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How Majoritarianism Silently Promotes The Oppression Of Minorities

Posted by Ali Zaidi in Society
December 12, 2016

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States serves as a stark reminder, that slowly but surely throughout the world, conservatism is winning over liberalism, by turning the institution of democracy into a misinterpreted practice of majoritarianism.

The illusion that democracy represents the wishes of the majority is not only a misunderstanding of the democratic process, but it instils a false belief that the majority’s opinion is somehow superior. This ‘democratical-induction’ argues that if a majority shares a belief or an idea, it is somehow better, or more likely to be true. A little further on this line of reasoning leads to the belief, that given the superiority of majority-validated ideas, majorities have a higher place in society and are thus more entitled to make decisions that affect it.

Evidence of how deeply rooted into our psyche this belief in the superiority of majority viewpoints is, can be observed in the behaviour of both children and adults, specifically in their need (and subsequent action) to be socially accepted.

Positive social interaction is a basic emotional need, and it usually comes from peers that share our interests or ideas, imparting a sense of belongingness. Curiously, this positive social interaction, being more rewarding than conflict (ideological or social), paves the way for communal reinforcement, the social phenomenon where an idea is continuously asserted in a community, irrespective of its empirical validation. Social conformity together with communal reinforcement ensures that a vicious cycle of ideologically-induced social conformity is maintained. Although not directly, such ideologies can have devastating impacts on the socio-religious freedoms of the non-conformist sections of society, which in most cases, also happen to be its minorities.

Communal reinforcement of ideology becomes most dangerous when ideas are phenomenological, and hence beyond the reach of empiricism. Religion serves as a prime example. The interpretation of religious scriptures is highly subjective, and hence beyond empirical validation. Many different interpretations of the same scriptures give rise to various sects and sub-sects that are clearly discernable among the major religions in the world. However, in the contemporary era, none of them have been the subject of as much debate or faced as much criticism, as the Islamic doctrine (the Sharia). Although most people believe that the majority of Muslims are peace-loving, non-violent individuals, we are also afraid and angered with the actions of its extremist factions, such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh that operate throughout the Middle East, Africa and in parts of the West. They operate on the simple but dangerous ideology of enforcing conformity by means of force. Their modus operandi has three fundamental steps.

Step 1: Assertion of the Divine Will. It begins with a claim that their interpretation of religious doctrine is the ‘truth’ and represents the ‘divine will’. Conveniently, this divine validation places their doctrine beyond the realm of both logical reasoning and social justice. It is simply argued that the human mind is too frail to understand the divine law, making it a futile pursuit. Furthermore, the need for human-reason based validation of religious doctrine reveals an inherent distrust in the divine, a sign of weak/absent faith.

Step 2: Nonconformity is Blasphemy. The next step is to label anyone with a different ideology as a blasphemer, and blasphemy is a corruption of religious doctrine. A disagreement with another human can be resolved, either on a personal or juristic level. Blasphemy, on the other hand, is a sign of complete disrespect and disregard for divine command, and hence God Himself, and such blatant disrespect calls for extreme punishment.

Which brings us to Step 3: Blasphemers shall be executed. Blasphemy, according to this doctrine, is a corruption and needs to not only to be stopped but completely eradicated, so as to prevent innocent victims from succumbing to it. The ‘eradication’ of the enemies of God is not only socially accepted; it is encouraged. This reasoning logically justifies and incites everything from suicide attacks to mass executions.

However, most of us would agree that the majority of Muslims are peaceful, and they disagree with the actions of the extremists. But there is a difference between the three steps of reasoning and their physical outcome. Although many might disagree with the action, they do agree with one or more steps of the reasoning outlined above. We are not willing to accept that popular religious doctrine represents, at best, an interpretation of the divine will, as it is based on our understanding of scriptures.

Furthermore, an ideological disagreement with a minority prevents the majority from understanding their point of view, which they believe to be wrong, and hence also prevents them from speaking out against such discrimination. A not-so-distant example is the execution of celebrated musician/singer Amjad Sabri, a member of a religious minority in Pakistan, although the gunning down was performed by religious extremists, the majority have abstained from a criticism of the act, because they disagree with both the shooters and the victim. This selective abstinence translates to a silent approval. Therefore, even in the absence of mass religious policing, mass support of a particular religious doctrine is enough to silently allow the extremist fringe to annihilate nonconformity, advancing their cause, whatever socioreligious or economic agenda that might be. Multiple iterations of such events enable the formation of an oligarchy headed by the extremists, who are no longer a fringe, minority.

Although it might seem like a problem limited to Islam, examples abound where a majority’s disagreement with a minority have empowered extremist fringes. The murder of a man by villagers on the false accusation of possessing beef in Dadri, India also saw an outcry, from vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. However, eating meat (not only beef) is still largely looked down upon in India. This ideological disagreement has prevented an all-out condemnation of such events, silently empowering local ‘gau rakshaks’, many of them justifying murders based on the accusations of beef-possession (that also includes buffalo meat). The murder of 50 people at a gay night club in Orlando, Florida, was followed by criticism for the ‘inhuman’ act of murder. And yet, we still covertly discriminate against the LGBT+ community and brand them as ‘unnatural’, preventing us from understanding their views, and being more inclusive.

Curiously, biology does its best to challenge majoritarianism. Genetic recombination is a biological mechanism that shuffles the DNA code during reproduction, preventing the next generation from being exactly like its parents, or each other. Furthermore, during fetal development, a small amount of randomness affects how different neurons connect to each other, introducing a small but significant difference in the brain’s overall pattern of connections. This ensures that during birth, each person’s brain is slightly different. This neuronal bias affects both the perception and the interpretation of perceived objects.

Neurologically, we all perceive the exact same thing slightly differently. This difference in interpretation is necessary for ideological evolution. Having only one interpretation or one opinion would never lead to the questioning of the majority-validated ideas. If everyone would agree, no established idea would ever be questioned or changed. Albert Einstein unravelled the mysteries of space and time because he saw the world differently, just as his predecessor, Isaac Newton did before him. These examples resonate well with Henrik Ibsen’s idea, that “a minority may be right, a majority is always wrong”. To enable the perpetual evolution of human thought and reason, there is a fundamental need for differences in opinion.

Therefore, it is the duty of the majority to protect the fundamental rights of the minority, by acknowledging their right to think differently, even though they may not agree with the reasons/arguments behind such thoughts. Only such a practice can inculcate a healthy society that ensures social equality and justice for all. In the words of Mark Twain: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.


Image source: Hindustan Times/Getty Images