So what is democracy?
While we cannot realistically expect to have one agreed definition of democracy in societies which call themselves ‘democratic’, or indeed in any one of those societies, the concept of democracy is woefully ill-defined in general. It can thus be used by autocrats and dictators, by rabble rousers and crooks as they see fit. However this relates closely to nonviolence since meaningful inclusion in society, and in society’s decision making, is not only an important part of democracy but also an important part of arriving at a nonviolent society; without such inclusion there is exclusion, and exclusion breeds ill feeling and violence even if such violence is not directly undertaken or sought by those in power.
The first thing to say is that democracy is not just about voting, though voting and how voting takes place may be an essential part of it. Participation by citizens can take many different forms, not least campaigning and organising on particular issues, and this is an important part of it; the freedom to organise and campaign. Without the latter, aimed at influencing other citizens and the government, anything else is a sham. ‘Participative’ democracy is not an option, it is of the essence.
If the term ‘democracy’ breaks down to the Greek for ‘rule by the people’ there is still the question or questions – what sort of rule? And which people? Some definitions do include freedom and equality in their definition – e.g. “the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves” (Cambridge Dictionary, online). When you look at one definition, you then need more; what do ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’ mean? ‘Equality’ is not currently understood as economic equality, that is for certain, in a world which has become much more unequal – and where the rich can use their money to influence decisions for good or ill.
However some definitions also include the concept of ‘majority’ rule, even ‘rule by the majority’. And what does this mean? That a majority can ride rough shod over the wishes of a minority? Or that the arithmetic majority political elite are the only ones to count and be counted, certainly between elections? Any definition of democracy which simply defines it as majority rule is asking for problems since it justifies a multitude of sins, even what is taking place to Uighurs in Xinjiang in China, perpetrated by the majority Han Chinese government (though the one party system in China does not fit at all with free democracy).
This leads us on to the problem of defining, and working, democracy in deeply divided societies – whether that be in the USA in relation to Trumpism or in the UK in relation to Brexit. These are ‘current’ divisions which have links to longer term political divisions. Then there are societies where there are historical ethnic-political divisions, such as Northern Ireland, where democracy is taken to mean whatever suits someone’s particular interests at any time. And in the latter, even armed struggle can be engaged in pursuit of their understanding of ‘democracy’ by different sides.
As is well known, there has been a resurgence of right wing politics in many ‘western’ and other societies in the recent past. Governments in these societies not only wrap the flag around themselves and adopt an authoritarian approach to people and issues. Can there be a ‘democracy’ where the government acts in an undemocratic way? Of course; democracy is not something given – it is something achieved and vulnerable. There are many different ways of assessing the level of democracy existing in society; these include not just regular free elections but ease of access to these elections (e.g. this makes the USA less ‘democratic’ because of the enormous practical and financial barriers to participating in federal elections). Other factors include the freedom to organise (in political parties, pressure groups and free trade unions), an independent judiciary, and a government which is at least somewhat responsive to popular will, subject to human rights concerns.
The last phase ‘subject to human rights concerns’ is necessary because ‘responding to the people’, if the demand is for xenophobic petty nationalist policies, can be totally antidemocratic in regard to others in the country, citizens and migrants, who may then have basic human rights ignored. So adherence to international human rights standards is also a key aspect of democracy.
All of this might seem to make democracy very complicated and difficult. It can be if you let it. But there are innovative methodologies which are a significant help. The use of the citizens’ assembly model in the Republic, trusting a random selection of citizens to thrash out issues, has been very useful to setting an agenda for politicians to then take forward. The similar-but-different Civic Forum in Northern Ireland, arising from the Good Friday Agreement, was not entrusted with similar faith by political parties there and bit the dust as a result; this was a mistake. Political parties can be very jealous of others engaging in democratic debate and this is particularly true in Northern Ireland.
Voting methodologies are also an important aspect of democracy. The British first-past-the-post voting methodology, used in Westminster elections including in Northern Ireland, is the antithesis of a fair or representative system. PR-STV (Proportional Representation – Single transferable Vote), as used in Dáil and NI Assembly elections, is a much fairer system though it still allows parties with significant support to appeal only to their own converted, especially in a consociational system like the North (where power-sharing across the divide is obligatory).
And in referendums, simple binary, yes or no, voting can be both divisive and inefficient in arriving at a truly democratic result. The obvious example of this is Brexit in the UK where a simplistic and ill-defined choice led to a narrow majority for one option; this was then held (by the supporters of that option) to be sacrosanct, and taken on to deliver a result which was not what an arithmetic majority of people would have chosen had they been given full information on consequences.
There are however pluralist decision making mechanisms, such as those espoused by the de Borda Institute http://www.deborda.org/ which can be used to not only engage in a full and proper debate on issues but which give a much more representative, and nuanced, picture of the view of all voters on a matter. The Modified Borda Count (MBC) is one way forward in societal decision making, and one which is unlikely to have a polarising effect.
The de Borda institute states that “A decision-making procedure can be described as democratic if, from a range of usually 4 – 6 options independently chosen to fairly represent the debate, it identifies the option(s) which gain(s) the highest average preference score(s)… and an average, of course, involves all of the voters, not just a majority of them.” We are unaware of any better operational method to arrive at a decision which best represents ‘the will of the people’; portraying the ‘will of the people’ as 50% + 1 in a two-choice vote is or can be a travesty.
It is a cliche to say that Ireland is at a crossroads. Societies are always at crossroads, with various directions possible, at any time. However in Northern Ireland there is the prospect of a border poll ‘some time’ in the next couple of decades, and the outcome of that cannot be assumed one way or another. In both jurisdictions on the island, the disenchantment with politics and politicians needs addressed, and not just by having citizens’ assemblies on important issues (though that is welcome). In the Republic there is the concomitant question to the border poll in the North – what kind of society and political entity would a united Ireland be? And in the mean time there is the question of decentralising state functions and decision making so the state is closer to citizens and not in an authoritarian way.
The way forward for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, and indeed in relation to the possibility of a united Ireland, would be made easier and more progressive by meaningful thought and debate on the nature of democracy. As stated at the beginning, it is unlikely and indeed impossible for everyone to agree on one definition. But building awareness of democracy’s essentials, and ways to deliver those essentials, would be of great service in defining where ‘we’ go in future. Our peace and wellbeing may depend upon it.
The elephant in the room reappears
We have said before that masculinity and particularly macho type masculinity is the elephant in the room when it comes to violence, and violence against women. [See https://www.innatenonviolence.org/posters/index.shtml and go to “Masculinity, violence, men…”] The #MeToo movement has focused on male sexual violence. The killing of Sarah Everard in Britain recently, with a serving police officer charged with her murder, has raised further questions – and so it should.
Things are no different in Ireland where fear of male violence by women is a stark reality. And fear of violence prevents women going about as they would wish. A survey by Transport Infrastructure Ireland, launched in a report in March, showed that over half, 55%, of women would not use public transport after dark and just over a third stated that feelings of insecurity prevented them from travelling alone (and this research was conducted before Covid when more people would have been out and about and streets less deserted). While the actual figures for those who have suffered violence are considerably smaller, the violence that exists has a severe knock on effect on women’s lives, wellbeing and freedom.
In addition there is the issue of male-on-male violence which sometimes is ignored or taken for granted. This also takes many forms, unfortunately some ending up in the courts with manslaughter or murder charges. And the number of male-on-female rapes which are reported, prosecuted, or result in a conviction is woefully small, in some cases in low single figures for conviction. So even when severe violence takes place, the perpetrators face a low risk of consequences.
The task is certainly not just one of better and more comprehensive relationship education in school, though that should be a very definite part of the package. There are many challenges in growing up today and in some ways expectations and pressures of many different kinds can be a powder keg for individuals. Relationship education should be a key part of schooling – we would also argue that education in mediative techniques (including the practice of peer mediation in schools) should be an essential part of civic education. And education in mediation has an important connection with nonviolence; listening, and being able to listen (which militates against violence which is the pinnacle of not-listening).
Riaising the issue of male violence is understood by some men as being ‘anti-men’. It is nothing of the sort. It is pro-men, for a healthy definition and understanding of what manhood should entail. Male violence is also a fact of life. It is certainly not about ignoring female violence, or support for violence, or pushing it under any carpet but it is a matter of reflecting on, and dealing with, the fact that the vast majority of a wide variety of different forms of violence are directly inflicted by men. Asking ‘Why?’ is a good starting point.
There are deep cultural questions to be asked about the nature and source of violence, and where it relates to our being as humans. One thing is sure; we are not necessarily a violent species, nor are males necessarily violent or more violent than females (as anthropology shows us). It would be fascinating to go back 5,000 years to the Céide Fields in north Mayo to see what their concepts were, and how they lived their lives; it is accepted that this was a peaceful, settled, cooperative society with evidently no enemies. Whether it was a pre-patriararchal, matriarchal or gender-balanced society we do not know, but we do know it was relatively non-hierarchal (all the houses were the same size). But it is one example on our island of a society which was certainly relatively non-violent and which challenges concepts such as ‘violence has always been with us’. How far have we travelled backwards in 5,000 years?
We also live in a culture which still glorifies violence in conflict and war if not in interpersonal relations. While warrior-hero models may be disputed as a cause of intra-societal or interpersonal violence, we are not so sure. If the image of the ‘brave’ ‘strong’ man in warfare is still inculcated by both the state and some parts of civil society, and certainly in films and media, who can say this does not carry over into civil society concepts, especially for men? And men who feel they are lacking in self image and self awareness may translate that into a desire to exercise violence, in a twisted way, towards having a ‘positive’ self image.
Some pschological studies have shown that playing violent video games does not make young men more violent in their behaviour. Again there are questions here. While this judgement may or may not be true on an individual level, there is also the societal level where even the tolerance for violent, clearly fantasy, games carries over to the real world. Why do the militaries of armies who use drone warfare recruit young men who are good at computer games? Because a) they have directly transferrable skills and b) they may be already inured, through violent games, to ‘remote’ killing and real life, remote killing may just seem another game to them.
‘Masculinist’ movements (for “men’s rights”) which protest that women now have the upper hand in some battle between the sexes are barking up the totally wrong tree. Equality of any kind has not been achieved by women although vast progress has been made. Statistics regarding violence show a much truer picture of where things are at, and the Irish figures quoted earlier show just how women are affected.
It is also totalling misplaced to depict such issues as a battle between the sexes. Going forward is not a zero sum game, it is defintely a question of achieving win-win. Being violent in any way is not a good place to be in, and while it may be infinitely worse to be on the receiving end, being violent is not good for the body or the soul (in a secular sense – as figures for PTSD among soldiers can attest).
There are new, positive images of masculinity which can be inculcated. These also are a win for men in potentially having more satisying and fulfilling lives, in sharing burdens, and in better relationships with their partners and children. There is thus a carrot for men to redefine what it means to be a man and this is important because wielding a big stick and saying sternly ‘you need to change’ may not communicate what is necessary – it might raise the issue but be seen as a threat rather than an opportunity.
It is long past time that society asked some of these questions, and more, about male violence. The women’s movement has tried hard to raise some of the issues, and deal with some of the consequences, e.g. of interpersonal violence in so-called ‘domestic’ violence. The issue of gender is often falsely throught to be an issue for women. (See “Gender, meaning of the word…” poster at https://www.innatenonviolence.org/posters/index.shtml ) Men need to realise they are indubitably also a gender (without here going into the reality of issues of non-binary identity) and have a gendered identity. Society as a whole, and especially men who are by far the most violent gender, need to deal with these issues through becoming informed, discussion, debate and then action and implementation; however the discussion needs to take place fully involving women or it would be men ‘again’ making decisions by themselves. But as the more violent gender the onus is on men.
Without such action we will continue with where we are at the moment – masculinity affecting individuals and wider society, particularly women, in a really toxic way. Europeans sometimes laugh at the ridiculous stupidity of the lack of gun control laws in the USA and the resultant carnage. We are equally lacking in insight if we allow macho masculinity to be unchecked. Saying male violence is ‘the elephant in the room’ is a metaphor indicating the size of the problem and its reality as an issue; the very first stage is to recognise this. At the moment there are many who ignore that elephant.