Building A Better Democracy From The Brain Up

Democracy is fundamentally predicated on the belief that people know what they want, and they know what is good for them. They choose independently of outside influence and are sure that what they chose is correct.

Here's the problem: Anybody in branding, advertising, marketing or public relations will tell you that choice is an illusion. You are influenced by the input that floods your senses every day.

In the modern day, your choices in fashion, food and entertainment are decided long before you thought about them. But this isn't new. Control of opinion is actually quite old.

Once upon a time, rulers who understood opinion control would keep the masses happy by providing what the people desired. This included comfort, religion and protection. By mastering these tools, they could influence how positive their people viewed the rulers.

This worked when society was homogenous. People believed, wanted, said and did the same things. When you were all from the same tribe, and your tribe inhabited one common area, you could keep control of these 4 elements. The only way out of it was to travel.

Travel allowed people to share ideas, adapt them and bring them back home to help develop their own tribe. But all of this was filtered, slowly, without mass exposure. The heads of tribes could still control what comes in.

But as society became far more complex and global, the tools also needed to be sophisticated. Mastering the media came into play to control the messaging that would be shared. In the beginning, it was newspapers, magazines, books. Then it was radio, cinema, television. And now, it is the internet: websites, blogs, microblogging, social media.

Because everyone visits different sites and have different experiences online, people of a particular tribe are slowly becoming different from one another, and are joining ideological, not genetic or racial tribes.

They are based on common beliefs, values, interests and experiences. People get together because they believe in a flat Earth, or they value fitness, or are interested in football or have climbed Kinabalu at one point in their lives.

People now have to think harder to be democratic, because many of these new tribes create a smaller, tighter groupthink than genetic tribes. While it makes it more difficult for a ruler to control, it also makes it more difficult for an individual to choose without being influenced by their tribespeople.

I have seen examples in Facebook and WhatsApp groups where the dominant culture is decided by the alpha of the group, usually the founder or most respected. When a tribe member steps out of line, words are said, often not tactfully, in front of the whole group.

This can elicit one of two responses. The tribe member leaves of their own accord, not seeing the need to be part of the tribe, of they get bullied into staying, for fear of loss of support from the tribe. No one is allowed to question the dominant opinion, making it an unsafe environment to be in.

Being the rebel I am, I often throw spanners into these groups to see what happens. When you put pressure onto people, you tend to see their true personalities come to fore. You see those who emotionally oppose you, those who empathically engage you, and those who keep quiet, for whatever reason.

When my experiment ends, I usually leave the group. Then, the quiet ones come asking about me.

So fundamentally, democracy is flawed because not everyone knows what's best for them, nor do they know how to get the best for themselves. What do we do then?

Well, democracy has almost always been conflated with free speech. I can say whatever I want, use whatever words I want, be as confrontational as I want. That's where the problem lies. Saying things that worsen, not improve.

In human communication, there is the logical aspect and the emotional aspect. What you say, in what sequence and structure is just as important as how you say it and how you look when you say it to engage the other person.

I submit that if Malaysians want to become a free-speaking, democratic nation, it needs to start at home. Children are guided by parents to inquire about their world, but with adab and a positive attitude first. Show them how to interact with others, both face-to-face and virtually.

Let them practice disagreeing with you empathically and have them explain their thought processes in justifying their response. This will give them interaction skills that hopefully can reduce their dependence on other influences and come to their own decisions.