Democracy and Freedom are About Making Room for Disagreement!

I recently had a conversation with someone who believes that assisting someone to take their life was a good thing to do in some circumstances. This is not an uncommon viewpoint in today’s Canada, if opinion polls are to be believed.
My concern for her wasn’t focused on her belief that helping others to end their lives was a good thing to do, however much I might hold a different view. Rather, my concern was that she was convinced that her belief entitled her to force *others* to help end lives, despite their deeply held conviction that it was wrong to do so.
During our conversation, it became apparent that, in her mind, it was “her way or the highway.” Why did she take that approach?  I believe the answer is as old as humanity itself.
Our very natural and human insecurities make us feel threatened when others disagree with us. It can seem like a personal criticism when someone reaches a different conclusion than we’ve arrived at. It can seem like they are passing judgement on who we are, even when the reality is that they are merely assessing an idea. The “flight or fight response” kicks in! If we can force them to do as we insist, the threat is dissipated!
Democracy, in contrast, depends upon true equality, where no one’s inherent worth and dignity is questioned. That principle allows us to disagree and debate without feeling diminished by the ideas of others. At the end of the day we vote, placing our trust in the collective wisdom of all of us. Democracy is mature decision-making, not driven by the fearful need to enslave others lest they enslave us first.
I confess that, in my conversation with this person, I sometimes fell into the trap of trying to explain why others might not reach the same conclusion about the goodness of helping people to end their lives that she had reached. She was having none of it!
In hindsight, I realized that my goals should have been more limited. There’s no point debating the merits of specific policy alternatives with unwilling people. We need to simply point out that disagreement exists, and repeatedly focus on the democratic necessity of freedom to peacefully disagree without compelling absolute conformity.
Even that won’t be enough for those who firmly embrace authoritarian dictatorship and who unwaveringly reject principles of equality and democratic freedom. However, this approach has the best hope of success for all but such people.

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