The latest issue of Philosophy Now has as its theme, ‘Democracy’, with a number of articles on the subject covering Plato to contemporary politics. In particular relevance to this post, Anja Steinbauer ‘explains why Plato had problems with democracy.’ I won’t discuss her article at length, but early on she points out that ‘…it all comes to a head with Socrates: Athenian democracy didn’t like Socrates, which is why the troublesome thinker was democratically put to death.’ The reason I paraphrase this is because it has dramatic relevance to current political events in Australia.
On a recent issue of 4 Corners, whistleblowers and video footage tell us what the government was unwilling to reveal regarding not so recent events at a detention centre for refugees on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where an asylum-seeker was killed during a riot. The programme reveals the deeply flawed inhumanity of this particular government policy which was originally introduced by the previous (Labor) government and is now being brutally pursued by the incumbent (Liberal) government. Both sides of politics endorse this policy because it’s a vote-winner and, in fact, the last election campaign was dominated by who could be more successful in ‘stopping the boats’ (containing asylum-seekers) as if we are suffering from a wartime invasion.
The relevance to Steinbauer’s insightful commentary on Plato and Socrates is that, with the explicit support of the general public, a government can execute policies that directly contravene the human rights of people who have no political representation in that country. In essence, we are guilty of inflicting both physical and emotional trauma on people; an action we would condemn if it was being done somewhere else. In short, a democratic process does not necessarily provide the most ethical and moral resolution to a dilemma.
The other side to this, is the airing of the programme itself. Only a healthy democratic society can foster a journalistic culture that can openly criticise government policies without fear of retribution.