The Curse and Misconceptions of Democracy

by Javier Betancourt

What is Democracy? A question that seems rather rhetorical in the beginning has caused a lot of controversies and sparkled discussion over the years.

Democracy is a common word in daily speech and the fact that its meaning is different for each one of us should come as a surprise.

Many people tend to give the same answer: democracy is the right to vote. Others may answer that democracy is the right to choose our governors. While this is part of democracy, it is not democracy in itself. Some other people tend to recite Greek etymologies “demos”=people, “kratos”=power, so it is the “power of the people”; others say that “Democracy is freedom”.

While the previous answers are noble and light hearted, great danger is hidden in one of the biggest misconceptions of democracy: “democracy is when the majority decides”. Unfortunately, this misconception is more common than anyone could imagine, and has been widely used to deny the rights of women, GLBT, religious minorities, ethnic groups, etc. This misconception has been even used by politicians, the people who should know what democracy is.

In daily arguments about controversial issues it is quite common to find misconceptions and misinterpretations of democracy. Due to these misconceptions many people tend to fall into arguments that never really end; rather false misconceptions tend to NOT represent democracy include the following:

A)     “Muslims should not be allowed to ‘insert phrase here’ on a Christian country. – The majority is Christian, and has therefore, decided. ‘This is democracy’.”

B)      “Homosexual people should not have the right to marriage. – The majority has decided that it is not what we want for our country. We live in a democracy.”

Both of the aforementioned arguments and especially the second one have been widely used in the West in order to impose a rather conservative stance and behaviour. However this is NOT democracy, but exactly the opposite. Misconceptions appear to be very dangerous for democracy.

In the political speech and rhetoric, particularly in the United States, it is very common for the word “democracy” to be used every once in a while: “democracy” should be something good, and we stand for it; we believe in democracy so much that we are proud to bring “democracy” to other nations even if this involves war.

To bring democracy and freedom to Iraq was one of the most overheard and tiring sentences of the decade. But as I demonstrated before, the majority  doesn’t even know what democracy is.

I am sure that many have already looked at the dictionary to find the definition of democracy:

 de·moc·ra·cy:

 1. “A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.”

2. “A state governed in such a way.”

Even the definition of the dictionary is not as deep as it should be for something that seems to be extremely important.

Particularly now, in the aftermath (or midst) of the Arab spring, people are fighting for “democracy” which for them is practically the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships and oppression; the right to vote their representatives; and hopefully the right of being eligible for election themselves.

However, the question that remains is whether after the elections, they are going to be living in a democracy? But then again do those in the West live in democracy?

Going in deeper on the dictionary definition of democracy that states: “the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”, we see that it is suggested that everyone should have the same opportunities to be elected. While this is true, it also implies that the whole population should have the same access to the same opportunities/rights. Ideally, democracy is the governmental system in which the whole population has the same opportunities, no matter if it is the child of a banker or the poor child of a widow. Additionally, minorities are part of the population and have the right to be  heard rather than be displaced by the majority.

Therefore, it is imperative that the misconceptions of democracy do not pass on to the new “democracies” in the Middle East, thus ensuring that the minorities have the same privileges and responsibilities as the majority, as well as that no faith or ethnic group is oppressed by the majority.

As it has been demonstrated, even in the West there are problems in understanding what democracy is; yet, people turn up to the polls and vote… blindly.

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3 thoughts on “The Curse and Misconceptions of Democracy

  1. it s quite difficult to correct those misconseptions just for the simple reason that people think that democracy means that you can say whatever you want then stick to it even though it s wrong which represent in itself a kind of misconceptions. it s true that democracy gives you the right to speak freely but with limits for sure cause there is no such thing as absolute freedom

    • Dear Safa,

      I found your comment very interesting and intellectually stimulating. I tend to agree with you. An absolute freedom is impossible to achieve from the moment humans form societies. This lack of freedom is not a result of a given system (democracy, communism, anarchy) but rather inherent to human behaviour.

      In fact, we tend to limit ourselves as a mechanism in order to establish societies and effectively interact with others. “Freedom” also deserves its own article on misconceptions, however, it is more difficult to define since it must be analyzed in a determined historic and cultural context. I am sure the concept of “Freedom” varies between countries, societies and cultures. In this globalized world, we are beginning to realize that basic concepts we hear in the daily political speech have not the same connotation in the east as in the west and vice versa. In addition, it seems there are “levels freedom” which society and/or government tend to prioritize leading to outrageous violations of civil rights.

      Anyway, I can keep going and going… Thank you very much for your comment. I truly appreciate such interesting comments that engage us in a mental exercise!

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