Skip the plebiscite

Funny what a hard time people have getting this.

Oddly, some of the people commenting on the UCU decision on the Engage website have expressed disappointment that the boycott proposal has been defeated through legal means rather than by a popular union ballot. This is a puzzling response. The Jim Crow laws in the United States were overturned in the 1950s and 1960s through Supreme Court decisions and civil rights legislation, rather than by popular referendums in southern American states. The civil rights movement did not attempt to argue with segregationists to give up their misguided commitment to discriminatory practices. It invoked legal authority in order to compel them to respect the human rights of African Americans. In a liberal democracy the rights of individuals and minorities against racist exclusion are ensured by legal guarantee. They do not depend upon the consent of groups who refuse to acknowledge these rights as indefeasibly binding.

In fact it’s not so much funny as alarming. The more people don’t get that, the more at risk we all are – unless we can be absolutely sure we’re not a member of any possible minority at all; and who can be absolutely sure of that? And anyway we’d still be at risk, because we’d be at risk of persecuting other people, which is hardly an improvement on being persecuted oneself.

It’s so basic. Democracy is not the same thing as justice or human rights or fairness or equal treatment or compassion or anything like that. It doesn’t imply them or presuppose them or (necessarily) bring them about. The majority is not always or automatically right, and it’s certainly not always fair or merciful or scrupulous. Sometimes laws are better than the popular will – that’s one reason laws exist.

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