Loudly Defending Freedom

The protesters in Ottawa are fighting against a danger particular to democracies: the tyranny of the majority.

I live in Ottawa. Downtown Ottawa. While writing this, I am wearing noise-cancelling headphones because, even with the windows closed, the sound of horns from the Freedom Convoy Truckers is deafening. So why can’t I stop smiling?

I can’t stop smiling because my Canadian countrymen have stepped up on one of the great moral questions facing my generation: should government health mandates be forcibly applied to ordinary people who want to be left alone to live their lives?

The Canadian government has made vaccinations necessary to do certain jobs. The government says that if you want to be an international trucker, or a banker, or a public servant, you must let us inject a COVID-19 vaccine into your body. Of course, as some have disingenuously pointed out, there’s an alternative. If you don’t want the jab, you can just give up the career you have built (in some of our cases) over many years. Maybe you didn’t want the job that badly after all. Where have I heard this before? Ah yes, these are the same options offered to young actresses by Harvey Weinstein. 

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Some people will object. Yes, they will say, this is compulsion. But in the case of COVID-19, it is a necessary compulsion. We are at war with a virus. In order to win this war, we must do things that we would not ordinarily contemplate, as we have done in other warsthings like intern our Japanese or German fellow citizens, drop firebombs and nuclear bombs on women and children, devastate jungles and their inhabitants with Agent Orange, or subject randomly selected grannies to invasive preflight screening. Now admittedly, in all those cases, such measures came to seem both evil and useless. But in our case, so the argument goes, moral compromise just might prove to be the key to victory.

Several years ago, when I was teaching philosophy in universities across this continent, I often discussed this scenario with my students. It is a danger particular to democracies, and it is called a tyranny of the majority. A majority can tyrannize a minority when the majority forces the minority to comply simply because the majority is bigger and stronger. Of course, that is not the story that the majority tells itself. The majority thinks of their actions as righteous and urgent, and they insist that no one could legitimately disagree. 

That is why, to properly evaluate mandatory vaccinations, we should try to achieve a critical distance. We should ask whether the bureaucratic incentives to find COVID cases and disincentives to find bad vaccine reactions could not possibly have influenced our final tally. We should wonder exactly why health services have been “unable” to disambiguate deaths with COVID from deaths from COVID. We should at least acknowledge that many countries with low vaccination rates also appear to have lower death rates than our own. We should consider why nations like Japan are using alternative treatments.

I think by now most people have heard such arguments. But if you haven’t, the Off-Guardian offers an excellent crib sheet. The point is that there is room for intelligent people to disagree. And if intelligent people can disagree, is it not a mistake to shout down or force into obedience the reasonable minority? 

In the heat of the moment, when the pressure is on, it takes moral courage and practical wisdom to stand up for a minority. Being alert for such moments is perhaps a lot to ask of people who don’t want to spend their lives thinking about such things as a tyranny of the majority. So, I reserve my full contempt for my former colleagues in the academy. The reason that our societies offer executive-tier pay and the protection of tenure to academicsand in particular to philosophersis so that, in moments like this, they will serve as the conscience of the nation. With the exception of a few brave voices, my beloved discipline of philosophy has failed the test of our times.

After the fact, once we are able to judge clearly again, we may be surprised to regard all that we’ve agreed to. Many people will wonder what on earth had them so scared. Many will lament the powers transferred to government. Many who are quiet today will admit that they had doubts all along. And as horror stories of vaccine side effects continue to trickle through my social circle, I worry that many more will find a source of sorrow in their decision to be vaccinated.

But we’re not there yet. Today we have patriotic truckers venting their frustration in the only way they have left. The powerful, including what was once the conservative press, have already formed their counter-narrative. The people who yawned through BLM chaos and a wave of church-burning are now claiming the moral high ground because they have conveniently discovered a few (to date, I have heard of exactly two) extreme voices in a crowd of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters. They think these voices should drown out the ordinary families who just want to be allowed to live their lives. The powerful aren’t yet willing to listen. Maybe the only way to get through to them is to lean on the horn. 

[Photo: Ottawa, January 29, 2022]


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