As we move ever closer to the fateful day when political tongues will be fully unleashed and election rhetoric swells over us with tsunami ferocity, let us remember this: majority decisions, whether by people or by elected governments, are not always the right or best decisions.
I sound my cautionary note before political warriors officially hit the hustings to battle for the rights to govern, because once the tidal waves of partisan politics commence their assaults on our senses, we may be lost to reason.
Mark Twain once advised: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” It was sound advice when given and remains sound today, especially in British Columbia, where the fresh air of mountains, forests, lakes and oceans seems to send our senses out of whack from time to time.
We like referendums and the right of “the people” to be in on major political decisions. And we rejoice loudly when we troop to voting stations to overthrow decisions made by a group of people we had elected to make decisions for us but now don’t trust.
Of all too recent memory was the demand of the majority to rip the new harmonized sales tax from the statute books and replace it with the old, outdated and often unfair provincial sales tax.
It mattered not that the HST was a fairer tax than the PST. The majority were led to believe it was a new tax on top of an old one. Encouraged by political activists, the easily seduced rose in wrath to demand one step forward become two steps back.
“The majority” had spoken, participatory democracy had triumphed, but as Tolstoy wrote so long ago: “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
In our most recent federal election, one of the most thoughtful minds in Canada was massively rejected at the polls. Michael Ignatieff’s overtures to reason held no appeal for the majority of voters, who turned their backs on him and the Liberal party he led. Ignatieff went back to the world of academe, where his opinions and advice are treasured, and our federal parliament with a rich Conservative majority in power stumbled ever lower in House of Commons behaviour.
For the record, I’m not a member of the Liberal party — or any other party for that matter — but I think Canadians missed an opportunity to move into the parliamentary sunlight two years ago, and the majority, as it so often does, got it wrong.
Majority opinion being wrong and unjust is not new. Our democratic history is littered with examples of majority opinions being not just wrong, but the very opposite of democracy when those opinions were shaped into laws.
Women’s suffrage was beaten down for years because majority opinion (read: males) decided women were not well enough informed to vote; the civil-rights movement in the U.S. marched an incredibly difficult trail because the majority (read: white people) believed people with different skin colours were of inferior stock and that black people were subhuman. It took a civil war to end the rightness of that majority opinion.
In the Second World War, we had the incredible injustice to Canadians of Japanese ancestry, when the federal government ordered them arrested, incarcerated without trial and their property confiscated. A few questioned the actions, but “majority opinion” supported the government action.
Even more infamous has been the treatment of the people who were here when time began, but have been victims of many wrong majority opinions since the white man arrived.
So back to the provincial election campaign, coming soon to a community hall near you, where you will hear many majority opinions expressed and pleas to elect enough MLAs from one party to form a majority government. Be careful. Remember John Stuart Mills’s thoughts on liberty of thought and majority opinions: “The majority opinion is not guaranteed to be correct; it can be wrong, for the majority has no true authority and no absolute certainty. The fallibility of majority opinions is exemplified by looking at past history. Past popular opinion has often been rejected by present-day society, and there is no guarantee that present popular opinion won’t also be rejected by the future.”
Listen carefully to the volumes of promises and plans about to be delivered; hear what the politicians are saying. Think for yourself. And never forget that most of the great social changes in our lives have been brought about only when minority movements forced sheeplike majorities to listen.