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Imagine you have an apple pie and that there are six people that want a piece. It seems obvious that if you’re a fair person, you would go ahead and divide the pie in six equal pieces. This is how small groups of individuals make compromises that allow each person to have an equal opportunity, in this case, to have pie.

Now, imagine that the pie was much bigger, and that there were millions of people that wanted a piece of it. Assuming that it’s large enough to feed them all, a decision is made to vote on who should have the pie, and how big each relative piece will be. If the votes had concluded that only 52.4% of the population was entitled to a piece, and the remaining percentage were given nothing, would we consider this decision, even thought it was made democratically, to be fair?

Our intuition tells us that such a vote, even though it is democratic, is terribly unfair, because we recognize that there is no earthly reason why only 52.4% of the population should be entitled to eat it exclusively.

We refer to this kind of injustice as the “Tyranny of the Majority”. It is the idea that in a democracy, the majorities interest can often resemble the tyranny of despots.

Most of the time, this form of tyranny is itself fairly benign. If a slim majority of citizens wants a park to be demolished in favor of more development, the results, although sad for those against the decision, generally causes little harm.

But on matters of civil rights - as was the case with Proposition 8 in California which wanted to repeal the rights of homosexuals to marry - the results are both dramatic and frightening. Here was a referendum designed to remove rights that individuals already possesses. With the Proposal having gone through during the presidential election, it will soon be impossible for any person to marry another of the same sex.

The reason so few people are outraged is because of their implicit trust in democracy. Surely, they ask, how can any decision made democratically be wrong? The answer is simple: any time a majority is asked to decide on the specific rights of a minority, the danger is that they are in a position to deny the very rights they themselves may enjoy. In essence, it is not only tyrants that can suppress the rights of others. This can be done within a democracy as easily as a dictatorship. All you need is 51% of the population to agree.

The fact that such a proposal could make it as far as the ballot box is a testament to how fragile the system really is. Added to that the fact that a slim majority chose to trample on the civil rights of their fellow citizen is even more frightening.

It’s ironic that a big reason the proposal went through was because of the black vote, which overwhelmingly was for the proposal. Here is a minority that only 60 years ago was desperately fighting for the same rights as white people. One would think that the scars of the civil rights movement would run deep enough in the black community to ensure that they would feel sympathy towards this issue. However, as is so often the case, the personal prejudices of fallible human beings won out, and the result is both tragic and sad.

I don’t care if you personally feel that homosexuality is a deviant lifestyle. It is irrelevant to the idea that each person in a republic should enjoy the freedoms and liberties that other citizens enjoy. To claim that one group is allowed a special privilege is no different than assigning specific bathrooms for people of color, or banning interracial marriages.

We cannot make the blanket assumption that, in times of confusion, democracy will sort things out for us. Using the vote as a tool to force your beliefs on others does not do justice to the spirit of democracy. The ability to vote is the acknowledgment that every person is equal, but this does not mean collusion, even if unintended, cannot occur. It does, and often the results can be devastating.

Lastly, the fact that this vote is considered democratic shows how little we now understand about the nature of democracies. As a society, we have all but eliminated civics from the education system, and there is no emphasis on teaching our population the spirit of democracy. Instead, we are merely taught the mechanism of democracy without the benefit of its spirit, and we should not be surprised when it is usurped and corrupted. The 52.5% citizens of California have all failed when they put their personal prejudices above their need to be good citizens. It’s a sad time for California, and a sad time for democracy.

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Comment by Daley on November 7, 2008 at 12:19pm
Beautifully written.
Can you imagine finally being able to marry after all of this time and now having it taken from you? It hurts me physically.
The drive behind these Pro Prop 8 people to interfere with the vote is baffling.
Although, the entire concept of voting for the civil rights of a minority is, as you said, failure.

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