The Right to Be Wrong

Among the inalienable rights we enjoy in democratic societies is the right to be wrong.  We have an unfettered right to make a choice about our fundamental values, our publicly-stated opinions, and our actions—and to express these choices.

We bear a burden for holding this right, however, in that we are expected to (and can often be made to) accept responsibility for the consequences of our choices.

This notion has become more significant for me recently, as I watch in horrified fascination the shenanigans of the so-called ‘leader of the free world’, and his enablers, in the great republic to the south of us.

The circumstance of being wrong is a subjective concept.  How do we know, how can we determine absolutely, when someone is wrong?  Is there a conclusive test?  Do we always know right away, or does it sometimes take a long time to figure it out?

In fact, there are societal norms in place to govern our interactions and behaviours; but most of them evolve over time, as each succeeding generation shapes the world to its liking.  An action considered wrong for my Victorian grandmother (like appearing on the beach in a two-piece bathing suit) would certainly not be condemned today.

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The norms come into existence in one of two ways.  They are legislated for our common good by duly-elected representatives, or they are adopted by people at large as benchmarks for social intercourse.  Regardless of their source, they become truly effective only when they enjoy a high degree of acceptance among those for whom they are intended.  It has been called governance with the consent of the governed.

An example of the legislative method is the imposition of speed limits for vehicles on publicly-owned roadways; it is clearly wrong to exceed the posted limits.  An example of the adoptive method is the attitude towards smoking, particularly around other people; even in jurisdictions where smoking is not yet illegal, it is definitely frowned-upon to subject others to second-hand smoke.

Of course, in neither form, legislated or adopted, do our societal norms enjoy universal approval.  There are countless scofflaws in the general population who pay only lip-service at best to those they consider trivial.  Have you, for instance, ever exceeded a posted speed limit?  I confess I have.  And there are people who, despite both the social opprobrium and scientific evidence attesting to the effects of smoking, who still choose to light up.

More importantly, and more dangerously, we have fringe groups among us who vigorously, sometimes violently, oppose those norms they disagree with.  If that were not the case, abortion clinics would not be bombed; temples, mosques, and churches would not be defaced with hateful graffiti; and people would not be denigrated and harassed because of skin-colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability.

Thankfully, such violent actions are widely considered wrong in a democratic society.  And, wherever possible, punished.

In the distant past, Isaac Newton famously hypothesized that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Known as Newton’s Third Law of Motion, it pertained to the physics of interactions between two opposing forces.

We might think of the relationship between behaviour and consequences in a similar, though not identical, manner.  The first begets the second.  If I drop a crystal goblet on a tile floor, for instance, the goblet shatters; if I stroll through an afternoon shower sans umbrella, my clothing becomes soaked; if I bite down on my tongue while chewing, I experience pain.  Such natural consequences are the result of the behaviours immediately preceding them.

Logical consequences are different, but no less substantial.  If I drop that crystal goblet while examining it in the store, I will almost certainly have to pay for it.  If I speed through a residential neighbourhood (even if I am fortunate not to strike a pedestrian), I may be cited by a traffic cop, leading to the payment of a substantial fine.  Logical consequences are imposed as a result of our behaviours by outside authorities empowered to do so.

All of which brings me back to my dismay at the disarray I witness almost daily in the USA.  People elected to govern on behalf of the people who elected them behave, instead, in their own selfish interests.  They make decisions, not on the basis of how a particular matter might benefit their constituents or their country, but on whether it will improve their chances for re-election.  They take positions, not representing those who voted for them, but the moneyed interests who finance their pursuits.

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They spend their time, not enacting legislation to benefit all citizens, but fighting their partisan, internecine battles in a sadly-ritualistic dance to the death.

And at the forefront, a bombastic, narcissistic showman, ignorant in the ways of leadership, determined above all to have his way.  To win!

Can the great republic be wrong in the fateful choice it made just six months ago?  And if so, what will be the consequences for the nation, and for the rest of the world?

We have an inalienable right to be wrong, it is true.  But never in my memory have the potential consequences of being wrong been so enormous.  I want to cry out—

How can you be so stupid?  Fix this!  More important than your right to be wrong is your duty to be right!

And, helpless to affect matters, I continue to watch.

 

 

Dilemmas and Decisions

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that your father’s dotty old Aunt Hilda—whom you haven’t seen in forty years, and who recently died at 103—left you, as her only heir, the sum of twenty-five million dollars, all in cash, and twenty-five cats who shared her last abode.

And let us further suppose that, after placing the cats out for adoption and depositing one million of those dollars in your personal chequing account to cover immediate lifestyle changes, you now needed to decide how to properly invest and grow the remaining twenty-four million.

To whom would you turn for advice?

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Would you enlist the help of reliable, established bankers, investment counsellors, financial gurus, and market analysts, perhaps?  Learned and experienced people whose profession it is to help other people make money, even while being reimbursed for their efforts?  Let us call this the elite option.

Or would you call on twenty-five of your closest friends who, in return for the chance to party with you and celebrate your great, good fortune, would come up with a plan as to how you should invest the rest?  That plan could be approved by a majority vote of 13–12, swayed perhaps by the most persuasive of the group, rather than by the most knowledgable.  Let us call this the populist option.

Another example: suppose you have been recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, out of the blue, and that you have very little time to decide on the best course of action from a number of medical options that might, possibly, save your life, although there are no guarantees.

To whom would you turn for advice?

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Would you, in addition to talking with your loved ones, consult with your physician, specialists to whom (s)he refers you, and other experts in the field?  Would you seek second, third, even fourth opinions from people who have studied their entire lives to deal with critical situations such as yours?  Let us call this, again, the elite option.

Or would you gather together concerned family members and friends, all of whom love you and wish the best for you, to ask, by majority vote, what treatment plan you should follow—the established medical option, a naturopathic or homeopathic approach, or maybe the experimental route (which would require travel to a foreign country for procedures not recognized in your home and native land)?  Let us call this, again, the populist option.

In these examples (deliberately simplistic, I know), there are dilemmas confronting you and decisions you would have to make.  To whom would you turn in such critical situations, the elites or the populists?

Two major countries are currently dealing with such dilemmas.  The United Kingdom recently voted, in a simple-majority referendum, to leave the European Union, of which it has been a member for the past forty-three years.  The long-term ramifications of this decision have not yet been clearly enunciated, much less experienced by the people who voted.  But ramifications there will be, socially, politically, and economically.  For generations to come.

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To whom did the UK turn to make such a momentous decision?  To their elected members of Parliament, who might know a thing or two about the issues, presumably their ‘best and brightest’?  Or, as they have been described, sometimes disparagingly, the elites.

Or did they opt to leave it to the people at large, the ‘great unwashed’, to use a phrase coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton?  Or, as they are often referred to, usually reverently, the populists.

As we know, the populist approach was chosen, the people spoke (even though many of those who voted had no clear notion of what the EU is, how it has affected their country since 1973, and what its future benefits might have been), and a decision was irrevocably determined.  And it is left now to the elites, the people’s duly-elected representatives, to deal with the aftermath.

The second major power, the United States of America, is currently in the throes of a presidential election, a grotesque carnival showcasing democracy as it has come to be practiced in the twenty-first century.  Two candidates have been, or are about to be, nominated for the final run-off a few months from now.

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One is disparaged by her opponents as being from among the elite—kow-towing to wealthy, influential financiers, interested only in lining her own pockets, favouring big-government policies and programs, and inherently untrustworthy.

The other is mocked and ridiculed by his opponents as self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, and catering to the populists—seeking to capitalize on the worst instincts and fears of those who consider themselves to be, perhaps with some justification, downtrodden, ignored, and oppressed by the wealthy and powerful.

It is, indeed, a dilemma that faces the American republic.  Should the right to decide be restricted to citizens who are intelligent enough, sufficiently informed, and suitably engaged in the process to be trusted with such a critical matter?  The elites?

Or should everyone have the inalienable right to vote, regardless that a sizable number may be ill-informed to the point of ignorance of the issues, isolationist to the point of xenophobia, and armed (many of them) to the point of absurdity?  The populists?

In a faraway time when the world was comprised of isolated nation-states, interacting only minimally and infrequently with each other, a form of democracy that enfranchised every citizen might have seemed a good idea.  Government of the people, by the people, for the people, to quote Abraham Lincoln.  Few decisions made by such nations would have impacted severely on any others.

Today, however—when no nation is an island, when every nation is inextricably bound up with every other nation, when every hiccup and sneeze on the international stage has consequences—can the world afford to leave major decisions in the hands of those who know nothing of the potential aftermaths of their actions?  To those who take no steps to learn, to become informed citizens, to engage with the issues facing their country?

I confess, I do not know.

To preserve and enhance your multi-million-dollar windfall, to whom would you turn, the elites or the populists?

To perhaps cure your illness and save your life, to whom would you turn?

To preserve a peaceful, live-and-let-live world for all of us, to whom would you turn?

Dilemmas.  Decisions.

And consequences.