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Vocal Minorities — Are They Bad?    
Monday, February 18 2008 @ 03:13 AM GMT+4
Contributed by: Lise

OpinionLately there’s been a lot of talk about vocal minorities and heeding majorities, and I’ve found it all confusing — not that I don’t know what people mean, because I do. But I haven’t been able to clear up what I think about it. For instance, are majorities always right? Are vocal minorities a bad thing? How should a town council determine what is ‘right’ in any given situation, especially when the usual criteria of what’s ‘best for the town’ seems to change depending on who you talk to? These are difficult questions, but I don’t think they’re completely unanswerable. So I decided to give it a try.

First off, are majorities always right? This one is easy — clearly they aren’t. In any community, it is possible for a large majority of the populace to strongly support a position that later turns out to be ‘wrong.’ The sweeping of evil dictators into power by popular election springs to mind as just one example. There are surely others less drastic.

And yet, it’s human nature to want to fit in, to go along with what seems to be the general concensus of public opinion. As mothers for generations have said to their kids, if all your friends were going to jump off the cliff, would you jump too? Occasionally, it seems the answer is yes.

On a more practical level, I’ve heard it said with regard to town matters that an issue’s importance can be measured by how many citizens show up at a meeting to speak for or against it. Here, there is the implicit assumption that the side with the most visibly audible proponents wins, which makes some sense under majority rule.

The political historian De Toqueville refers to the dangers of this phenomenon as “the tyranny of the majority,” and warns that it is built into American democracy, perhaps to its peril. “The moral authority of the majority is partly based upon the notion that there is more intelligence and wisdom in a number of men united than in a single individual,” he wrote in Democracy in America, noting that “no obstacles exist” to force the majority to “heed the complaints of those whom it crushes upon its path.” “This state of things is harmful in itself and dangerous for the future,” he concludes.

Which brings us to the vocal minority. In general, when one speaks of pandering to a vocal minority, one is making a value judgment, the assumption being that one should not heed vocal minorities, the further assumption being that they are inherently wrong. But should minority views be dismissed out of hand?

Let’s tackle the ‘vocal’ aspect first. Majorities often characterize minorities as shrill or at the very least, loud. However, when one is in the minority, it is often the case that being loud is the only way to be heard over the din. And be heard they must, in a democratic society, because if majorities can be wrong, even occasionally, then minority opionions become essential to ensure that big decisions are made with adequate information and deliberation.

In short, those who express minority views — objections, concerns, counter-arguments and alternative solutions — are a check or balance to prevent misguided or ill-informed majorities from making possibly dangerous errors of judgment. Or to put it another way, they can help make the majority’s plan better by pointing out weaknesses and flaws that the majority might have missed in their enthusiasm for said plan.

Needless to say, minorities are not always correct any more than majorities are. Sometimes, a vocal minority can be dead wrong. But from the standpoint of a well-oiled democratic process, it’s not just desirable but essential that all sides to an important question be not just heard, but taken into consideration and deliberated seriously.

The foregoing analysis begs the question of what is right and what is wrong, and to a certain extent, right and wrong seem less important in a democracy than deliberative process and collective decision-making. Besides, the question of right and wrong has no universally-applicable answer. For help with these kinds of questions, societies have generally relied on codes of ethics that promote certain values and guide conduct. Here in America, our code of ethics is largely derived from the Bible, and so we retain a certain amount of confusion since “an eye for an eye” vies in the same volume with “turn the other cheek.”

However there is one value that many Americans see as supreme, whether or not we always follow it, and that is: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Despite its religious origins, I believe that keeping this guideline in mind could make decision-making a lot easier, not just for elected leaders but for each of us as individuals. If you add to this tenet the ancient rule of physicians to “do no harm,” you have what seems to me to be a highly functional doctrine for both living and governing.

This is not to say that we will always collectively make the ‘right’ decisions or avoid all mistakes. People are only human, and we can’t expect to always be impartial and wise. But by understanding and respecting the role of the minority in public affairs, we can at least make decisions that are well-informed and take into account a broad assortment of views. By applying an ethical standard such as the golden rule, we can further ensure that our hearts are in the right place when we do make up our minds.

In the end, it’s still up to the deciders to decide, but even there, the people have their say come election day, giving us our biggest opportunity to affect public affairs — by electing leaders who we think will truly represent our highest values and interests. No matter which boat we find ourselves in, minority or majority, democracy gives us this chance to stand up and be counted.


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    The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they may say.
    Vocal Minorities — Are They Bad?
    Authored by: cgrotke on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 03:21 PM GMT+4
    A majority once thought:

    - the world is flat
    - the sun goes around the earth
    - people with different skin colors are lesser beings
    - women shouldn't vote
    - drinking alcohol should be outlawed

    Of course, it is a tough issue. Some minority views turn out to be just
    as wrong - one may be in the minority because they are simply
    incorrect (a person who believes Brattleboro is capital of Vermont
    would be in the minority and incorrect.)

    There is comfort in feeling like everyone agrees. Often, though, there
    are some that don't agree with the majority and they are being quiet.
    I try in meetings, whenever possible, to make sure the quiet ones get
    a chance to express their opinions. More often than not, the quiet
    minority makes a good point, and informs us of something we need to

    In terms of the Selectboard, I want to see five individuals up there
    doing their personal best. Constant 4-1 decisions are a sign to me that
    some are being overlooked and ignored, especially if the single vote is
    always the same person. Something is wrong.

    This last year saw all sorts of interesting combinations coming
    together and dissolving - Dora siding with Dick and Steve. Audrey
    siding with Dick and Steve. All five voting unanimously in favor. All
    five unable to reach any decision at all.

    I was amazed, for example, when Dick and Steve derailed one version
    of the nudity ordinance, forcing the issue to continue on for months -
    they had Audrey's support and Rich was asking for a simple change -
    but no deal! It was all or nothing.

    To turn a phrase, it takes five to tango. If two or three are robotically
    in agreement, I find it less interesting and ultimately less valuable.
    There are nearly 15,000 people here - it makes sense that the board
    is diverse and has a wide variety of opinions.
    Vocal Minorities — Are They Bad?
    Authored by: spoon on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 03:33 PM GMT+4
    This is a very fine effort. Not definitive of course. It would be difficult for anything along these lines to be so. But there is a immense amount of food for thought here and many signposts pointing to paths worth pursuing.

    One signpost among the many is that age old question of how we do arrive at something we can accept as right or wrong. The first thing that pops into mind is sustainability. And that applies not only to the physical world but our ethical/psychological/moral world as well. The ten commandments are a pretty solid list of how to live. I've always thought that when one parses them out they all point in the direction of guiding one towards the least fractious rules for keeping a community or family together. Thousands of years ago, long before the commandments were first written down in fact, it was already apparent that the success of a community depended upon mutual respect. That the individual had by far the best chance of survival with the support and protection of community. It recognized that humans were gregarious, communal and mutually dependent animals. This goes all the way back to the hunt. To provide for its members, to protect its members and to successfully reproduce there had to be community. The commandments are all directed to this end. Even adultery, which on the surface might appear to have meaning only in the context of marriage, is really a deeper issue. It speaks to the need to respect other people's relationships and the necessity of trust within one's own.

    What as I see as the other half of sustainability is the physical world. Our species, in fact all species, will find it's continued existence threatened if we deplete beyond replacement the sources of our sustenance. Our soil, our water, our air, our climates, our habitats. For openers it is necessary to keep in mind that all those who are not yet born have no say or control over what is done now. The quality of life or even the ability to survive for the child one is planning to have is totally dependent on the choice one makes now. Frighteningly, it is becoming less and less of an argument for generations far down the line and more a question of impacts on the children already living.

    I propose that the notion of sustainability is now and must always be an essential measure upon which to help define and decide upon right and wrong. It is not a rhetorical question to ask...what else is there?

    Vote Spoon Agave for Selectboard. Vote March 4th.
    (Register now. Early ballots now available)

    spoon agave
    Vocal Minorities or Concerned Citizens?
    Authored by: SK-B on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 04:24 PM GMT+4
    Concerned citizens are people we agree with, those espousing policies we oppose are vocal minorities.

    About 10 years ago, when a large group of my neighbors in the Clark-Canal area went to a Selectboard meeting to lobby for preservation of Plaza Park, they were not received warmly, and a couple of the men on the Board said that if there are 30 people at the meeting they are a vocal minority, and the other 12,000+ people in town must be on the other side.

    But when a group of landlords came to a Selectboard meeting and vocally opposed a proposed housing code enforcement ordinance, they were received with great respect, and no one called them a vocal minority.
    What's so Bad about Vocal Minorities?
    Authored by: Floyd on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 05:13 PM GMT+4

    Politics has always gone this way. there are vocal minorities at each end of the spectrum (even though some us reject the spectrum as a definitive model for identifying our political sensibilities).

    Then there is a substantial group who are completely disinterested, distracted or disempowered and they pursue other things perhaps in blissful ignorance of what decisions are made in their name and rules enacted that they must follow.

    Bring back civics classes! Make the expectations of citizenship more explicit. Make the system work better and more inclusive and more people will participate.

    When more of us are speaking up we will no longer be a minority, but I wouldn't hold my breath.
    What's so Bad about Vocal Minorities?
    Authored by: Christian Avard on Monday, February 18 2008 @ 05:45 PM GMT+4
    *** Bring back civics classes! ****

    I said the same thing Floyd! But if memory serves, one SB member said
    at a meeting we were both at, that civics classes aren't the answer and
    the discussion fizzled after that. Remember who I'm talking about?

    I totally agree with you. This is necessary in today's world and you can't
    deny it that's there' a lot of apathy in Brattleboro. It's always the usual
    suspects that how up to SB meetings, activist group meetings, etc. etc.


    "A clear conscience is usually the sign of a bad memory." - Steven Wright, comedian