Democracy is a funny word. It doesn't have a universal definition; rather it is defined by different groups of people for different interests. The U.S. government, for example, uses the word democracy to mean neoliberal economics. I would like to try to imagine a different definition toward a different end. Especially in a time of silencing dissent, it is imperative that we try to understand what the potential of working democratically for democracy is.
The Zapatistas in Chiapas Mexico use the expression "Mandar obedeciendo," which roughly translates into English as to rule and obey at the same time. In an ideal democracy, there would be formal and informal authority in all people. All people would be treated in a way that is respectful and that encourages them to critique and engage in society. People would participate in collective decisions.
Racism, sexism, homophobia and the existence of social and economic classes are all obstacles to democracy. These oppressions silence voices and undermine economic and political freedoms. Hierarchies, whether formal or informal, often impede on freedoms and dehumanize those are disenfranchised.
The concept of democracy is so warped in our minds right now that we cannot even imagine what it would look like. Democracy does not simply mean representation, but rather reaching consensus and doing what is best for the collective group. It is the exact opposite of a capitalist system, the dominant definition in the United States.
We cannot quickly transform our culture into one that is truly democratic. Nothing short of a total and complete revolution in our economic system and the way we function could. However, we can try, practice and experiment with democracy at every chance we get. We can question authority, make change within oppressive structures and take power for ourselves.
One of the best ways to begin this process is within the classroom. Children are socialized into the world through many ideological outlets, including media, religion and family. However, many times school is the first opportunity for children to interact with their peers and to face an authority figure in a "professional setting." Children are taught from their first day in kindergarten to listen when the teacher speaks, to raise their hands, to be deferential and to allow authority to define their learning process. If we could begin to change this process, perhaps we could change the way we participate in our society.
We should pay attention to power and try to use it while at the same time obeying others. Leadership is being engaged in a democratic process. It is being critical and productive at the same time. It is experimenting and opening to change. We should never trust authority without a reason to do so. Just because someone is a professor, a doctor, a lawyer, a president or a senator does not mean that he is competent or has the inherent right to tell us what to do, where to go or how to live our lives. Many Duke students will some day occupy these positions and will have the ability to change these roles.
Democracy is only possible where there is trust. We need to be honest and trust each other in order to develop democratic social relations. We need to democratize the media and our classrooms where we are given our assumptions through the naturalization of inequality.
While the United States prepares to launch preemptive strikes on Iraq, we should question who would benefit from this action. Iraqis who are killed will not benefit. Americans in the military who will die will not benefit. Americans who rely on social programs that get cut due to the military budget will not benefit. I will not benefit. Oil companies, the military complex and President George W. Bush might benefit. But if we are working for democracy we need to assert that this war is not good for the people of the United States, nor the majority of people in the world.
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