During the May Fourth Movement (1919) in China, Chinese intellectuals and students did a deep reflection on traditional Chinese culture and the reasons for Chinese “backwardness.” They decided that what China lacked was two things — Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy. They believed that these two things had to be imported from the West.
Today, science has made great inroads in China. But democracy seems to be still lacking. Many Chinese people ask why. The Western nations also ask why. Is it because China has been under dictatorship for thousands of years?
Looking at the US today, it seems that democracy is in trouble too. What are the Chinese people really looking for? And what are the American people looking for? Does the existence of a system of election solve the problem? What is the meaning of an election if the modern world is too complex for people to understand and special interest groups spend millions in swaying public opinion? In his book, Science in a Democratic Society, philosopher Philip Kitcher explored the difficulties in integrating scientific knowledge into a modern democratic society. How much do the ordinary citizens understand about economics and the issues in our contemporary economy? How much do they really know about climate change? And how much do they know about the risks and benefits of vaccination? Today, we are living in the middle of a Coronavirus crisis. There are many many conspiracy theories about the origin and the implications of this new pandemic. Would the ordinary citizens know enough to sort out what is true and what is false? How much time have they really spent on fact-checking?
Clearly, even if voting is not a problem and every citizen has voting rights, we still need a well-educated public, a public that can do critical thinking, perform fact checking and evaluate different policy alternatives. In a flood of fake news and a proliferation of “info wars,” the difficulty of having a meaningful election cannot be overstated.
There is a temptation to believe that there was a golden age when the US was a real democracy. But were things really better during the founding days of America? Not necessarily. During that time, blacks and women could not vote, not to mention the Native Americans. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming that “all men are created equal,” somehow that statement only applied to men and people of other races were not considered members of the human family.
It is common for Chinese people to have distorted images of themselves. Especially for those who have not been overseas, they would not know the details of how Western countries operate. Bo Yang, a popular Taiwanese author, wrote a book titled The Ugly Chinaman. There are quite a few books written afterwards, of a similar nature. Typically, these authors have not spent a long time living in the West or in America. They do not know the inside story. They have the opinion that the Chinese people are the most corrupt, the most depraved and the most autocratic people on earth. Have they taken a close look at how the GOP senators operate in this country? Or how our POTUS operates?
The grass seems to be always greener on the other side. This seems to be common human psychology. What we can say today is that just having a system of election will not solve the problem of democracy. Corruption, foul play and propaganda will always enter politics. What we need is not just a well-educated citizenry. We also need a fundamental change in our value system. A value system which puts money and self-gains as the top priority will not create a government for the public good.
This means what is primary is an education of the heart. Does power or money really create happiness? We need to look at the problem empirically. We need to do some honest self-investigation. We need to cultivate certain mental habits of mindfulness and silence so that we can see things for ourselves. Otherwise, we would just follow the herd instinct. We need some time for solitude, away from the crowds and away from mass media. Much of the modern value system is based on Enlightenment values, with a heavy emphasis on individualism, liberty and progress. Here, we must make a clear distinction between individualism and selfishness or self-centerness. Real individualism requires independent thinking.
True independent thinking is not possible unless we become aware of the various social conditioning and social pressure that are influencing our own thinking. In order to see such subtle influences, the mind has to become very quiet and sensitive. Without the necessary silence and solitude, it would be very easy for us to become slaves to the herd and whatever is the dominant ideology. I would go as far as to say that independent thinking requires a certain spiritual practice and discipline, without which there cannot be clarity. One will just be drowned in the noise of the all-powerful mass media. In addition, without independent thinking, there won’t be real liberty. Sadly, centuries after the onset of the Enlightenment Movement, such independent thinking ability is rarely seen. On the contrary, we see plenty of groupthink and herd behavior.
Genuine democracy is not merely a matter of elections and voting. The foundation of democracy lies in the availability of good information, knowledge and one’s ability to perform critical and independent thinking. Clearly, the first wave of Enlightenment which happened in the 18th century was not enough. Enlightenment is a continuing process. What is urgently needed today is a second wave of Enlightenment which is inwardly-oriented. It is to be cultivated in our mental habits, in silence and solitude, so that independent thinking is given a real chance.
In the cessation or dampening of busyness in the midst of this pandemic, perhaps we could jump start this inward enlightenment. It is not only important for our spiritual development. It is also crucial for a genuine democracy.