For the love of democracy
In summer 2003, I stayed with some family friends in Irvine, California for three months, where I learned a lot about politics. The husband—we’ll call him Uncle Sam—spent his afternoons watching Fox News. One day, Uncle Sam took his kids and me out to Panda Express where I opened my big mouth and said something I had been chewing on for a few years: “I don’t know if we should have gone into Iraq.”
Uncle Sam looked at me. His eyes burned with Sweetfire Chicken and Rice. He asked me what we should have done. I didn’t know. He asked me for a plan. I didn’t have one. He lost it. He asked me what right I had to come to his country, to his home, and question his commander-in-chief. The car ride home was a silent one. This was my first impression of American politics.
That afternoon at the Panda Express, Uncle Sam taught me that democratic engagement is something you pay for. He told me to “shut up and sing.” Too many of us are reluctant to engage in politics we also have an Uncle Sam choose to remain poorly informed and biased, but safe. This is not how a democracy works.
The U.S. presidential elections are around the corner, and “political engagement” has been shoved down our throats for the last two months. But political engagement seems to mean that being on the wrong side of an issue has ruthless consequences, and that the loudest mouths are the ones that are heard. This is not how a democracy works.
“Democracy” means “rule of the people” or “people having power.” So democracy is empowerment: of its people, by its people, for its people. Professor Heesoon Bai wrote a paper entitled “Cultivating Democratic Citizenship: Towards Intersubjectivity.” In it, she explains that of overcoming our pervasive selfishness, of putting ourselves in each other’s shoes and seeing the word through each other’s eyes, is necessary for true democracy.
In an individualistic society, word is that you get yours by taking it. People in our democracy often speak of “my rights,” and they doggedly pursue “my rights.” “Your rights” are “your own” problem. They believe that the purpose of democracy is to provide them with the freedom and power to claim “my rights.” The problem with this philosophy is that it can only lead to the rich or strong taking power, “few” rather than the “people.” That is an oligarchy. An oligarchy is not democracy.
A democracy works through open dialogue. “Dialogue wherein we share our minds and hearts,” Bai says, “is the most foundational democracy.” Genuine vulnerability produces understanding, the kind that binds people, not in blind patriotism, but in compassionate solidarity. An environment where such engagement is possible can only be created through a love of the other as a separate person. When I hold my views to myself, a large part of that is self-preservation, but it is also through no great love of my peer.
Thus, this ideal democratic engagement begins with love and respect for the other through individual risk. As Bai says, “We become democratic in spirit and character when we are able to open up to each other’s subjectivity and share our thoughts, perceptions, emotions respectfully in a subject-to-subject relationship.”
The world desperately needs critical thinkers at the helm of our forums of social engagement to change the dissonance and cacophony into the music of the spheres. The world needs critical thinkers to bridge the gap and usher an era of understanding. There is no better place to be shaped for this than at a university. It was founded for that purpose. And yet how many of us refuse to raise our hands unless we’re sure we know the answer to the question? While Obama and Romney face criticism as they speak to an entire stadium, it’s a wonder that many of us fear provoking even the slightest disagreement in a mere classroom. Granted, people can be harsh. But they will never have the opportunity to accept your belief if you do not offer it to them first.
Uncle Sam was not interested in a conversation with another person of a different thought, perception, and emotion. But neither was I. I wanted my opinions to be received. I wanted my thoughts to impact his. I was only interested in him as an instrument of my will. So instead, let’s speak and listen, to everyone equally. Let’s go in our classrooms and risk vulnerability with our classmates. Let’s accept, then challenge each other with conversation rather than waiting until the polls. Because that is how a democracy works.