By Emre Serbest, Vice President of TADA
What is Democracy?
Throughout my life as an intellectual, I have read many different definitions of democracy written by various philosophers, political scientists, and other intellectuals.
If I were asked to provide my own definition of it, I would define democracy as a form of self-governance whereby people of equal rights who wish to attain certain common goals in a particular organization or state shape laws, policies and principles that have binding effects on them, based on a constitution.
For instance, in a state, people of equal rights would be citizens, also known as The People. Under the common goal of forming a political infrastructure that is conducive to their pursuit of happiness and tranquility, these citizens would form a state which guarantees them their security of life, property, and liberties with a high degree of common order, under a constitution.
Once such a state is founded, they would then make binding laws that guarantees the above listed common goals they wish to attain either through direct participation or by electing representatives who would make these binding laws for them under the roof of a congressional structure.
In order for everyone to participate in the creation of this “common will”, institutions of the state the people form and the legal rules that govern them may need to be reorganized from time to time. The culture of participation would be the key here, as people can only live through and maintain democracy through participation.
While active participation or inclusion of the individuals forming a society may be a prerequisite of democracy, this does not necessarily ensure sustaining a healthy democracy per se if democracy is to be viewed simply as the “rule of the majority”. As Alexis de Tocqueville points out in his landmark book “Democracy in America”, when democracy is seen simply as the “rule of the majority”, majority’s public opinion would become an all-powerful force and then the majority could simply begin to tyrannize unpopular minorities and marginal individuals.
I am proud to bring to everyone’s attention, that this form of inclusive and participatory democracy that does not discriminate against the minorities was successfully established as a tradition in the times of ancient Turkish empires and khanates that were formed thousands of years ago. During the times of ancient Turkic empires, when Turks believed in a Pagan Sun God, rulers called “khans or begs” would form legislative councils called “toy”, “kurultay” or “kenesh” where state matters would be deliberated but any common person could walk into these meetings and freely and directly relay their concerns in a respectful manner. They would know that if a citizen appears in the court of “begs” and “khans” to speak his mind, his opinions would be given serious weight no matter how unpopular they are. Khans and Begs would come to power with elections voted in the kurultays. When a Khan could not serve the people, then the Khan would be replaced with a new elected Khan.
This means, democracy needs to be evolved into a culture where opinions of minorities are also valued and given weight in some form of a compromise, in shaping the laws and principles that guide and govern a particular society.
Culture of Democracy
Today, at least for those of us who cherish it, democracy has become a way of life, for it can only function in a healthy way if it is transformed into a way of life.
In recent years we have seen that societies, even those that are regarded to be more “advanced” ones, have become rapidly crowded due to mass migration. In return, we observe that social relations have become much more complex. As societal structures get more complex, they tend to get strained more and it becomes more difficult to manage societies and regulate the inter (or intra) societal relations. Crime rates are on the rise globally, economic relations are diversifying, cultural differences are deepening, certain crucial duties of the states are being disrupted through deregulations, and social problems such as unemployment are increasing.
Contemporary societies can only overcome these problems by developing a well-functioning culture of democracy. In societies where the culture of democracy is deeply rooted, one would observe that individuals have largely succeeded in being a part of the solution, not the problem. Everyone would agree that they have a duty to ensure social peace and solve problems. Undoubtedly, the way to do this is through continuous education. If common social values such as equality, freedom, justice, tolerance, and respect for differences are established through some form of continuous education, people will fulfill their duties.
If we think of a society as a body, each cell forming it would be a family. This means, if we wish the democratic society to prevail, we need to ensure that every family soaks in these common democratic values and principles. In families where the culture of democracy is lived fully, values such as respect, love, equality, justice, and tolerance become a part of everyone’s lives. Everyone has a separate place and value. There is no discrimination among family members based on gender, role, and age. Children who grow up in such families develop self-esteem and self-confidence. They become individuals capable of self-auditing and self-correcting, freely taking decisions and responsibilities.
In school environments where democratic values are deeply rooted, administrators, teachers, civil servants, students, and parents are seen as individuals each capable of critical thinking, free from divisive dogmas. Everyone’s opinion is valued, as long as they do not conflict with the common values and principles of democracy.
In societies where a strong culture of democracy is formed and deeply rooted, there is respect, love, tolerance, respect for differences, justice, sharing and reconciliation among people in all avenues of social life. People are aware of their duties and responsibilities towards their communities and the society at large. People respect each other’s freedoms. Everyone understands that one person’s freedoms are punctuated at a point where another person’s freedoms start so that they do not transgress.
In societies where people have a high level of understanding of democratic rules and principles, people tend to not harm each other as much and there is much less need for policing. In such societies, people understand that they are all equal before the law and no one is privileged. If a common system of justice equitably provides everyone what they deserve, the feeling of social trust is at the highest level.
In societies where democratic values are properly adopted, the understanding of “human first” is given the utmost importance in the administration and social relations. Regardless of age, gender, color, belief, social and economic status, people are valued, and differences are respected. While determining the rules of social life tend to change and get updated over time, human rights, equality, justice, and the rule of law are always taken into serious consideration.
The Democratic Citizen
Aristotle once said that “being a good person does not always mean being a good citizen.”
So, who would be considered a “good citizen” and what would be their characteristics? The answer to this question has probably been one of the most sought-after answers since Ancient Greece.
To me, the characteristics of a democratic citizen would be to know their rights and freedoms, to fulfill their duties and responsibilities towards the society, and act participatory, free, and independent towards the betterment of the society. A democratic citizen is an individual who cares about the principles and values of democracy, makes them his or her lifestyle, and protects these principles and values at all costs. No one could easily mislead a society made up of such individuals and human rights violations would be much less common.
Democracy is a vehicle that helps people establish just, nurturing, free, safe, and inclusive societies. Like any vehicle, democracy requires regular maintenance to function properly. Just as a proper understanding of a vehicle is the prerequisite of maintaining it, a proper understanding of democracy and its principles is key. Once people acquire and retain the understanding of these democratic rules and principles and make them parts of their everyday lives, elements of social justice, peace and order would quickly fall into their place.