Monday, November 25, 2013

Tyranny of the Minority

I looked several places for a definition of the phrase I vaguely remember from my high school government class, tyranny of the minority, but I found, as you might expect, only references to filibusters, court decisions and politics in general.  It wasn't in that context that I thought about it when I read a couple of news articles last week.  I was thinking more in terms of individuals or small groups that don’t like what is going on and decide to protest, sue or use other means to impede progress or to guilt the rest of us into giving in to their demands.  It’s a kind of take-it-or-leave-it negotiation that should elicit resentment from the rest of us but seems to win out through shear persistence.

One example comes from a story about wild turkeys roaming the streets of Staten Island.  They are clearly pests, described as “fouling yards with droppings, devouring gardens, waking up residents with raucous pre-dawn mating sessions, and utterly disregarding dogs and other supposed deterrents.”  They are not rare or endangered.  Experts estimate that the wild turkey population has grown from 300,000 to 7 million over the past 60 years.  When the Department of Agriculture captured about 80 from a psychiatric hospital and took them to be slaughtered, with EPA approval, citizens objected.  How are authorities supposed to deal with such a problem in the face of what was characterized as “an outcry”?  An animal shelter tried to help out by taking in as many as they could, but it barely made a dent.  So we are faced with people, who think these birds/pests are cute and object to them being killed, trying to force everyone else to accept another solution, while they make no contribution except to scream about what they won’t stand for.

The recent discussion of allowing cell phones on commercial airline flights is developing into a similar situation.  It’s no longer a matter of safety, but flyers are lining up to protest.  This USA Today article quotes one woman as saying, "My answer is quite simple: Absolutely no way. Never…With all the stress of travel, silence on a plane is like music to my ears."  Others have expressed similar take-it-or-leave-it arguments.

Cell phones are common on trains, where people are likewise packed together, although the trip is usually shorter.  In fact, a recent CNN story tells of a shooting on a train in San Francisco where no one noticed the shooter waving around a .45-caliber handgun until the shots were fired, because they were so absorbed with their phones.  Some train passengers have figured out a way to deal with it.  Others have suggested a quiet car on the trains.  But the airline passengers’ answer seems to be “no way,” without considering other solutions, earplugs for example, or a headset pumping real music or perhaps white noise as music to their ears.  No, the easy answer is:  No way – you figure it out.

These are not isolated instances, only examples of a behavior that is becoming more and more prevalent.  A few people protest efforts to rid runways of geese or downtown areas of roaming deer.  They offer no alternatives while expecting others to foot the bill for the additional time and resources spent to satisfy their outrage.  It has forced us to purify public areas of any religious references, no matter how well-intended or innocuous.  They demand gluten-free communion wafers, refusing suggested compromises.  This attitude is really quite common.

American society has reached a point where the battle between my rights/opinion against someone else’s rights/opinion boils down to who can make the most fuss.  If I don’t want you to kill the turkeys or allow others to use their phones, it’s not up to me to compromise or come up with a better plan.  (Note how the same behavior we condemn as disgraceful in government is quite common among everyday people around everyday issues.)  The side that wins is the one who can muster the most support by raising emotional issues like guilt and compassion, calling on general feel-good terms like justice and fairness or claiming offense.  Motherhood and apple pie arguments (the turkey as a “national symbol” or appeals against “cruelty” or the “right” to peace on the plane) trump open negotiations and logical solutions.

In these either/or confrontations, one side eventually gives in.  It may not be the best answer or even the right answer.  It calls to mind the eerily prophetic words of Douglas Adams in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy:  "And that's the deciding factor. We can't win against obsession. They care, we don't. They win."

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