When democracy is not freedom

It has been said that "democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what's for dinner."

How do we secure public funding for the arts when less than half the Canadian population attends even one dance, theatre, opera, or music performance each year?

How do we extend equal rights to homosexuals, and protect them from discrimination, when so many Canadians oppose same-sex marriage?

How do we guarantee religious freedom when an American judge orders parents not to expose their child to any "non-mainstream" religion?

It seems to me that we talk a lot about democracy and freedom as though the two terms are interchangeable. They are not. Democracy is a process of deciding an outcome based on voting; it serves the interest of the majority. Freedom is the ability to do whatever one pleases, as long as it does not harm others; it serves the interest of everyone.

The difference is that democracy offers rights to the majority of the population, but real freedom offers rights to everyone.

Until 1865, slavery was legal in many parts of the democracy known as the United States of America. Steve Eckardt described this process as "kidnapping millions of men, women and children, buying and selling them, and constantly maintaining a system of terror, subjugation, and, well, enslavement." And not only was it legal, it was supported by the majority of the voting population in the slave states.

Democracy? Absolutely. Freedom? Absolutely not.

In a truly free society, rights are dictated not by majority vote, but by individual liberty. There would not be a law that permits only heterosexuals from marrying the person they love. The American government would not have the right to imprison one of their own citizens for three years without convicting or even charging him with any crime. We would never have had forced sterilization of thousands of mental patients in this country.

Democracy is further hindered by the fact that not everyone is allowed to participate. In my country, Canada, you must be 18 years or older and a Canadian citizen in order to vote. The rights of children and non-citizens are therefore decided by adult citizens, with different needs and different priorities. It is even more restrictive in the United States, where people with past criminal convictions are not allowed to vote, even after serving their sentences.

"They're just kids"; "they're not citizens"; "they're criminals"; "they're black"; "they're gay"; "they're retarded"; "they're illiterate"; "they're homeless"; "they dress funny"; "they have bad breath"; "they sing off-key"; "they're not just not like you and me (you know, good folks)"... when you deny some groups the right to participate in a free and democratic society, that society is simply neither free nor democratic.

As freedom-loving Canadians, we must vigorously oppose any law that seeks to prohibit any activity by any individual that does not harm others, even if it is "weird" or otherwise objectionable. I support democracy, but I do not support the suppression of minority rights by the majority of the population.

The majority of the population lives under an illusion of freedom and democracy, never questioning the structure of society, going about their daily business - while minority groups suffer ridicule, persecution, and denial of basic human rights.

They may live in a democracy, but they are not free.


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