Democracy and Dialogue

When I speak of reason or rationalism, all I mean is the conviction that we can learn through criticism of our mistakes and errors, especially through criticism by others, and eventually also through self-criticism. A rationalist is simply someone for whom it is more important to learn than to be proved right; someone who is willing to learn from others — not by simply taking over another's opinions, but by gladly allowing others to criticize his ideas and by gladly criticizing the ideas of others. The emphasis here is on the idea of criticism or, to be more precise, critical discussion. The genuine rationalist does not think that he or anyone else is in possession of the truth; nor does he think that mere criticism as such helps us achieve new ideas. But he does think that, in the sphere of ideas, only critical discussion can help us sort the wheat from the chaff. He is well aware that acceptance or rejection of an idea is never a purely rational matter; but he thinks that only critical discussion can give us the maturity to see an idea from more and more sides and to make a correct judgement of it.

― Karl Popper

The ancient Greeks are often credited with the invention of two of the most important social technologies in the history of the world ― democracy and philosophy. The time between the two fills barely the blink of an eye in a timeline. How could these two massive advances have independently occurred so quickly?

It is because they are not, in fact, separate social technologies. They are, rather, both forms of a single technology, one single innovation which transformed their society and which still transforms ours: dialectic.

Persuaded to Persuade

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and opressions of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.

― Thomas Jefferson

Democracy aligns the incentives of every citizen toward the education of their fellow citizens. Whereas in other political systems, an ignorant neighbor is perhaps one less friend at your dinner table, democracy binds your fate to their ignorance. To continue your life without helping them on their journey to knowledge is to risk some future disaster as a result of their miswielded power.

This socialization of fates in the realm of knowledge works precisely because knowledge is a public good ― when you impart a new idea or thought to your neighbor, your are left none the poorer. Each interaction, then, of constructive political discourse spreads information across a society and actually increases its collective knowledge. We are left, all of us, responsible to eachother for the state of our knowledge.

This socialized knowledge serves too as a protection against corruption. Politics, of course, is a great host of corruption, but fellow citizens might overlook egregious moral errors in those with whom they often agree. By constant communication with other citizens, you can help them see errors in their candidates, and perhaps they can help you with yours. There is then an additional implicit communal good of mutual policing against corruption which democracy aligns in our favor.1

Sophisticated Discourse

...there exists both reasoning and refutation that is apparent but not real. Now for some people it is better worth while to seem to be wise, than to be wise without seeming to be (for the art of the sophist is the semblance of wisdom without the reality, and the sophist is one who makes money from an apparent but unreal wisdom); for them, then, it is clearly essential also to seem to accomplish the task of a wise man rather than to accomplish it without seeming to do so. To reduce it to a single point of contrast it is the business of one who knows a thing, himself to avoid fallacies in the subjects which he knows and to be able to show up the man who makes them; and of these accomplishments the one depends on the faculty to render an answer, and the other upon the securing of one. Those, then, who would be sophists are bound to study the class of arguments aforesaid: for it is worth their while: for a faculty of this kind will make a man seem to be wise, and this is the purpose they happen to have in view.

― Aristotle

Your strength as a rationalist is your ability to be more confused by fiction than by reality. If you are equally good at explaining any outcome, you have zero knowledge.

― Eliezer Yudkowsky

It is not merely knowledge which is granted by encounters with diverse opinions, but also intimate knowledge with the process of reasoning. As Athenian democracy instilled in citizens a desire to persuade fellow citizens towards their own ends, there arose in opposition a desire not to be persuaded when the arguments were fallacious. This arms race of persuasion versus discernment produced some of the finest works of philosophy which still form the basis of rational thought. Set upon the seas of persuasion, ever tossed by the arguments of our peers, we by our nature seek guidance which can calm the chaos ― each sudden reversal of course is evidence that we have been fooled, that our guide has failed.

Those who play soccer learn to run, those who practice Judo learn first to fall, and responsible citizens of a democracy learn to discern through arguments and sort out lies. No one likes to play the fool, and the right to vote that we carry, which marks us as worth conversation in the eyes of any true citizen of democracy, carries too a burden of responsibility towards our fellows. By engaging in public discourse, and by taking care not to be taken in, we develop tools of reason which we can use in every other sphere of life as well. These very same tools formed the basis for science and engineering and all the technological progress we have made since.

Ochlocratia

We do not argue with those who disagree with us, we destroy them.

― Benito Mussolini

Democracy without dialogue is hollow. Without the constant conversation of our diverse ideas, all that is left is a system of mob rule, an entrenched tribalism that breeds corruption.

It is no great feat of humanity to align the policies of state with 51% of the population rather than 49%. It is no cause for celebration to test your ideas one day every four years against ideas you have never encountered. The right to vote is important because it motivates speech; without speech there is little point.

Do you think that a vote can save you against tyranny when the other half of your country calls you an enemy? Do you think your votes give you the right to tyrannize them? The will of the people is the will of a united collective. The will of a hostile majority who will not listen to their fellow citizens is no less tyrannical than any despot.

With democracy over monarchy, we traded constancy of leadership for unity and dialogue, for mutual critique, for the checks and balances of good faith disagreement. Yet now some urge to refrain from dialogue and instead let the oppressive arm of the state enforce your will on those who disagree. Some urge that their fellow citizens are so disgusting and deplorable that conversation is beneath them, that their moral superiority grants them right to unilaterally lord over their fellow man.

Consensus, not majority, is the goal of democracy. We are losing that goal, and once lost we may bring a terror of the majorities like that which filled the twentieth centuries with the worst atrocities against fellow citizens that the world has ever seen. If you silence others whose opinions offend you, or if you silence yourself to shelter from others' hate, then you preclude the possibility of agreement, of unity, and you ensure oppression.

Democracy is dialogue. Without dialogue, there can be only tyrants.


  1. It is easier to lie to a homogenous group than to a heterogenous one ― as ideological diversity increases, coherence with the ensemble of opinions starts to converge on coherence with the real world.