Democracy: Consideration for others

..Treat others as you would like to be treated. ..I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.


One of the more curious aspects of our democracy is its recognition of every person's beliefs and their rights to express them. There are some who would burn the United States flag in protest, although they are presumably not protesting their right to do so as recognized by the country's Constitution.

Yet there are other individuals who believe that democracy itself is the problem. Should these people be allowed even to speak this idea? After all, what they are protesting is the very thing that permits them to do it.

A strong democracy does not generally discourage dissent. Full and open discussion of ideas is what makes it ever stronger. Yet we do tolerate some restrictions, especially when democracy itself is threatened; and, even though this is ultimately a sacrifice of principle, it is accepted as necessary in order ultimately to maintain the institution.

Still, the decision to restrict free expression is not one to be made lightly, since each instance is a small death. "I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," is at the core of every democracy; and, although there is a certain irony in allowing some anarchic or protest speech, it is a very slippery slope when censorship begins to be considered.

An entirely new consideration is when we consider the fact that other sovereign nations have their own ideas about expression, many of which are quite different from those of our United States. If we hold true to the doctrine of respecting the beliefs- not to mention the sovereignty- of others, the only reason to disregard them, then, is if we believe the ideal of democracy is even more important. There are certainly instances when regimes are so repressive that its citizens are living under rules that no one would call "civilized," and virtually everyone welcomes the actions of those who undertake to remove those rules.

There are still other countries that function very well, though, despite the presence of restrictions on expression that most US citizens would find excessive. It is important to remember that these rules are integrated into their societies, and as part of these countries' cultural identities it is not so easy to discard them without disturbing important, core aspects of their cultures.

The decision to pressure these countries to change their laws, then, is a much more difficult one to make. After all, we would not like other countries to tell us what to do anymore than they should be expected to welcome our participation in matters they consider intrinsic to their own cultures. We should keep this in mind before we decry the practices of another nation.

In any case, it is almost certainly not possible to introduce democracy into a society without affecting other, important parts of it. This is not to say that democracy might not be better for the members of that society, but that is, in large part, a value judgement. And we all deserve the right to decide for ourselves what we value, even if it's something that is not entirely democratic.

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Ralph Schatzki and Pradichaya Poonyarit are the main writers for articles in this section.

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