Popular isn’t always right; right isn’t always popular

03.23.04

Meryl links to an excellent article in the Forward by Rabbi Dov Fischer entitled “We’re Right, the Whole World’s Wrong”:

At this moment in time, many Jews who love and support Israel hear the soft voice within, asking the question to which Kofi Annan recently alluded in Madrid: Can we alone be right, while the whole world around is wrong?

[ . . . ]

Well, yes. If we Jews are anything, we are a people of history. From our first patriarch to Israel’s precision-targeted destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, which laid the foundation for a successful Operation Desert Storm and the rescue of Kuwait, our history provides the strength to know that we can be right and the whole world wrong.

This goes hand in hand with a question I’ve long viewed with some degree of fascination: what’s the difference between what’s right and what’s merely popular?

We hear it from our earliest days: “if all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” The implication is, of course, that there’s some absolute standard of “right” that doesn’t rely on a majority-rule. That the lone voice of conscience is right, and that the angry mobs are wrong. And that we ought to be able to tell the difference, even when it’s lonely.

But then, isn’t democracy founded on the principle that the majority opinion is the right one? And if democracy is such a beautiful thing, then how do you reconcile the notion that it systematically allows the majority to make decisions that go against the minority? I mentioned homosexuality before; is gay marriage “wrong” because the majority of people oppose it? Or if the majority support it, does it become “right”? To put another way, if Quebec held a referendum tomorrow asking if the Jews should pay extra taxes, and it passed with a 70% majority, does that make that “right”?

Clearly not. History has proven pretty conclusively that the majority opinion can be wrong, and the minority opinion is often right.

But how do we determine these external standards? In a practical sense, how do we judge?

Oh, it’s easy for religious people. To them, “right” is an absolute that comes from the laws of the bible, and “wrong” is anything that goes against that. But of course, most of the majority-wrong decisions in history have been – and continue to be – justified by religion. The terrorists on September 11th believed that they were “right” too and that their religion supported their deeds. (The next time I hear “homosexuality is wrong cause the bible says so, I’ll be happy to point that out again).

So religion obviously isn’t any great way to judge right and wrong… though one assumes that a religious person can also be a good person.

I used to think of the analogy of a white light that was seen through the eyes of every human being, but all wearing cellophane-coloured glasses. If 99% of the world had red glasses, and 1% of the world had blue glasses, then the light’s red and the person who sees blue is crazy. That then becomes the truth. The real truth is irrelevant, I argued, because we have no way of knowing or seeing it. But wouldn’t that mean that it’s in fact impossible for the Jews to be right and the whole world to be wrong? Wouldn’t they be “right” just because there’s more of them? After all, where is this external standard of rightness coming from? If we need a test of time or a perspective of history to see who was really right all along, as Rabbi Fischer argues the Jews have been throughout history, then how is it possible to know how to act “right” today? Without the benefit of hindsight, how do we know if our unpopular position – perhaps dictated by conscience – is really the right one?

It’s not that simple. A conscience is really nothing more than a set of values and experiences – some taught, some perhaps innate – that looks at each situation and comes to a conclusion of how the decisions fit with what we already know. My conscience says that Israel is right and the Palestinians are wrong. Sheik Ahmed Yassin’s conscience (assuming he had one, which I highly doubt) said the opposite.

That’s the thing about life. In the movies, the bad guys know they’re bad. They laugh evil laughs. They talk about their plots of world domination. They dutifully don their black hats in the Westerns and identify themselves as the “bad guys” so that we can readily identify them. But in real life, the bad guys think they’re the good guys. We all think we’re the “good guys”. Self-righteousness is perhaps more dangerous than evil.

There’s no easy way to reconcile that one. But I’ll just say that yes, there is some standard of right and wrong that doesn’t depend on a popularity contest. No, I’m not entirely sure how we determine that standard, other than looking at things like not harming others, promoting quality of life, and acting with positive intentions. But I also know that Rabbi Fischer is right when he says that history will pass judgement on the world for how it’s treating the Jews today, just as it has for over two thousand years.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Malia 03.23.04 at 10:57 PM

The whole world did not condemn Israel! All the psycho Arab/Muslim countries and a few Europe weenie nations don’t represent the whole world. Practically everyone in the America media, including Americans, believe Israel was justified. Israel is defeinately not alone.

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2 Ted 03.30.04 at 4:36 PM

Democracy isn’t predicated on the majority being right. It’s that the majority determines the action taken, and innate trust in humanity will (hopefully) ensure that the majority is right. Like you said, that’s not always true, but Democratic method doesn’t mean automatic ‘right-ness’ by vote.

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