Listening in on a radio panel discussion to the pros and cons of citizen engagement was something of an education. London is a community that is buzzing now with energized groups attempting to get local citizens involved with the democratic process and the shared planning of their own future. One would think this would be a positive story, yet it descended into a kind of illustration as to why democracy is in such trouble these days.
The term “silent majority” was used in the program as a kind of alternative to the “minority” of citizens who are attempting to wake their communities from slumber. “Silent majority” is a useful term when describing moral or ethical debates that often run through modern societies, but as a democratic excuse it represents a death knell.
To be sure, there are those who like the status quo because they derive some benefit from it; but to look to those millions of silent citizens who remain distracted from the challenges the country is facing is hardly a ringing endorsement. Brian Moore was an Irish novelist who emigrated to Canada and eventually made his home south of the border. He made an astute observation when noting, “The silent majority distrusts people who believe in causes.” There is sense in this, as any of us can attest when we run into some ardent advocate who presses too hard or demands too much.
But this hardly describes those various citizen leaders in London – including City Hall itself through ReThink London – that face a challenging future and would prefer to face it together rather than as a bunch of disparate parts. They go about their daily business as any average citizen would. Yet they are concerned for their country and their local community, as many are. They don’t come to your door or lambaste you through advertising to get their concern across. Rather, they open up quiet venues and invite anyone who would wish to attend – no hard sell, strident argument or arm-twisting. This is the way of citizen engagement and is acceptable because its respectful.
To state that the silent majority has little interest in citizen engagement is only the truth. But that’s like saying a critical mass of a nation’s citizens stand by while the effects of climate change slowly strangle us, or as our children become increasingly obese. In such a setting, “silent majority” is an excuse, not a defense. Some of the world’s greatest historical travesties occurred in the modern democratic era of the past 100 years, where supposedly bright and knowledgeable people turned an ear of deafness to impending threats. The civil rights movement in the United States, or the battle for aboriginal equity in Canada, have been constant struggles to respectfully remind the majority of citizens that their inaction has led to injustice. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at a southern church and reminding its adherents that the most racist hour in America occurred at eleven o’clock on Sunday mornings and you’ll know this is true.
It is something of a misnomer to state that the silent majority are in fact silent. They are anything but. The voice of their distraction, indifference and apathy are louder than any other democratic voice today. In fact, it is louder than their willingness to face the challenges that threaten our country and our world. It is a voice of resignation, not action, and its cacophonous.
Worldwide, quiet and respectful citizens are attempting to wake their respective nations and communities from their lethargy. From those silent majorities they are increasingly drawing people who are coming to understand that the status quo will eventually curtail the futures of their children, or their companies, their communities or their country, and they are slowly moving to action. As Steve Blake rightfully put it:
“We have a set of sensible policies that are appropriate for the 21st century and which strike a chord of appeal with the silent majority. Perhaps that is why we are welcoming new members every week who have never before been involved in politics.”
How can drawing in people to care more about their community possibly be wrong, especially in times of great transition or challenge? And how can the presence of a silent and ambivalent majority possibly stand as a viable excuse for the lack of citizen accountability? The presence of a majority of citizens refusing to face impending struggles on behalf of their own community is hardly a testimony to the vigor of the democratic legacy. As Homer reminded us, in the first use of the term, the “silent majority” was the domain of the dead.