristotle importantly pointed out by way of a caveat to democracy’s sovereignty and survivability, 

‘If liberty and equality . . . are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be attained when all persons share in the government to the utmost.’

A tall order, as many have found, but one that’s worthy and essential, teed up for democracies to assiduously pursue. Democracy might seem scruffy at times. But at its best, democracy ought not fear ideas. Fear that commonly bubbles up from overwrought narrative and unreasoned parochialism, in the form of ham-handed constraints on thought and expression.


The fear of ideas is often more injurious than the content of ideas, especially in the shadows of disagreeableness intended to cause fissures in society. Ideas are thus to be hallowed, not hollowed. To countenance contesting ideas — majority and minority opinions alike, forged on the anvil of rationalism, pluralism, and critical thinking — is essential to the origination of constructive policies and, ultimately, how democracy is constitutionally braced.



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