On democracy and tyranny

There must be logical limits to the right of freedom of expression.

gay pride parade 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
gay pride parade 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Winston Churchill's famous quip that "Democracy is a horrid system of government but it is far better than any other known and tried system of governing" is borne out on a regular almost daily basis. The reason that democracy is so horrid is that there never is a clear definition as to the limits of democracy. Democracy was meant to defend the minority from the tyranny of the majority. However, it must also be able to defend the majority from the tyranny of the minority. And it is in these areas that democratic life and values become sorely tested. Freedom of speech and expression are values in a democratic society. Yet as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the United States Supreme Court pointed out a century ago, no one has the right to shout "Fire" in a crowded theater when there is in fact no such fire burning. There are logical limits to the right of freedom of expression. The line therefore between tyranny and democracy is a very thin one indeed. The parade/demonstration that occurred last week in Jerusalem is a case in point. The overwhelming majority of Jerusalem's residents - Jews, Muslims, Christians, secular, religious, haredi - opposed the provocative public flaunting of what they considered to be immoral behavior on the streets of the Holy City. The organizers of the event demanded that it be allowed as an expression of freedom of expression. Preventing it, they claimed, would be tantamount to exercising the tyranny of the majority over the minority. This position was upheld by the attorney-general and by a number of vocal left-wing politicians. However, the opponents of the event claimed that this was a prime example of the tyranny of the minority over the majority. No one was persecuting those who wanted the event. There are no discriminatory laws passed or enforced against them and their lifestyle is what it should be - their own personal business and choice. SO WHY the public provocation? What is the agenda here? It certainly is not really democracy because all democratic norms must take into account public order, sensitivities and the reality and practicalities of given situations. This event was basically a continuation of the decades-long campaign in the Western world to force the majority, not only to tolerate the minority, but rather to itself adopt its alternate lifestyle as being correct, progressive and the true expression of human relationships. Viewed in this light, the event that took place was not as one left-wing politician so self-righteously proclaimed it to be - "a triumph for democracy." It rather was a triumph for the tyranny of the minority - and a very small minority at that - over the majority. A DECADE ago, the United States Supreme Court allowed a group of American neo-Nazis to parade in the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a town with an overwhelmingly Jewish population majority. The court justified its decision on the basis of freedom of speech, assembly and expression. But repugnant as that event was, it was not part of a concerted attempt to force acceptance of its principles on a hostile majority. America has had a long history of anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-minority parades. Whether this has been beneficial to American society in the long run is certainly open for debate. Yet the type of parade that was scheduled for Jerusalem last week differs in the fact that it is not so much a provocative demonstration of an ideology in a hostile neighborhood but it is a demand placed upon a majority society that it not oppose even privately the values and lifestyle that the organizers of the event represent. It is a demand that the majority that still cleaves unto traditional standards of biblical morality capitulate ideologically and religiously to the demands of the minority. Again, it is an example of the tyranny of the minority in forcing its will on a majority that opposes its agenda vehemently for religious, social, family and community reasons. In the 1960s America underwent the turmoil and violence spawned by the public marches and demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement protesting the legalized discrimination against American citizens of color. Those demonstrations were against immoral and unjust laws that represented the tyranny of the majority in a number of states of the Union against fellow American citizens. The purpose of those demonstrations was to allow equal housing, education and opportunity to an oppressed minority. It was to grant the oppressed minority in the states of the Deep South the right to vote and run for office. The majority of Americans and their representatives in Congress had long opposed such "legal" discriminatory practices as practiced then in the South. That situation is certainly not analogous to the one pertaining to the organizers of the event here in Jerusalem last week. They face no legal barriers, no police dogs or water hoses, no legally enforced segregation from the general society, no poll taxes or literacy tests in order to vote. So what is all the noise and publicity about? It is again only a ploy to somehow force a certain very narrow agenda and a lifestyle that has been considered to be immoral by all of the monotheistic faiths upon an unwilling majority. IPERSONALLY agree with the policy of the Grand Rabbi of Gur who instructed his tens of thousands of followers to simply ignore the matter. Had it been ignored, the organizers would not have reaped the benefit of millions of shekels of unnecessary publicity, the matter would not have been politicized as being a Left versus Right confrontation, the haredi community would not have suffered an unnecessary and mainly undeserved public black eye because of the behavior of its children and renegades, and the event would have been what it should have been - a non-event. However, once the battle was joined, then it becomes imperative for the sake of the preservation of democracy - the very democracy that the organizers of the event and their political supporters so vehemently advocate - that the tyranny of the minority over the majority be limited if not prevented. The writer is a theologian, historian and popular lecturer.