Our country has been under the sway of the cult of the majority since its founding. The omnipotence of majority opinion is baked into our Constitution and into the practice of our elected officials in a way that is unique among modern democracies.
Majority rule was the law of this land well before the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville first put his critique of American democracy into words in 1835, and it is still the law of the land six years after former President Barack Obama smirked that ‘elections have consequences.’
The structure of the U.S. government banks on the wisdom of crowds, but this year, the bill we’ve avoided for this construct has come due.
The notion of the Tyranny of the Majority can be found at the root of much of the trouble we are facing in this record-breakingly troubled year, and this does not just occur along partisan lines. As a society, we believe in the concept that Might Makes Right, a concept that is enshrined in our bizarre dependance on the Electoral College, with its winner-takes-all approach to deciding the presidency.
So-called “cancel culture” depends on a mob to enforce its ever-changing whims. The effectiveness of demonstrations, in the public’s eye, depends on crowd size.
Black people, long in the minority in this country, have never held power relative to the proportion of their makeup of the American populace, and certainly not in relation to the economic benefit their grandparents’ forced labor gave to this country. The cries of “Black Lives Matter” have reverberated all across this country this summer precisely because it remains an open question whether black lives really do matter to the people who have power.
But always, in the background, is the Silent Majority, speaking their minds only in the voting booth. No amount of screaming or sign-holding or flag waving from any side can be used as a barometer for the Silent Majority’s stance. But they are listening to everything the loudmouths say, and watching everything they do.
There’s no way, until Election Day, to measure a caravan of loud partisans against a town full of people who quietly shut their windows and wait the spectacle out. Anyone can come banging on your door claiming that being loudest makes them right. Drowning out your opposition is another form of cancel culture, and it’s another way of reminding the disenfranchised that, in this country, might makes right.
Partisans on all sides of a number of issues have attempted to call The Beacon out in surprising ways this year for giving ink to their opponents’ views, as if we should be ashamed here to give a voice and a face to someone with whom they disagree.
American media has long struggled with a practice known as “false balance,” in which journalists believe they must give equal time to people on each side of an issue. This can prove dangerous in cases where, say 20 people show up to a protest on one side of an issue, and 300 show up on the other side. Do you quote an equal number of people who spoke on each side? This would seem balanced, but it would not be fair and it would not be accurate.
For many years, I believed the best way to approach such a debate would be to make clear at the outset the size of the crowd on each side, and then give more weight, proportionately, to the side that more people have turned out for.
This is generally effective, but it has a few not-so-small problems.
I’ve found that, in many of these situations, the people in the minority had more nuanced and varied reasons for showing up, while many in the majority seemed to have the same set of repetitive talking points at the ready.
And in many cases, the nuanced and varied reasons that existed among the minority were important ones that impacted their own health, livelihood or safety, and needed to be addressed. Nothing about our political or journalistic processes valued their input.
These situations are troubling, and they can also be difficult to tease out from another type of minority opinion — the type that is on the wrong side of history.
Examples of these types of opinion range from denial of climate change to support for overtly racist policies to outright lies (which aren’t really opinions, but are more dangerous than opinions), like those told to cover up massive banking policies that nearly destroyed the American economy a decade ago.
But even people within this type of minority need to have their voices heard. We must know how they think in order to understand what we need to change about our own behavior, and to understand the aspects of our society that feed these trolls. We all need to work together to prevent abhorrent and dangerous views from being held by a majority of people. The only way to prevent this is through dialogue.
A long time ago, I worked in a bookstore in Sag Harbor. Late one rainy summer Saturday night, a young man walked into the store and he was pretty upset.
“I’ve been to every bookstore in this town and I can’t find anyone who has a copy of “Mein Kampf,” he said, side-eyeing me accusingly at the register. “Why is that?”
Just so happens that our First Amendment-loving Jewish bosses happened to have a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the shelf. I was about to walk over to get Hitler’s book for the guy when a co-worker gently held me back.
“Why would you want to read that book?” said Deb, who was an expert book-recommender. “I have a much better book for you to read.”
She walked over to another shelf and picked up a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
“This is a much better book, honey” she said. “I think you’ll really enjoy it.”
The guy’s face softened. He read the back cover and then he began digging in his pockets to pay for it. He smiled a big smile as he took his change.
“Thank you very much,” he said to Deb.
It’s been a long time since I last cracked a copy of Carnegie’s book, but I just went back and looked it over and realized it contains some pretty good advice for this moment: We can’t get anywhere if we don’t listen to one another, if we don’t smile and if we don’t take the time to really hear where other people are coming from and validate that their opinion matters. And people love to hear other people say their name.
The crisis in civil discourse of the past few years is perhaps the most important crisis of all. If we can’t find a way to understand and humanize one another, there is nothing else that we can solve.
East End Beacon Publisher Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.