In order to have a functioning democracy, must there be a broad public consensus on the existence of objective facts? If so, then how can we, as citizens, foster and encourage that consensus?
These are the questions I posed to director Astra Taylor during a Skype Q&A session held at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) following a screening of her latest documentary, What Is Democracy? The film, shown in collaboration with SFU Public Square, is an exploration of the origins and evolution of democratic governance, tracing the concept from its Ancient Greek roots right through to the socioeconomic inequality, populism and corporate interests threatening democracies across the globe today. In the context of our current historical moment, in which the previously unassailable concept of democracy is being met with growing resistance, Taylor’s engagement with the idea is more relevant than ever. According to a new study conducted by SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, 35% of Canadians now reject the relevance of democracy while locally, 52% of Metro Vancouver residents believe that ordinary citizens “can’t do much to influence government even if they are willing to make the effort.”
While the concept of democracy is a slippery one – a fact that remains salient throughout Taylor’s film – at its most broad, it is generally used to describe any system of government that involves “rule by the people.” Regardless of what mechanisms are in place to apply that concept to practical governance, however, I would argue that the fundamental goal itself is impossible to reach without the existence of a public sphere in which citizens can engage in the free exchange of ideas. This exchange – including public debate and engagement, freedom of expression and a free press, among others – essentially serves to unite populations around a desire to achieve constructive self-governance through co-operative means. This kind of engaged populace has been a cornerstone of effective democracy since its inception in Ancient Greece, and serves to legitimize and strengthen the system in the eyes of its constituents.
In order for this exchange of ideas to produce meaningful and legitimate results, however, there must exist a common understanding of truth within the public sphere. In other words, we must, as a people, arrive at a broad consensus about the existence of objective facts, and, at the most basic level, what those facts are. As an example, in order for the public to engage in productive debate about how best to deal with the imminent consequences of human-made climate change, there must be a general consensus on the fact that the earth is getting warmer. However, in the face of overwhelming scientific information, news networks continue to provide equal airtime to climate change deniers, perhaps in the interest of stirring up controversy that will generate interest in their programming.
In today’s digital age, people are becoming increasingly able to seek out facts and news sources that correspond to their own desired versions of reality. From this, it would seem to follow that various sections of the public will become progressively less likely to accept information that contradicts said realities, instead finding (and manufacturing) reasons to doubt sources of unwelcome facts. As people’s viewpoints become increasingly polarized, the middle ground in which citizens can engage in respectful and mutually beneficial debate continues to shrink. This polarization of information is demonstrated effectively by the Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed, Red Feed module, which places “Liberal” and “Conservative” Facebook feeds side by side, revealing a startling difference in the reporting of basic fact. Outlets on both ends are likely to make the claim that it is they who represent the truth, while the “other side” peddles a false, partisan narrative. In this fractured landscape, it is difficult to see how the meaningful public discourse necessary for a functioning and healthy democracy could possibly take place – without any agreement on what constitutes reality, how can we engage in impactful debate about how to operate within it?
A further illustration of the importance of broad public commitment to and consensus on basic truth to democracy is the fact that virtually all regimes with authoritarian ambitions, past and present, have carried out varying degrees of assault against their countries’ foremost sources of objective fact. As a student in the School for International Studies at SFU, I have spent a significant amount of time learning about authoritarian regimes – Pinochet in Chile, Stalin and Putin in Russia, and Mao in China, to name a few – that viciously targeted (or continue to target) journalists in order to prevent the spread of facts that might destabilize their rule. In the interest of promoting a myth upon which to base their power and twist reality to support their rule, all dictators tend to go after the journalists, public intellectuals and news outlets that seek to provide the public with the factual foundation to challenge that myth. In short, sources of ‘inconvenient truth’ – that is to say, agreed-upon facts which correspond to observable reality – have rarely been welcome in non-democracies. As the Yale historian Timothy Snyder has written, “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.”
While it may be an exaggeration to suggest that Canada’s democracy is in imminent danger of authoritarian upheaval, the above is useful in understanding the critical value of truth to a functioning democracy. Even if we can agree on the answer to the first of my original questions, however – that a robust democracy cannot exist without a public consensus on basic fact – how might we go about answering the second? How can we encourage the free exchange of ideas, based on a common understanding of basic truth?
During her Q&A period, Astra Taylor had some thoughts to offer me on these subjects. First, the director recommended that we “totally transform the business model of so many of our digital communication platforms,” suggesting that we move away from the profit-driven, click-bait prone corporate model prevalent in social media and online news outlets today. In a world where so much of our information intake is paid for by special interests, Taylor told me, the only way to re-establish public belief in a common factual base for reality is to place objective truth above corporate profits. As engaged citizens, we must throw our individual and collective support behind news sources that are committed to spreading truth, even if it is often less profitable than the spread of fake, but glamorous, information. If and when this goal is achieved, it may become easier for the general population to reclaim the power ostensibly granted to them by the democratic model.
As is so often the case, most of the questions and conclusions brought up during and after the screening of What is Democracy? lead not to the comfort of solid answers, but rather to the uncertainty of further questions: what role do individual citizens have in bridging the public information gap and creating a more unified and robust public sphere? Even if we do get there, how can we ensure that our democracy, rather than so many of those explored during the film, properly represents the range of diverse identities and viewpoints present in our society, rather than simply reflecting the interests of the most powerful interest groups?
Rather than shying away from these sorts of questions, however, Taylor’s film thrives on them. In seeking to promote further investigation and dialogue around the ideas of democracy, it serves as an embodiment of that most fundamental pillar of democracy: the free exchange of ideas. A society that has achieved a broad ‘consensus on the truth’ does not mean a society free from disagreement – quite the opposite, in fact. It means a society that can acknowledge a common reality, and use that foundation to engage in meaningful debate around those disagreements, ultimately coming to transparent and legitimate conclusions that reflect the will of its people. It means democracy.