Thursday, June 3, 2010

Democracy in a Microcosm: Now I understand how it can go so wrong…

The microcosm in this story was an intercity bus between Washington, DC and New York City. I’ll kindly let the company remain anonymous, but suffice it to say, I’ve travelled with them before and one of the things I enjoy most about them is their remarkable choice to ask the passengers to vote on whether to stop or drive straight through and which movie to watch (or to not watch a movie at all.) In this case we voted to watch It’s Complicated with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. And critical to this particular story, the clear majority voted to drive straight through with no pit stops (unless the driver needed one.)

The story really begins when the bus driver made a pit stop in New Jersey. No one complained; we all understood, I think, that the driver can’t get up to use the restroom and simultaneously perform his professional duties. So, at two minutes past the hour we pulled in to the rest stop and the driver stated that we would be taking off at 10 minutes past the hour.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that 7 or 8 minutes is nearly nothing. I was starving, so I scrambled in to the restaurant section, made a hasty choice of a Burger King chicken sandwich, and rushed backed out. And then, as promised, at exactly 10 minutes after the hour, the driver started to pull away.

People began to speak up that not everyone was back, but the driver continued the slow process of pulling out. One guy even got off the bus to go get his girlfriend, after which the driver continued pulling away! The man in front of me started to speak up that the person next to him hadn’t returned either, but his English was limited. And, as he continued to pull away, the driver said that he was doing this because of our earlier vote! He was just doing what we said we wanted!

There were groans and the fits and starts of protests, but no coherent statements. I couldn’t believe that I was watching democracy be turned into a reason to be cruel to a small minority of our microcosm. Small, local community is where democracy is supposed to work best, right?

I finally loudly said, “Previous vote or no, I think the majority of us at this moment would prefer to risk getting into New York late rather than knowingly leave our fellow passengers behind.” The small, but committed, vocalizations of support (and the lack of any dissenting voices) was enough to get the driver to back up and wait for what turned out to be 4 people in all.

So, LESSON #1 here was: IN THE FACE OF APATHY, MISUNDERSTANDING AND/OR THE NEED FOR SOCIAL CHANGE, RESOLUTE AND CLEAR VOICES FROM WITHIN THE POWER STRUCTURE MUST SPEAK OUT ON BEHALF OF THAT CHANGE. This cannot always come from those being directly affected by the policy in debate, nor can it necessarily come from those working tirelessly to help those being directly affected. Those of us who have the time and come from the unaffected groups, who can see the injustice and utilize vocabularies and abilities to address our own constituent group, need to do just that.

Once the situation was resolved, two other things caught me off guard as well. As I said before, I found it shocking that the driver would use our vote as an excuse to act so unjustly. Then, as we pulled away with all passengers in tow and only 5 minutes after our scheduled departure, the driver changed tactics and used democracy to CYA (cover your “anatomy”). He announced that this had all been taped as per company procedure and would be referred to should anyone try to lodge a complaint about arriving late.

This leads us to LESSON #2: IN THE ABSENSE OF A COLLECTIVE SENSE OF JUSTICE AND A VOTING PUBLIC ACTIVELY ENGAGED IN OVERSIGHT, DEMOCRACY CAN BE DISTORTED IN THE MOST UNDEMOCRATIC WAYS. That is to say, it can be used to exclude those who cannot or do not understand how to exercise their voice, as well as to excuse and protect those whose actions are questionable. And this can all turn on a dime given the right circumstances, so a fluid and flexible mind is vital to dealing with it.

I’m sure that not everyone walked away from the experience feeling as I did. After all, I am my own particular internal milieu of influences and social forces, a large number of which have recently been geared in this direction.

I doubt if, for example, the woman who castigated the latecomers felt the same way I did about the experience over all. This woman scolded the four tardy passengers as they boarded and took their seats, saying that they should be grateful that “we” had spoken up for them, that they should apologize for “making” us wait, and that they were “rude, just rude” (complete with disapproving tongue-clicking for emphasis.) No one gave the apology she asked for or even acknowledged her statements.

So thus we arrive at LESSON #3: IF YOU WANT TO BRING IN UNNERVED, FRIGHTENED, AND PREVIOUSLY EXCLUDED SOCIAL GROUPS, ONE OF THE LEAST EFFECTIVE AND LEAST DEMOCRATIC WAYS OF DOING SO IS TO BE PUNATIVE, TO POINT OUT THEIR DIFFERENCES OR “FAILINGS” OR TO BRING UP HW MUCH THEY OWE THE MAJORITY FOR ALLOWING THEM IN. I would bet money on the idea that if they had been greeted instead by voices happy to see them, there would have been much gratitude expressed, and warmer, more open microcosm community would have resulted.
Now, my quantitative side is scolding me for extrapolating from such a small sample size (1 experience) but my qualitative side is winning out with the argument that this is how one learns, how one arrive at and assimilates new knowledge. It is the basis for democratic schooling and other movements that strive to remind us that terms like justice, democracy, voice, and choice do not occur only on the grand scale but also on the local level. And it brings me around to embrace once again the idea that “the personal is political.”

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