Stebbing on the importance of freedom of thought for democracy

The extraordinary scenes in Hong Kong over the past week testify to people’s desire for a say in selecting their governments and political leaders. I found the photo below, which shows the extent of the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tuesday night last, to be quite striking.


One of Susan Stebbing’s aims was to improve people’s thinking so that they could participate more meaningfully and effectively in their democracy. On page 14 of Thinking to Some Purpose we find her telling us:

If the maintenance of democratic institutions is worth while, then the citizens of a democratic country must record their votes only after due deliberation. But ‘due deliberation’ involves instruction with regard to the facts, ability to assess the evidence provided by such instruction and, further, the ability to discount, as far as may be, the effects of prejudice and to evade the distortion produced by unwarrantable fears and by unrealizable hopes. In other words, the citizens must be able to think relevantly, that is, to think to some purpose.

The epilogue to the book is titled ‘Democracy and freedom of mind’, and it opens thus:

The Times for December 11th, 1937, had for its first leader an article entitles ‘Democracy on Paper’. It begins as follows:

“All Russia goes to the polls tomorrow, and it is pertinent, though perhaps unkind, to recall the passage in which Marx pointed out that the essence of bourgeois democracy was that ‘the oppressed were permitted once every few years to decide which particular members of the oppressing class should misrepresent them in Parliament.’ This formula, it is true, does not altogether apply to Sunday’s gigantic dumbshow. The Russian voters are not permitted to decide anything at all. They cannot indeed claim to be taking part in an election, for to elect – in the Russian language even more unequivocally than in the English – means to choose.”

The Observer, on the following day, made comments of a similar kind upon the Russian polling day. So far as my information goes – which is not very far – I believe these caustic comments to have considerable justification. I believe also that similar strictures could be truly made with regard to polls held recently in Germany and in Austria. Elections in this country [the United Kingdom] are not in this sense unfree. We are proud to consider ourselves a democracy; we claim to have freedom of election, freedom of speech (including freedom of the Press) limited only by the laws of libel, sedition and blasphemy, and freedom in religion. No doubt there are certain qualifications to be made; it is probable that most people would admit that without economic freedom there cannot be political freedom, and that lacking economic security no man can be regarded as economically free. But, even if these admissions be granted, it will be contended that, by and large, we in this country do have institutions that may properly be described as democratic.

Surely, if it is to mean anything at all, democracy means the right of the people, if not to vote directly on legislation, then to choose their representatives-in-government freely – and to vote to remove those of whom they disapprove. Anything less is not democracy, and the various actions which attend on it, such as voting, are precisely a ‘gigantic dumbshow’ if they have negligible bearing on the ultimate outcome.

In such a system, the leadership is effectively saying: ‘You have no need to think, we’ll make the decisions on your behalf. In fact, it is better that you don’t think too closely about what we are doing. And if you persist in thinking for yourself, and criticising our actions, we will silence your criticism, one way or another.’

The people of Hong Kong are aware, just as the people imprisoned in the Soviet Union were before them, that the ‘elections’ promised to them by Beijing are nothing but a sham. Most of them are apathetic about this, but those protesting see it as vitally important that they do something to make their opposition known and try for genuine elections. They are demanding the obligation to participate in the great decisions of their society.

The most likely outcome, I think, is that the protest will run out of steam, or will overreach in some way that causes it to lose legitimacy. And Beijing will get its way.

Another likely outcome, though less desirable for Beijing, is that Beijing will sacrifice the Chief Executive in return for getting its way.

Unlikely but possible outcomes include the protests gaining support within Hong Kong and increasing Beijing’s frustration, or similar protests breaking out in mainland China, which is Beijing’s nightmare scenario.

Whatever happens, the protests are the complete opposite of a ‘gigantic dumbshow’. They are a forceful request for the end of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly over the country’s politics. They are a direct challenge to the Communists.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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