The tyranny of the majority

"As long as we read only that with which we agree, we learn nothing.
-- Chester Dolan"

I have a horrible habit of not taking sides, due mostly to the fact I'll usually see good points on both sides of an issue. I think it's important to understand more than one side of an issue. By learning what the "other side" is saying I'm able to learn more about my own ideas. This is also a good way to find common ground that can be agreed upon. I like to be able to understand and even argue both sides to issues that interest me, and I am not afraid to listen to well reasoned arguments that I disagree with (though it often seems a well reasoned argument is a rare event). There are nuggets of wisdom to be found in the opposition. I'm a strong believer in avoiding the tyranny of the majority, even if it's on a small scale, like on a website. Though much of what Mill wrote on the majority was political in nature, I think I can apply it regularly, including LISNews.

Mill wrote that societal tyrannies are somewhat different from what we may normally think of when we think "tyrant." Normally, he said, when we think of tyranny, we think of "the government," probably a thought that is common to both the right and left. The government is tyrannical, more often than not, when it disagrees with us, and doing a great job when it agrees with us, or us with it. So the tyranny of the majority, Mill says, comes from society "collectively over the separate individuals who compose it." More commonly called group think, maybe mob rule, or maybe now, the echo chamber. So when we do wrong, we are tyrants, and, so says he, this is worse, because there is no voting us out of office, or "putting society away." The tyranny comes from opinions, feelings and needs of the majority. Obviously we're not electing anyone, or influencing much of anything at LISNews, but I think much of what is discussed here reflects values that people use to make more important decisions. Rather than creating ideas and values we mostly reflect them. Mill says we need protection from prevailing opinions and feelings, something more important needs to drive what rules us, since often society tends to punish, squelch, and prevent the growth of those who have differing ideas and practices. That's true in most any social situation, those who are in the minority are often shouted down, or just don't have the guts to speak up in the first place. Those who are seen as different are often forced to conform or shut up. He says there needs to be a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence, and it's important that we, as a society find that limit. If I am not seeing and attempting to understand the other side I can never argue against them, nor can I ever really know that I truly believe in what I am doing.

Though Mill wrote on the majority well over 100 years ago, it's more important to understand, and avoid, now more than ever. We need to surround ourselves with a truly diverse group of people, people who we actually disagree with, not just people who look different. We need to respect and understand what they have to say. This year we've found ourselves with a group (a coven, some would say) of people who represent the conservative side of librarianship, and it's (usually) been interesting to read what (most) of them have to say. Anecdotally, I'm afraid they've scared off some of those on the other side. To expand on that a bit, I think most people can't handle reading or hearing from those they disagree with, be it right or left, and that may have caused some people to stop reading or leaving comments. I've found it interesting to see another side to many of the issues I thought all librarians agreed on, and I just hope that a vocal minority isn't able to scare anyone off.

If I use the stats as a measurement, I'd say we're doing something right. If I use my gut feeling as a measurement, I'd say we're doing something right as well. The site has changed, grown, considerably this year, and it'll be interesting to see where we are next year. I've had people from the left say we're too conservative, people from the right say too liberal, and everyone complains about the "great moderator conspiracy." This leads me to believe maybe we're approaching a balance somewhere in the middle. If overall participation continues to increase, and the flame wars die down a bit, the future looks bright indeed.

We need to decide if we're going to have a site where everyone is free to comment without fear, or one which we trade openness and community for protection from those we are afraid of or offended by this week. Any form of group communication that uses the internet (email, listservs, Usenet, boards, blogs, etc…) will have a certain number of idiots, trolls, morons, and people who take great joy in making others mad. We need to decide if we will let those people control what is discussed, and how it is discussed, or if we ignore them and continue on doing what we think is best. Are we to attack each other, or are we here to learn, teach, and share? Is it really worth getting upset about what some moron writes on some stupid web site? Before you post a comment, think about what you're writing for a second, realize this isn't Fox News, we don't break for commercials, you have time to make a point without attacking, you have the time to explain your side rather than just attacking the other, and you have time to compliment and agree as well. One of the most powerful aspects of the web is the lack of time and space constraints. You have the time and space to write whatever you want, and make it interesting and informative. Better yet, you can provide links to back up your seemingly crazy ideas, to make them seem somewhat less crazy.

I don't expect us all to get along, agree, or even always understand each other, bit I'd love it if we can use more understanding and civility in our disagreements.

A short history of this piece: I wrote this a few months ago because I wasn’t really sure I understood what the "tyranny of the majority" really meant, rewrote it once, forgot about it, put a good part of it in an email, rewrote it again, forgot about it, another rewrite and today did a quick rewrite, and posted it now.
and thanks to Ender for the quote


I've read your piece. Makes me wonder if we're reading the same news source. I see fair, respectful, casual comments on day-to-day struggles and concerns. I follow a lot of stories and links and learn a lot. I see only a few flame wars, which considering the number of hits you get, must make it the best behaved group on the internet.

Subscribe to Comments for "The tyranny of the majority"