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``real equality is still far from a reality''


John Paul MacDonald's question concerning equal opportunity on the net has been quoted. Herbert Hrachovec elaborated his point:

Given the huge existing differences in society generally and in computer equipment in particular it is an amazing fact that internet technology puts 286 PCs on equal terms with bis UNIX workstations. And by this I mean: interchange via telnet, ftp, irc, gopher, lynx - the lot.
This provoked John Wong to remark
One could comment along similar lines that it is indeed amazing that people in Somalia are born on equal terms with those in Switzerland - that they all can hear, speak, think, breath, see, and perhaps even (occasionally) eat - the lot.

Is this what democracy is about in this world, the way democracy is on the net?

(Nov. 27, 1995)

But isn't this a merely negative approach, failing to confront the challenge of manifest global inequalities? (Ravi Arapuraka, Nov 27, 1995) And a historical fact should not be forgotten: People born in Switzerland and in Somalia have not always been considered as being ``born equal.'' It took thousands of years for an idea like this to be commonly accepted (in some parts of the world). It seems quite obvious that the mere idea of equality provides no guarantee whatsoever against the constant disregard of basic human rights. (Herbert Hrachovec, Nov 28, 1995) John Wong, in his response, insisted on skepticism. Viewed in abstraction both democracy and the Internet show highly desirable properties which turn out, on closer inspection, to be based on an idealization. ``I urge greater realism in thinking about democracy and equality, be it on the net or in other more worldly realms.'' (John Wong, Nov. 28, 1995)

At this point Enlightenment ideals that were to be examined more closely several months later made their first appearance.

The acceptance of the Enlightenment theorem that people are born equal is clearly a precondition for any democracy (in the Western sense). And it is equally clear that recognition of human rights has to be a basic feature for this form of government to work. One of my points in the above passage is that this conceptual setup does not save us from major inconsistencies in actual political life.

(Herbert Hrachovec, Nov. 29, 1995)

To which John Wong replied that there is probably no ``conceptual setup'' that could save one from major inconsistencies in actual practice. A proposition that tells us what we ought to do cannot be taken as a reliable guide to the existing world. Having some abstract notion of an entity is not a solid foundation for talking about it.
Suppose we have a listserv named ``Unicorn on the Net.'' How would we go about reconciling reality with unicorns? Hence, I urge realism.

(John Wong, Nov 29, 1995)

The problem of reconciliation between abstract concepts and concrete experience is, of course, an ancient one, raising questions for both sides of the divide. John Paul MacDonald observed that we would have to agree on our understanding of ``democracy'' as well as of ``realism'' in deciding this issue. Referring to two then-current examples of the flame war on ``tutor-l'' and of the Usenet discussion ``Oklahoma Fallout'' he put it like this:
But what realism? The realism that sees the governments of the world trying to deprive individuals of their god-given right to bear arms? The reality that sees firearms as a danger to all humans? Or, the reality that sees a private hire teaching system that will replace universities as opposed to the reality that sees universities as doing a great job, thank you! The reality that you see IS different from the reality which I see because we are both different subjects. Or rather, I might see a different aspect of the real than you do, and then the challenge is to see what is the common ground between the two or more aspects and work towards something that is true to both visions. This goes back to what I asked before, what is it that we mean by democracy?

(Nov. 29, 1995)

This provoked John Wong's terse reply that serves as the motto of this report. Two different discursive styles were practised in ``mii-dem,'' dependent on the general philosophical background of the persons involved. The down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach in evidence at the beginning was later substituted by a more reflective (not to say speculative) treatment of the topics. John Wong's challenge reproduced as a motto to this paper can, however, be regarded as a motive implicitly determining much of the discussion on democracy and the net.

Are we hunting after an elusive mythological beast or is John Wong's formula an all too polemical description of a legitimate quest? In view of the heavy emphasis that was later put on (meta-)ethical principles of net-discourse it is also worth mentioning that an aggressive note pervaded some of the first round of exchanges.gif Incipient theoretical fights were occasionally defused by gentle irony:

In my quest to find out if we agree on what we mean by democracy John writes: ``Could it be a unicorn? If so, why? And if not, why not?'' Now I know, John, that you are just being Baaad!:-)

But, if we take democracy to be one person with one vote and every vote being treated as equal, and everyone agreeing to be bound by the will of the majority, then, I would have to say that in many cases democracy is like a unicorn. Democracy has many stories told about it, like a unicorn, but again, like a unicorn, it is rarely seen - that is if we agree that democracy is one person, one vote, all votes being equal and everybody being bound by the majority. If we hold that democracy is something else, then I would have to wait to see if it is a unicorn or not! (John Paul MacDonald, Nov. 30, 1995)

We can, in other words, take the sting from robust realism that regards any conceptual abstractions with suspicion by freely admitting that we are involved in an exercise of creative invention. One should not be afraid of imagining circumstances beyond the actual. John Wong, in his response, was signaling an understanding of this point by (ironically?) insisting on the non-existence of unicorns: ``Perhaps `never seen' is more apt than to be `unreal'. While never seen, another question is: Could it ever be?'' (Nov. 30, 1995)

So there seemed to be a question of inventing democracy in a strong sense after all. E-mail discourse is often antagonistic or inconclusive. But at this point a result was actually achieved. It went unheralded at the time, just another element in a stream of messages. Looked upon with hindsight it may, however, be regarded as a first intermediary resolution of this list's discussions:

John Paul,

> ... I think it is important that the ``mythology'' of democracy
> be maintained, because that is the ideal we strive for in politics.
> If we change those ideals then we might get something a lot less
> than what we have, with all its warts, in ``reality'' now.

This line of argument is largely convincing. In our lifetime, there are other ``ideals'' of comparable if not superior mythical stature to this unicorn we call ``democracy.'' One which immediately comes to mind cherished ``from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.'' Yet, this bird is now all ashes.

What happened? Why some myths and not others?

(John Wong, Dec. 4, 1995)

This proved to be too tall an order. A certain equilibrium concerning the realistic and idealistic outlooks had been reached and this thread of the discussion came to an end with the following attempt to distinguish between different kinds of ``unicorns'':
Democracy can be described as a formal procedure and this is something we fall back on in order to save time and energy. But it is clear from the above description that ``equality'' is not just an arithmetical notion and neither is ``majority'' to be understood set-theoretically. One of our problems in discussing these issues is that there is a ``quick,'' uncontroversial description that covers a lot of hidden presuppositions.

When these presuppositions are articulated there is a certain surprise. Whereas we rarely doubt the assumption that a thing or a person remains equal to itself for a stretch of time we do not have a sure grip on the meaning of *political* equality. I.e., whereas the application of arithmetical concepts seems easy and practical, the employment political notions is heavily loaded with vested interests.

Not very surprising. But this is puzzling: Why do we think that formal procedures can help us construct our political life? What is the relationship between numbers and persons? It seems that there are different types of unicorns.

(Herbert Hrachovec, Dec. 6, 1995)

If there are, they still await closer inspection.

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Next: ``If there is something Up: Lines of Thought Previous: Lines of Thought

Fri Jul 25 22:00:35 MEST 1997