Magazines 2020 Sep - Oct Decision by crowd

Decision by crowd

15 September 2020 , 2020 Sep - Oct By John G. Stackhouse

What it means for a Christian minority when majority rules

Because it’s 2015." That’s how newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answered a reporter’s question about why his cabinet had been selected with a rigorous balance of women and men. In doing so he also illustrated the New Moralism I wrote about in my last column.

In our post-postmodern culture, our society increasingly makes decisions according to intuition, according to what seems luminously obvious to the person or group deciding. The prime minister doesn’t argue why it’s best for the federal government to have a gender-balanced cabinet. He appeals to what he assumes are the values he shares with the rest of Canada (or, at least, that he assumes the rest of Canada ought to share with him).

He just has to remind the public what year it is – a strategy that chides the reporter for even asking the question. Isn’t it obvious?

In our era of what I call the New Moralism, the correct view of public issues is being established by the politics of the crowd. The majority rules.

Three problems arise, however, when decisions of all sorts are relegated to consensus.

First, crowds can be arrogant. Crowds tend to stifle minority voices by shaming or threatening them rather than patiently listening and then arguing with them. The majority therefore misses out on the improvement offered by engaging a contrary viewpoint and evidence they have overlooked or found inconvenient.

Second, crowds can be incompetent. Some decisions ought not to be made by majority opinion, no matter how wide the consensus or how deeply felt the opinion. Some questions are so complex, so difficult, that only experts can even understand them properly, let alone solve them effectively.

decision by crowd
ILLUSTRATION: JAMES BIN

That is why we Canadians historically opted for representative democracy, not direct democracy. Many decisions not only require the prudent balancing of competing values and interests, but the consideration of a lot of information the average citizen lacks the time, staff and training to understand. So we have elected representatives in hope that they will inform their views with expertise and decide better than we could on our own.

Third, crowds can be wrong. No matter what the crowd affirms, 2 + 2 = 4. Some immigration policies will result in injustice, economic strain or cultural confusion, despite the best efforts of proponents. Some fiscal policies will necessitate inflation, unemployment or a tariff war with a neighbour no matter what we might intend. Some forms of policing are ineffective or immoral, no matter what lots of people believe. The real world pushes back on our preferences and our prejudices, no matter how popular.

In this post-postmodern moment, however, companies, schools, industries, media, courts and legislatures increasingly decide things, increasingly decide everything, by mass opinion. And it is increasingly difficult to offer a view contrary to that of the crowd. Not just trolls, doxxers and other online troublemakers, but even your own friends and family summarily dismiss a contrary opinion, and then rain down fire on those who persist in it.

This situation poses a critical problem for Christians.

The next national census or survey (2021) will almost certainly show a further decline of Christian identity, likely somewhere around 50 per cent of the Canadian population, down from 60 per cent in 2011. Christians can no longer count on agreement or even benign tolerance from Canadian crowds today.

Freedom of religion – which is, most basically, the freedom of an individual or group to disagree with the crowd on some of life’s most basic issues – is increasingly imperilled. Typically, nowadays, it is merely acknowledged and then set aside as less important than whatever the crowd really values.

This therefore is a difficult era for those of us who want to tell the rest of Canada we have Good News that everyone else should believe and a way of life everyone else should adopt. If we are not allowed to argue for our positions because few want to listen to any argument and the majority are shouting us down as dissident troublemakers, how can we possibly evangelize?

In the next column I’ll offer some constructive suggestions. It’s going to take something more, and something other, than shiny apologetic arguments and clever advertising campaigns to attract the positive attention of Canadians in the current climate of groupthink.

John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.