A Prayer for Democracy

Today Rishi Sunak has declared that democracy must be protected from protestors. He is calling for even more oppressive policing of protest justified by what he claims is a ‘growing consensus that mob rule is replacing democratic rule.’ Despite having studied philosophy, politics and education at Oxford – or perhaps because of the elitism encouraged there – he seems to have little understanding of the meaning of either democracy or consensus.

To offer a little refresher on these fundamental concepts, democracy refers to governance by the people. Consensus relates to the word consensual – as in making decisions together, rather than one person or group imposing themselves upon another or others. It’s not uncommon for those enacting oppression to claim that they themselves are being harmed by those who they are hurting. Sunak seems to argue that it is the protestors who are imposing themselves when it seems clear to most of us that it is a small group who are trying to manipulate all of us into believing that profit and control are what makes for a healthy democracy. 

The international community is aware of what is going on. Just last spring, the Civicus Monitor, which observes governmental attitudes towards diversity of opinion in 197 countries, downgraded the ‘hostile, authoritarian’ UK government from a ‘narrowed democracy’ to an ‘obstructed’ one putting us on par with Orban’s dictatorship in Hungary. 

So if you’ve been worried about this trend in the UK, you’re not alone. We’re seeing a kind of spiral of erosion of democracy where an authoritarian regime is using a combination of media manipulation, claims of supremacy and police repression to encourage the appearance of consent for their bullying. As more of us get caught up in the stories being spun, or become afraid to protest, the more it appears there is consensus. But as we all know, manipulating someone into ‘consent’ is not really consensual at all.

Ecological teacher Looby MacNamara, in her wonderful book People & Permaculture, notes that reversing such spirals of erosion is possible. She calls for us to develop and encourage spirals of abundance. In other words, we can look together at how to replace media manipulation with critical thinking skills, superiority/inferiority with equality and respect, and fear with courage. Even though they are all connected, let’s look at these one at a time. 

Critical thinking skills are essential for a healthy society. To be clear, critical thinking doesn’t mean criticising everyone else and telling them they are wrong. That’s the superiority/inferiority trap we want to get out of. Instead, it means being able to see clearly the patterns that are playing out, to notice attempts at manipulation and control and to understand that there are other possible ways of living. Good ways to nurture critical thinking skills include self-organised debate clubs (a skill which used to be part of the school curriculum) & reading groups, organising or attending public talks with guest speakers on various subjects, getting together with friends to discuss meaningful topics and learning to listen. To listen deeply to another requires a quieting of the mind, a calming of the nervous system. We’ll return to this when we talk about fear and courage.

So let’s look at the delusions of superiority and inferiority. So much of our culture is based on assessing ourselves and each other, declaring who is better and who is worse (see e.g., ‘After Winning, then What?’) It’s no coincidence that the word ‘ruler’ means 1) someone who claims to be in charge 2) a stick for measuring and 3) a tool of punishment. Unlearning the embodied mental and emotional patterns of a culture takes practice. For example, I grew up hunching protectively while also feeling very arrogant about my intellectual abilities. Inferiority and superiority are flip sides of the same coin. I’ve found that the regular practice of yoga and heart meditation over time has not only improved my physical posture, but I’ve been told that I’ve even begun to develop some humility (thank goodness!). This is a spiral of abundance. Better physical posture makes more space for my internal organs and also improves my mood, helping to improve the health of my whole system. Humility improves relationships, helping to improve the wider system of which we are all a part. Have you found any practices that help you remember that you matter just as much as everyone else? By remembering that we are all equally worthy of respect, we are helping our society to become more democratic.

We might say the opposite of fear is courage – a word that comes from the French for heart. This obviously doesn’t refer to the emotional heart which, as we all know, can be fearful, but rather to the spiritual heart which is always peaceful, compassionate and open to change. The more we tune into this aspect of ourselves, the more we connect with the wholeness and fullness of life instead of our own self-image and projections onto the world (as helpfully demonstrated by Mr Sunak), the more we can help shift the culture towards one of open democracy and real consent. The prayer for democracy which I refer to isn’t an appeal to a transcendent authority (though you can see it that way if you want), but rather a direct experience of the listening heart.

Oglala Lakota elder Rita Long Visitor Holy Dance tells us that if we wish to help change the world, the first step is to pray (in whatever form that takes for us). The second step is to take action to meet the prayer half way. Here in Shetland, we gather each Saturday afternoon in front of the town hall to call for Peace in Palestine. Elsewhere, others are gathering to enact and support real change. Each of us is different. Each of us can find our own way to contribute and to encourage ourselves and each other to keep contributing. 

As my heart teacher, Padma Devi, says ‘I give, you give, we all receive.’ This is a beautiful description of the spirals of abundance for all which is possible when we live in the heart. Imagine, a consensual economy and governance systems which are truly democratic. There is hope for such possibilities. All we need to do is pray (i.e. open our hearts) and practice together.


Comments (14)

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  1. 240301 says:

    Yep; all government (whether it’s by the free citizens who are themselves subject to that government or not) tends towards tyranny and away from liberty, and we (the free citizens who are subject to any government) need to be vigilant in relation and resistant to that tendency, otherwise we’ll no longer be free. Critical thinking is key to that resistance.

    Critical thinking is the process of actively and skillfully conceptualising, applying, analysing, synthesising, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. These skills can be taught in much the same way that mathematics can be taught, and should be taught as part of the cultivation of our liberal democracy.

    When I began my apprenticeship in philosophy back in the 1970s, the Scottish philosopher, D.D. Raphael, before he decamped to Reading, told me that he found it useful to interpret the main tradition of western philosophy as having had two connected aims – a) the clarification of concepts for the purpose of b) the critical evaluation of beliefs – and that the first of these is subsidiary to the second. Political philosophy, his own special field, in which he was lecturing at the time, was therefore an application of critical thinking to our ideas about society and the state.

    Critical thinking is, then, the attempt to give rational grounds or justification for accepting or rejecting certain beliefs that we normally take for granted. This attempt, and the capacity and propensity among free citizens to undertake it, is important to democracy because it empowers those citizens to both question the truth-claims of authority and participate in the deliberative democratic processes from which truth emerges as an expression of the general will or ‘consensus’.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on critical thinking.

      1. 240303 says:

        Nae bother!

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Yes! Protest is much more peaceful than most governments are.

  2. Meg Macleod says:

    Perhaps you might send your article to a few people who might benefit…..I doubt they will be reading this particular publication

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Please feel free to share it widely. ❤️

  3. John says:

    Vishwarm – a very timely article especially as it was written before. little Rishi’s bizarre 10 minute Friday evening homily.
    Caroline Lucas has written a piece in Guardian that excoriates Sunak for his pathetic display.
    It was almost a reverse take of famous FDR – nothing to fear but fear itself speech. Sunak’s take is he is telling you to be fearful even although in reality there is nothing to be frightened of except Sunak stoking up fear and hate.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Thank you, John, for pointing to Sunak’s focus on fear. Perhaps he himself is deeply afraid. So many of us get stuck in fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses, including our politicians. I hope more and more emphasis can be put on the practices that help us all break out of that so that we have a hope of a healthy culture.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    I share your concerns, and respect the priority given here to health, peace and critical thinking, but is it really democracy we should be praying for?

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      My prayer is for a heart-led democracy, rather than anything which fuels the antagonism so deeply rooted in our institutions. This, I believe, is clear in all the articles I’ve written for Bella Caledonia and elsewhere.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Vishwam Heckert, yet the heart is a blood pump and prayers without a delivery mechanism are just empty wishes. You are talking poetically about human hearts, right? So poetically, all the evil intents of humans are there too?

        I hoped you might engage in a simple thought experiment, but I’ll spell out one of the problems I expect people will identify: democracy is largely a means-valuing political system. It seems odd to me that the means are used to justify the ends of the system.

        A major reason why democracies have constitutions is to limit, constrain, temper and shape the power of majoritarian rule. The ancient Athenian democracy (both horribly limited and exhaustively participative by our standards) was notoriously belligerent. So, if you could write a constitution along the lines of this article, what would your top goals (ends) be, that could be formulated and applied? If you prefer a further prompt, what would it say about that jurisdiction’s military, education and public health?

        1. Vishwam Heckert says:

          “The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”
          Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

          The heart I’m talking about is neither physical nor emotional. It knows no ‘evil.’ It’s not just poetic, though it is that. This heart is not a concept, but a direct experience.

          The democracy of which I speak is not majoritarian nor militaristic. It is attentive, listening, and open. I would not write a constitution on my own because that wouldn’t be democratic. I’m calling for a change in how we relate to each other, to ourselves, to life.

          This is about being more than about doing.

          Structure is important. A rhythm to life, a harmony, helps us experience freedom. I find human scale direct democracy interlinked in bioregional assemblies one inspiration.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Vishwam Heckert, something in your comments reminded me of the controversy over who ended serfdom in Tibet (I have no informed views on this).
            If people believed that prayer worked, there might be more prayer farms than troll farms today. Perhaps they are. Perhaps troll farms are just a modern form. Prayer seems to be a manifestation of the ever-conflicting wills of people. Did Buddhist prayers or Chinese Communism end Tibetan feudalism? (or both, or neither?) Which prayers are deciding events in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict? Surely that is the kind of question we need answers to if we are going to trust in prayer. The Tibetan example suggests that perhaps prayers of different castes might tend to differ on social matters.

            I would say that restriction is important for meaning. Without limits, constraints, there can be no understanding, no ethics.

            As to structure, some theorists argue that the Rule of Law is more significant than Democracy in achieving a just society. You could look to the USA, or the example given by Shourideh C Molavi in Environmental Warfare in Gaza (2024) in the case of Saleem Abu Medeghem versus Israel Lands Administration, where apparently the Israeli Supreme Court struck down unlawful Israeli ‘environmental enforcement’ used to displace Bedouin Israeli citizens from ‘unrecognized villages’. Close to your heart, I guess, was the court’s reported upholding of human dignity. Perhaps this is why the current extremist Israeli government is attacking the judicial system, just as their role models in the USA have done.

            I certainly agree that writing your own constitution and imposing it on others would be undemocratic, but writing or referencing some proposed clauses for consideration would be entirely democratic. Constitutions should not magically appear without extensive and intensive deliberation. Perhaps that kind of democracy is difficult to sustain, and we humans can typically only hold our noblest intentions together for such limited periods.

            I don’t recognise the context of the Ursula K LeGuin quote, but it looks slippery to me. Animals have ends, maybe plants and fungi too, and exhibit purposeful behaviour. There is, for example, a whole branch of animal psychology looking at risk and reward.

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