Friday, May 04, 2007

Class last week

This week, I had a discussion with one of my ethics classes about democracy. It was connected to one of the chapters in the text, and I thought worthy of some good philosophical discussion.

Just so you get a feel for the class: it has about 20 students, almost none of whom are humanities students. Mine may have been one of the only humanities classes they ever took. The students are almost all reasonably bright, and I would say that about 15 of them were not born in the US, and about 17 of them were male.

The discussion was about values that we might want to promote in a society. I gave a rough definition of involving a government where citizens are the authority, and the government is accountable to them, a government where individuals are sovereign, and have a say in the government, and where individuals are reasonably free and vote.

I then threw out the question "Is democracy good?" and I heard one or two "yes"es and one or two "no"s from the class. I asked one of the "no" students to explain. He began by going through a complaint that was essentially Plato's : who wants the masses to make decisions about what to do in a government? Too much democracy couldn't be a good thing, especially where it allowed the people to make many of the routine decisions for a society.

A second student worried that democracies cannot work on too large a scale (contrary to federalist #10) as people with too different an opinion (then the reasonable one, I presume) may end up with a say, as they may form too large a faction.

A third student thought that democracies would be good, if they weren't all corrupt.

A fourth student thought that democracy was good in theory, but if we look at it's history (which for him seemed to be the Iraq war and Nazi Germany ) it led to disasters.

A fifth student claimed that he had no opinion, as he did not care about politics.

A sixth claimed that it really did seem reasonable to have people from other countries vote in US elections, as they are impacted by US foreign policy.

. . .

And so the class went. It was a difficult task in class just clarifying minor points here and there, adding historical caveats and discussions, making certain crucial distinctions, and offering the obvious counterarguments to some of the more ridiculous claims.

Students had little problem airing their antagonism towards western political systems. Mind you, we were not discussing economics, just democracy. I did not ask what good alternatives might be, though there was agreement that all those kinds that are generally accompanied by mass slaughter were also unacceptable.

Perhaps there would have been some concession that though they did not like democracy, there was not better alternative. At the end of the class I was able to ask if there was anyone who wanted to offer a defense of democracy.

The class was silent. At that point we adjurned for the weekend. I left wondering a whole lot of things. Every critique of democracy is on the tips of all my students' tongues. There is little appreciation for the idea that in a democracy you have some control over your fate. There is little appreciation for the fact that most of them came from countries that had no democracies and they are here now, presumably
because it was a better option than their own country. There is little appreciation for the fact that the government is supposed to be them, not something imposed on them. . .

I guess we will see how the discussion picks up next week. I wonder how well I am reading the attitudes of my students. I wonder how well I am reading their education.


30 said...

I wouldn’t read too much into it. It’s all mostly role play. You are the authority in the class. You are asking them about a system of government that has authority over them. Their natural response is to argue the opposite of what you propose in this situation. I bet if they were taking a class in some other country, maybe the one they came from, where the government and the professor were anti democracy; their response would be very different. They would most likely feel like they had to defend democracy and find arguments in its favor. Many opinions that people give are situation-specific. And this may be one of them.

Anonymous said...

I had considered that they might be arguing with me. I was really not taking any stance though. I did not get the impression that anyone was disagreeing with me. Perhaps it was the fact that they lived in the US.


M. Martin said...

Let me tell you a story:

I was dating this Russian dude once in Tel-Aviv and it was time to choose classes for teh next semester. He said to me this:

The problem with all this democracy crap is that you constantly have to make decisions and making decisions is hard. Back in Russia, they told you what you were taking and when and that was it. It was much easier.

This just goes to underscore what one finds on page 1 of the Walter Kaufman translation of "I and Thou" by Martin Buber - "Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them...A wealth of possibilities breeds dread."

I would add that in many countries (especially places like the Middle East and to an extent perhaps also Africa), democracy is seen as ultimately foreign baggage imposed upon them by colonialist overlords(with all their racism and economic exploitation). From my study of non-Western history in college and sort-of grad school, I got the impression that throwing off the colonialist yoke includes getting rid of things like democracy, human rights and feminism in the minds of many people (especially Islamic Fundamentalists - this might be particularly teh case in places like Algeria but I am not 100% sure). Being authentically X [insert nationality] means turning back the clock to before the Europeans came and imposed their culture upon them - which would include the effects of the Enlightenment. Being X means not only rejecting European political power and economic exploitation, but rejecting European culture and philosophy as well.

And some people don't really care if it makes individual people unhappy because well, individual rights and happiness are European innovations anyway and need to be discarded.

I think this was teh case with Iran under Khomeini. Things like polygamy and "temporary marriages", unique to Shi'ite Islam, were outlawed under the Shah. Women were forced to wear the chador (black robed and a sort of hood covering the hair) when previously, Iranian women dressed in Western clothing and often without a hijab or any head covering. The minute Khomeini came into power in 1979, he restored polygamy and temporary marriage and imposed the chador on all women as a way of flipping off the Shah and his Western backers and returning to being "authentically" Persian and Shi'ite.

Lastly, some say (and I am not sure I agree with this) that some peoples are not culturally suited for democracy. For instance, another Russian dude I dated in Tel-Aviv said that the Russian people are not suited for democracy, that they have always had and need a sort of Big Daddy Strongman to run teh state/empire. Forst it was the Tzar and then it was the Soviet state, especially Stalin. He suggested that teh root was teh fact that the vast majority of Russians were impoverished serfs in a feudal system up intil the late 19th/early 20th century. Other Russians I have quoted this to have agreed.

Similar things have been said about Arabs, that the Arabs are peopel who need a strong state led by a strong leader and that this is teh influence of Islam. Many question whether a state can be Isalmic and Democratic at the same time. According to my understanding of Islamic law and belief it is believed by many that if a state is run according to Islamic Law and principles it will be an ideal state and democracy will be sort of "unnecessary". There is a word I forgot (starts with an S I think) that describes the way in which Muhammed and/or the Rashidun (1st 5 Caliphs) ran the early Islamic empire that is considered ideal, where they all consulted with each other so it was not a dictatorship either.

Lastly, as for immigration, sure they came because the US was a better deal. But that better deal is probably more purely economic than cultural in their eyes.

Just so you know, I have started a new personal blog, La Petite Shabbabnikit. Follow the link to check it out. I might show up as Shabbabnikit instead of M. Martin from now on.

Anonymous said...

Your students' reactions are damn dpressing as are Martin's insightful commetns.