Calling it democratic doesn’t make it democratic

They call it the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” does that make it true?

I feel like a broken record sometimes. It seems like every single time I interact with a Brexit supporter it boils down to them making some version of the statement “we won, shut up”. (I’m not trying to claim that remain voters are above this sort of crap. I have no reason to believe that there wouldn’t have been the same thing going on if the referendum had gone the other way).

Well, if you believe that “might is right” or that tyranny is OK just as long as it’s the tyranny of the majority then fine, I suppose. I can disagree with you but I wouldn’t be able to fault your logic. The disagreement would come down to a difference in fundamental values and there’s not always a lot you can do about that.

The problem I have is that they always go on to claim that this silencing and domination of the opposition is in some way democratic. Well, it has some surface similarities in that there was a vote at some point but it manages to miss out on everything that makes democracy worthwhile.

Think about the most basic, and loose, definition of democracy possible. What’s distinctive about democracy? Why should we prefer democracy to dictatorship or absolute monarchy?

The core idea of democracy is that it is a method for groups to make decisions where the participants in that decision making are equal. So, why should we want our political systems to be democratic rather than authoritarian? There are plenty of reasons which have been given both for and against democracy, (take a look at the SEP article on democracy, it’s well worth a read) but the most important reason is that political equality is only way for everyone’s interests to be taken into account. It’s a question of legitimacy, if my interests are not being taken into account, if I’m not even given the opportunity to state my case, then what reason do I have to respect the decision?

Of course this doesn’t mean very much if there are no limits placed on what can be decided. If a majority can legitimately call for the enslavement of everyone else then we lose both the justification for democracy and the democratic position of everyone except the majority. It may be the case that everything up until that enslavement is done well enough to count as democratic, but everything after that enslavement is no longer democratic.

Why not?

If democracy requires equality in decision making and is valuable because it ensures that everyone’s interests are taken into account then there must be limits to democratic authority. If a majority can vote to take that equality away from the minority then the system ceases to be democratic. There may still be democracy amongst the majority but the minority is now living under tyranny. Let’s assume for a second that it’s legitimate for a majority to vote everyone else out of having any say and take this to an extreme.

  1. We have a population of 100 people.
  2. They vote and 52 of them vote that the other 48 should be excluded from future decisions. The 48 are no longer living in a democracy.
  3. Time passes and at the next vote 27 vote to exclude the other 25. 73 are now living under the authority of the 27.
  4. More time passes and 15 vote to exclude the other 12. 85 are now living under the authority of 15.
  5. 8 vote out 7. 92 live under the authority of 8.
  6. 5 vote out 3. 95 get to live how 5 tell them to.
  7. 3 vote out 2.
  8. 2 vote out 1.
  9. Stalemate, neither of the 2 have the democratic authority to vote out the other. They have to find solutions which work for both of them (which is really what they should have been doing amongst the 100). At least they get to tell the other 98 people what to do and none of them have the right to complain, after all, they were voted out democratically.

It’s not necessarily the case that there was anything wrong going on at each point, but it should be fairly clear that the reasons for wanting a democracy in the first place are no longer there for the people who were voted out at each stage. As such, they have no reason to recognise its authority.

Reality is less extreme but the same principle is at work whenever anyone says “we won, shut up” and claims it as democratic. Even if we assume that the referendum was run perfectly, everyone was perfectly informed, perfectly rational and voted for the option that they believed was best for the country as a whole the most that could be claimed is that the referendum was democratic.

In or out? Are we leaving the EU? That was the only question we were given.

The questions that remain are:  How are we leaving? What sort of arrangement do we want once we have left? What concerns do people have? Why did people vote leave? Why did people vote remain? How can we address the interests of both?

As I wrote before the referendum, and will no doubt write again before too long, I don’t think that referendums are good expressions of democracy. At least not when they are run as an “us vs them” rather than “let’s try to reach a solution that works for us all”. I believe in public deliberation and trying to reach a consensus rather than simple domination of one group by another. Of course consensus may not always be possible and some people may have to go along with democratically made decisions that they do not agree with. As long as those decisions were made with a genuine attempt to take their interests into account I don’t think this is the worst thing in the world. They can always fight to change the decision later.

However, any claim that a person has no right to disagree with any democratically made decision is a claim that their citizenship was revoked as soon as they disagreed with the majority. That’s not democracy. It’s simply mob rule and I will not accept it.

Nevermind whether they’re children, our whole approach to refugees is unethical

MP David Davies has suggested that we should be carrying out dental checks on refugees to ensure that they are young enough to deserve our help.

In his own words

Think about that for a second.

On the surface, the idea of trying to confirm the ages of refugees entering the country as children makes sense. If someone is 25 then it is inappropriate to be enrolling them in schools or arranging foster care for them. There’s no argument there, it’s certainly inappropriate to treat adults as children and it’s also certainly appropriate to attempt to ensure that that’s not what we’re doing.

The problem is that phrasing the objection as “British hospitality … being abused” promotes the idea that entering the UK as a refugee is in some way abusive and that being a child is the only excuse for doing so.

If we are to maintain any pretence of behaving ethically, then we must approach every situation with the intention of making it better, or at the very least not making it worse.

With the refugee issue, this entails the starting assumption that it would be best if we could help as many people as we possibly can.

Now, it may be that David Davies shares this assumption and is only concerned that we might be treating adult refugees as if they were children and that he doesn’t actually have a problem with the UK taking in our fair share of refugees. I don’t know enough about him to say, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

However, even if we give him the benefit of the doubt, it is absolutely clear that many of the people who are getting angry about this issue are in fact not willing to even attempt to improve the suffering caused by the refugee crisis.

If they were approaching the situation with the goal of making things better then their objections, if they had any, would be along the lines of “we should check how old they are to make sure they all get the appropriate assistance”. Or even, “of course we should help but we don’t have the resources”. They don’t.

I’m just going to paraphrase the main reason I’ve seen because I have no desire to give more oxygen to the ghastly people who think like this – “all refugees are violent criminals”.

Come on.

We know this isn’t true. It is true that refugees have committed crimes. It’s also true that refugees have committed violent crimes in Calais. It’s just as true that there were 37 violent crimes in Wolverhampton city centre during August 2016. We don’t know whether all of the people responsible for these crimes have been arrested. We also don’t know how many people who live in Wolverhampton might commit crimes in the future.

If you support keeping people trapped in refugee camps rather than being allowed in to claim asylum on the basis that we don’t know whether some of them might be criminals, but you don’t support building a wall around Wolverhampton for the same reason, then you need to provide a convincing explanation of the difference. 

If it’s simply that people in Wolverhampton are British and refugees are not then you are making the claim that “Britishness” is a quality which makes a moral difference.

That is, you are claiming that it’s OK to ignore another person’s suffering unless they happen to be British.

There’s a word for that, I think you know what it is.

The gutter press have a lot to answer for in this. Every day they spread another horror story about foreigners and, funnily enough, the people who read this every day end up believing it. I blame the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the current re-normalisation of racism, for the problems faced by every single refugee that we could help but are refusing to. They are deliberately spreading their hate in order to persuade the average person that every refugee is a personal threat.

They are approaching a humanitarian crisis with nothing but utter contempt for the people who most need our help.

The fact that so many people seem to be going along with this is absolutely disgusting. 

#NoMandateMay and the will of the British people

Theresa May is hell bent on destroying any illusions that the UK is any kind of democracy.

Theresa May has now said that getting parliament involved in deciding the terms under which the UK will be leaving the EU would be “simply an attempt to find another way to thwart the will of the British people”. She does say that parliament will have some role after negotiations have started but, from what I’ve seen so far, that role may be limited to just watching in horror and being told that any attempt to improve relations with the EU or to save free movement is somehow “undemocratic”.

I’ve written about this before so I won’t say too much. Simply, May is claiming that because around half of the population voted to leave the EU in favour of some other arrangement that must mean it is the “will of the British people” that we go for her particular version of hard Brexit.

This is nonsense.

48% of the population are happy enough with keeping free movement and single market membership that we voted to remain members of the EU.

Apparently the concerns of these 48% don’t count, or maybe it’s just that half of the population are the “liberal elite” and therefore utterly out of touch with the interests of the population, including their own. Somehow, people earning average wages and living in average places are more out of touch than a small gang of millionaires? Forgive me if I find that a little hard to believe.

There are, of course, perspectives that I simply will never be able to fully understand which we must take into account in our political decision making if we are to plausibly maintain that we are any type of democracy. However, I really take exception to the claim that the interests of at least 48% of the population no longer count.

I say at least because, even amongst leave voters, there will have been many who favoured a softer version of Brexit. Norway was one of the models we were told would be the likely outcome of a vote to leave. Why are we now being told that nobody voted for that?

Theresa May is claiming that any attempt to move away from the most extreme interpretation of the vote to leave the EU is an attempt to “thwart the will of the British people”. Nothing could be further from the truth, it’s an attempt to determine what the actual will of the people is and to protect all of our interests.

May has abandoned democracy. If she wants to go down this route, she should at least have the decency to tell us directly “actually I don’t care what the will of the people is, we’re destroying the UK anyway”.



The supposed “right to not be offended”

A favourite whinge of the fragile reactionary is “oh, you’re just offended” or “we’re not allowed to do X because it offends people!” which is treated as if it somehow magically ends the debate and proves that anyone who is offended is wrong.


In the last few years this has been backed up by some very intelligent people (Stephen Fry, John Cleese, Rowan Atkinson) who have phrased this as some version of “there is no right to not be offended”. To a certain extent, they’re absolutely right. There is no plausible blanket right to be protected from hearing anything that might upset you. If there was such a right then nobody would have been able to argue for gay marriage, abortion, freedom of religion or any number of other things which are both important and which people get extremely upset by.

For a quick example, go on twitter and argue in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, it won’t take too long before you’ll have insults thrown at you by offended leave voters who are appalled that you have the audacity to disagree with them. The same is probably true if you argue the other way.

The thing is, I might be (probably will be) offended if you say something sexist or make a racist “joke” but the simple fact that I am offended isn’t what makes it wrong to tell it.

Communication shapes beliefs, beliefs shape actions, actions affect people.

When you focus excessively on crimes that have committed by immigrants while glossing over crimes committed by locals, you are unnecessarily reinforcing anti-immigrant beliefs. When you reinforce these beliefs you are increasing the likelihood of people taking anti-immigrant actions.

When you make a joke that relies on racial or gender stereotypes, you reinforce them. The reinforced belief that such and such race has such and such characteristics increases the number of actions which treat members of that group as if they have that characteristic.

When you refer to people on benefits as scroungers, you make it easier for the government to use them as scapegoats.


When people are treated badly it makes their lives worse, even if it’s just by making their lives harder. When people are routinely treated badly it puts an extra obstacle between them and living as well as they could. People are more likely to be routinely treated badly if common beliefs about them cause other people to treat them badly. None of this should be controversial.

The issue with people whinging about the “right to not be offended” is that they’re targeting the wrong thing. When I criticise you for being racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever it’s not just because I’m offended. It’s because you are reinforcing ways of thinking that actually make people’s lives worse. More than that, you’re reinforcing ways of thinking that make people’s lives worse for no good reason.

It’s important that we work for a society where as many people as possible can live well. Sometimes it’s necessary to offend in order to achieve this; but making other people’s lives worse for its own sake doesn’t help anyone. This is why the accusations that “the left tolerates everything except intolerance” don’t work. They’re not aimed at the right target. The point isn’t tolerance, tolerance of diverse ways of living is instrumental in ensuring that people can live well. Tolerance of hurting people is entirely unnecessary.

The next time you see someone deciding that they’re going to draw a picture of Mohammed, have a think about whether they’re really doing it for a good reason, or if it’s just to try to upset Muslims and to stir up anti-Muslim feelings. That is – is it just offensive or is it gratuitously so?

If anything I’ve written has offended you, well…

Article Image is  “A man in a rage” By Gallery:, CC BY 4.0, Link

Hypocrisy, Theresa May and “subverting democracy”


Theresa May’s accusation that anyone trying to stop the UK from leaving the EU is “subverting democracy” is both entirely inaccurate and demonstrates incredible hypocrisy.

Democracy has already been subverted.

The whole point of democracy is to ensure that the people’s interests are taken into account in political decision making. In order to take this seriously we need to make sure that there is honest, open discussion over political issues with the goal being, not to determine a winner and allow the winning groups to override the interests of all others, but to reach a consensus. Everyone involved must be committed to honest discussion and must believe that everyone else is committed to the same. Full consensus may not always be possible where there are mutually exclusive interests but everyone’s interests must be taken into consideration and consensus should be the goal.

This cannot be done with even a well run binary referendum.

IN/OUT. One winner. Nobody else counts. This just isn’t good enough.

So, in this sense, the opposition to Brexit is based on the belief that democracy has already been subverted. The referendum itself was a subversion of democracy. Half of the population are now being completely ignored in favour of the other half. The same would have been true if the result had gone the other way. This is the sort of treatment which has lead to people having no trust in the government in the first place.

Maybe you think that the goal of aiming at consensus and taking everyone’s interests into account is too extreme, maybe I’m asking too much of democracy. So, let’s look at a weaker version.

Think of an extremely simplistic version of democracy. This seems to be the version that’s most popular amongst angry leave voters. Majority vote wins. Nobody else counts. You lost, get over it.

Even by this minimal standard the referendum was undemocratic! The issue of EU membership is just too complicated to be summed up in it’s entirety with an IN/OUT, or YES/NO vote.

Which of the many options really has the most support? Remain? EEA? EFTA? Isolationism?

Even the very limited requirements of pure majority rule haven’t been met. Again, democracy has already been subverted. If the referendum had given us a list of options and used something like the alternative vote (where people vote by ranking the given options in order of preference) then there would be a case to be made that the referendum was in at least some sense democratic. As it is, we don’t even have that.

What really has subverted democracy is allowing representatives of only one of the possible options to take over completely without taking any concerns from anyone who would have preferred any of the other options into account or even confirming that this is what the majority wants. Taking a roughly 50/50 split as evidence of a strong mandate for either side is nothing less than an outrage.

Even beyond all of this, if Theresa May really wants to talk about who is subverting democracy, maybe she shouldn’t be having private meetings with billionaire media bosses who have been quoted as saying “When I go into Downing Street, they do what I say“.

Hijacking FGM won’t help anti-circumcision activism


Taking it seriously, doing it right. Photo by dbking

First things first, and I know some people are going to get upset about this because I’ve already upset some of them.

It is wrong to make changes to another person’s body without their consent.

A baby cannot understand what’s going on and therefore cannot consent to anything.

From this it should be fairly clear that circumcising babies for cosmetic reasons is wrong.

End of story? Not if you’re a particular type of “men’s rights activist” (MRA).

The issue is that this type of MRA desperately wants circumcision to be seen as something which is exactly as harmful as female genital mutilation (FGM). To this end, some of them are pushing for the term “male genital mutilation” (MGM) to be used instead of “circumcision”. The idea is clearly to try to get male circumcision taken more seriously and to be seen as more harmful. It’s a good idea in isolation.

Unfortunately it’s more likely to make FGM seem more trivial.

There are two reasons for this.

  1. Male circumcision is common and widely thought of as something that is OK
  2. Similar sentences have similar meanings

The fact that “circumcision” as a word is usually understood as something fairly innocuous is a pretty clear motivation for using FGM rather than the less sinister/more clinical sounding “female circumcision”. This also seems to be the primary motivation for proposing the replacement of “circumcision” with MGM. This would be entirely appropriate if the two procedures were generally similar in terms of their severity.

They are not.

If you read the word “mutilation”, you know that it means something has been disfigured or damaged in a significant way. If you read the words “facial mutilation” you might expect something quite horrific, certainly more extensive than a broken nose, cauliflower ears or a couple of scars. These might be a bit ugly and unfortunate, but they’re not extensive enough to count as “mutilation”. Something along the lines of extensive burns or a missing nose is more likely to fit the bill. The idea of extensive damage will remain whether we say “male facial mutilation” or “female facial mutilation”. So, why should we expect very different levels of damage for the male and female versions of “genital mutilation”?

My answer is that we shouldn’t.

If someone tells you that MGM is wrong and needs to be stopped, you’ll obviously agree and you should! If they go on to explain that MGM is actually the same thing as circumcision, which you’ve always thought is fine, you’ll start to think of “genital mutilation” as something that isn’t particularly severe. If MGM isn’t particularly severe and we usually expect similar sentences to have similar meanings then you’ll start to think of FGM as typically having a similar level of severity to male circumcision.

If MGM and FGM are of similar levels of severity and you think MGM is OK, then what hope is there of convincing you that FGM is wrong?

Male circumcision only refers to the removal of the foreskin.

FGM comes in various forms classified by the WHO into 4 types, one form, which the WHO describes as being performed “in very rare cases” (type IA discussed on page 25), is sometimes brought up as being of a similar severity to male circumcision as it refers to removing the clitoral hood only. Type IV (discussed on page 26) is a catch all term for everything that isn’t contained within types I-III and is also sometimes used to support the claim that MGM is an appropriate term.

Even if we ignore the WHO’s warning that the practices mentioned in type IV (pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing) are often used to cover up procedures which really fall under the other types (removal of the clitoris, removal of the clitoris and the labia, cutting and stitching to create a seal that narrows the vaginal opening) it should be clear that FGM covers a range of procedures which at their very least severe may be equivalent to circumcision. It doesn’t make sense to use this as the standard characterisation of FGM. We don’t characterise birds as flightless, even though penguins and ostriches exist, so why should we characterise a harmful act based on a version which is “very rare”?

If the correct characterisation of FGM is with its more common forms, which involve removal of the clitoris, then we should consider the male equivalent to be a procedure which removes the glans. (Despite some claims to the contrary, removal of the glans still allows a man to have sex).

While some circumcisions do go horribly wrong, the removal of the glans is certainly not the normal outcome of a circumcision and so should not be used to characterise the severity of harm done. In fact, most people really do regard male circumcision as harmless and changing this perception is going to be difficult even without trying to equate it with the significantly greater harm which characterises FGM.

The fact that the characteristic severity of each is so different, and male circumcision is already so widely accepted, means that using the same description for each is wildly inappropriate.

Doing so diminishes the impact of the term FGM rather than raises the impact of male circumcision. This is especially true when you rely on using the least severe, and least common, version of FGM to justify the comparison.

If you realise this and continue to push for the use of the term MGM then you have gone beyond promoting one worthwhile cause and started working to prevent another from being taken seriously.

Take both seriously.

More about FGM

More about unnecessary circumcision (note that they do not refer to MGM). Sign the petition (US).

(This post was inspired by a conversation with a twitter user)

Why we should be nicer to leave voters (even if we don’t want to)

It’s been a while since the referendum now, and I’m still hearing about how thick the leave voters are and how they’ve ruined everything for the rest of us. It’s also only been since the referendum that I’ve actually become aware of The Express, a “newspaper” so aggressively misleading, incoherent and racist that it makes The Daily Mail look like The New Internationalist.

While it is true that The Express and The Daily Mail are frothing hate rags catering to people who think that immigration is the root of all their problems somehow, it isn’t true that everyone who voted leave reads them and it isn’t true that everyone who reads them is thick. They may believe things that are absolutely wrong but this is true of everyone. Jeering at someone for being stupid has never ever been a good way of winning them over to your side.

The belief that everyone who reads the hate rags and believes the stories they come out with is stupid is an example of the fundamental attribution error. Basically, we tend to explain other people’s behaviour in terms of some characteristic they have and to ignoring any situational factors which might be relevant. In this case the characteristic being used to explain why someone might blame immigration for their problems is their stupidity. This is fundamentally unhelpful as it both further alienates us from people who we disagree with and completely ignores the process by which these beliefs are maintained.

Rather than just assuming that people blame the EU/immigration/Muslims/whatever for their problems because that’s what stupid people do, let’s try to understand this as a process involving various situational factors.

Unless we have the resources, time and inclination to study an issue in depth ourselves and actually come to our opinion more or less independently we have to rely on sources of information that we think are credible. Given the effectively infinite number of issues that there are out there to understand, even if we are genuine experts in some of them, what we believe about the rest will depend on other sources of information which we think are reliable.

We all have a tendency to try to avoid cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable experience of realising that we hold a set of contradictory beliefs. So, when we are confronted with information which causes cognitive dissonance we do one of two things. Either we change our beliefs or we don’t and we reject the troubling information.

If most of the sources we regard as reliable, and these will include the media, friends, family, colleagues etc are telling us one thing then how likely is it that we are going to accept new contradictory information from a source which we don’t regard as reliable?

Not very!

The issue is, whatever beliefs we have are by definition supported by the sources of information we regard as reliable. It is incoherent to regard a source of information as reliable and simultaneously have beliefs which contradict that source. If we are presented with a source of information which we believe is reliable which supports our current beliefs, then our current beliefs are strengthened. This isn’t the same as being stupid, even if it does sometimes involve faulty reasoning along the way.

If all of the sources of information you thought were reliable were constantly telling you that the EU was the source of all your problems and that refugees were the same thing as terrorists, then you would believe it too. We are all susceptible to this, it’s classical conditioning. If every time The Express mentions the EU (or anyone remotely foreign) they accompany it with something to cause outrage and hostility then anyone who regards The Express as a reliable source of information will be conditioned to regard the EU as a source of outrage and will feel hostility to anything related to the EU (see the “Little Albert” experiment).

The way to beat this isn’t through calling anyone who reads The Express an idiot. Calling someone an idiot is just another way to make them hostile towards you (I accept that it might be extremely satisfying and I am guilty of doing it myself, but it’s not terribly productive).

It’s never going to be easy to get people to change their minds, the only thing I can think to do is to approach every interaction with the assumption that the person you are speaking to will never change their mind but that bystanders who haven’t made their minds up may also be paying attention whether you know about it or not (this is especially true on the internet where there are ALWAYS lurkers). If you handle the conversation aggressively, then bystanders will end up hostile as well as the person you are in discussion with. This is clearly counterproductive. If you handle the interaction instead in a way that attempts to be a simple friendly sharing of an alternative point of view, then you’ll both save yourself some stress by not expecting miracles and stand a much better chance of leaving your conversation partner and any bystanders with a positive impression of one or more of your points.

Dismissing leavers as just stupid rather than looking for the real causes behind their complaints was one of the factors that got us into this mess in the first place, continuing to do the same thing won’t fix it.