A recent article in The Economist calls attention to the retreat of democracy in the world. In 2017, according to the Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit, 89 countries registered democratic setbacks, while only 27 registered improvements.
The article describes how authoritarian rulers set out to subvert democracy. One obvious move is to take control of the justice system and this, of course, must be strongly resisted. Another common denominator in any resistance to democratic slippage is the battle to preserve a free press. If a free press is undermined, the battle to preserve democracy itself is on the way to being lost.
That being so, the rule for dealing with the media in a democracy is very simple. Governments in seeking to bring “order” into the media must ensure the nation does not lose the priceless benefit of maintaining access to the widest possible range of information, education and entertainment and access also to views expressed from around the whole compass of opinion. Bringing order out of anarchy is an admirable objective but if order leads to a drastic narrowing of international programming and the stifling of diversified local opinion, that would certainly be an unacceptable alternative.
Despite the expressed need to create order and supervise more carefully what is conveyed to the public, there has been no indication so far that Government contemplates censoring the independent broadcasting media or intends “controlling” opinion.
But if policy were to change in any fundamental way, perhaps in reaction to more adversarial politics arising from the approaching elections, that would be the unhappiest and most dangerous of events. We all know why. It is because no question needs so urgently and repeatedly to be asked of anyone with power over others than that suggested by Oliver Cromwell in a letter he addressed to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland on the 3rd August, 1650. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ,” Cromwell urged the assembled Churchmen, “think it possible you may be mistaken.” Great words that Cromwell later, in the fullness of his own power, too often failed to remember.
“Think it possible you may be mistaken.” It is a point that continually has to be made to anyone who gets to thinking that he and he alone possesses the keys to the kingdom of truth. Throughout history cruelty, evil, and inhuman absurdities of all kinds have followed in the wake of pure dogma put into practice. Long ago, the most dangerous kind of dogma was religious, because religious leaders wielded dominant power over people. Now, in an era when politicians have the power, it is political dogma which is most dangerous – though it may be, God forbid, that religious dogmatism is making a strong comeback in these days of fierce fanaticisms.
“Think it possible you may be mistaken.” Politicians who cannot readily admit that they may be in error, that they need all the constructive criticism and suggestions they can get, that any system they espouse is bound to be flawed as time passes and is therefore subject to change and improvement – such politicians are bound to menace the general good sooner or later. It would be all right if they said what Sam Johnson used to say: “I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in the conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight.” But the trouble is that a politician’s dogmatism tends eventually and always to end up in the claim which Juvenal, the Roman poet, nearly two thousand years ago, described when he had his emperor shout: “I will it, I insist on it! Let my will stand instead of reason.” And along that way – the way of one man’s or one party’s will in place of the reasoning of many – lies great danger.
We should strictly avoid letting partisan party, or any one person’s, opinion dominate any sphere of our national life. John Stuart Mill is one of the great authorities on this subject. It would be good to make him required reading as an antidote to so much that is turgid, blinkered, rigidly ideological, partisan or coldly dogmatic in the life of any nation. Listen to him on the subject of letting conflicting views contend:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race: posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
That is so well said. I have no doubt that dogmatism must be challenged and challenged again wherever it appears in public life – in the press, in the Churches, in the marketplace, in the arts, in academia, and not least in Government circles and in the ranks of all politicians. Isaiah Berlin, the great exponent of opening the mind to all views, at the conclusion of the introduction to his memorable collection of essays on Russian thinkers, wrote some words which should be inscribed on small plaques displayed prominently on the executive desks of every single politician in the land:
“The entire burden of my writings, so far as they can be said to display any single tendency, is distrust of all claims to the possession of incorrigible knowledge about issues of fact or principle in any sphere of human behaviour.”