For those old enough or educated enough to remember, humanity still lives very much in the shadow of the bloody 20th century (the most murderous in human history) with its failed political ideologies and the resulting huge loss of life.  It was democracy that won out, proving much more effective at protecting human life, based as it was on Judeo-Christian values and the intrinsic worth of every person. 

Yet, commitment to specific democratic values is not particularly strong according to recent research conducted by the Pew Research Centre, despite the idea of democracy remaining popular.  One wonders if people continue to have a good understanding of what our democractic values are, why they matter, and what the alternatives are.  The research, which surveyed 34 countries, found:

– only 64% of people thought that it was very important to have freedom of speech;

– only 64% of people thought it was very important to have freedom of the press;

– only 54% of people thought it was very important that opposition parties be able to operate freely;

– only 65% of people thought it was very important to have regular elections; and

– only 68% of people thought freedom of religion was very important.

The largest shares of the public describing all nine rights and institutions tested as very important are in the United States and Hungary.  Yet, even in those two countries only a third (33%) considered all nine democratic principles to be very important.

Interestingly, freedom of religion was the top priority in all three sub-Saharan African nations in the study as well as in Turkey, Indonesia and India. However, it was the lowest priority in several more secular nations, especially in Europe, where the French, Swedes, Spanish and Dutch all rate it their lowest priority, as do Japan, South Korea and Canada.  Religious persecution is often significantly under-reported in the Western media, perhaps contributing to these differing views of its importance. 

A key problem seems to be the belief that elected officials are completely out of touch with the people they presume to govern.  Across the 34 countries surveyed, 64% of people believed elected officials do not care what people like them think.  In the United States, 71% shared this view (perhaps a contributing factor to a polarising figure such as Trump unexpectedly winning the presidency).  In nearly every nation surveyed, those who think politicians don’t care about average citizens are more likely to be dissatisfied with the way democracy is functioning in their country.

It stands to reason that increasing numbers feel their views are repressed and unheard, because freedom of speech is indeed narrowing.  We are increasingly no longer trusted to hear and express a wide range of ideas, the repulsive and attractive alike, and freely make up our own informed minds about what we think, allowing the more repulsive ideas to weaken by their very expression (rather than fester and become stronger in the dark).  Instead, an elite group of people, be they politicians, academics or rich corporations with the skewed ideals of their bottom lines, decide what we are allowed to hear or even think; their reasoning often puts the protection of minority groups from harm or offence above freedom of speech, sometimes very nobly.  But the fundamental problem is, who gets to decide what ideas can be freely discussed once we decide many views will be censored?

Freedom of speech can be understood as a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but also:

  • the right to seek information and ideas (this concerns the people who want to listen to the ideas to get to the truth of a matter);
  • the right to receive information and ideas; and
  • the right to impart information and ideas.

Quotes you have probably heard before include: “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, and “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.”  For people to feel listened to in a functioning democracy, and perhaps counter-intuitively to also rid ourselves of the more extreme ideas, we need to protect the right to safely and freely debate a range of ideas.  There is no need for freedom to discuss ideas everybody likes.

No matter what the system, ultimately a just society depends on the individuals within it possessing virtue and behaving in a virtuous manner.  No human rights or constitutional documents will save us if virtue is absent from the hearts of individuals, and faith in the system and society is lost.  Our constitutional systems do not uphold themselves.

Perhaps a survey like this shows individuals need to take more time to understand democracy and its alternatives, taking into account how the various systems have worked in practice in history and their track records in upholding the dignity of people and the value of their lives.  Then, if we indeed still believe in them, we might need to be more explicit about making sure future generations understand the value of democratic principles like freedom of speech. 

In which country where the press is strictly controlled, ideas are not able to debated, and opposition is suppressed would the people who answered that these values are not ‘very important’ like to live in I wonder.

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny, MercatorNet’s blog on population issues.

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Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...