Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This Too Is What Democracy Looks Like

A few days ago, I was walking my dogs in Lake Union Park. As we approached the model boat pond, I noticed that the flock of Canadian geese resting on its surface were all faced in the same direction. Perhaps it was just a function of the wind or something, but as we approached, the geese nearest us began to turn, pointing their bodies away from us. The closer we got, the more of the geese turned away. This happened until about a third of them had turned, while the remaining geese continued to face in the original direction. As we moved on, the geese slowly returned to their original consensus orientation.

I got me thinking about the growing body of evidence that humans are not the only democratic animal, and that, in fact, most if not all group-dwelling animals operate on democratic principles:

Barring clear and present danger, members of red deer herds, gorilla bands, African buffalo herds and other close-knit animal societies vote their readiness to move by standing up and pointing themselves in the direction they want to go. When a significant majority have stood and/or pointed themselves in the chosen direction, the group moves on in the direction they've chosen together. In a statement that until recently the scientific community would have considered unorthodox or heretical, (researchers) Roper and Conradt concluded that "democratic behavior is not unique to humans."

Conventional thinking is that dogs are hierarchical animals, but I see evidence of their democratic instincts every day. As apartment dwellers we take the dogs out for 3-4 walks a day, most of which are of the short, utilitarian variety, but we usually take a longer one late each afternoon. This doesn't prevent the golden retriever, however, from assertively pointing her body toward the lake each time we set out, obviously letting the rest of us know that she's voting for a walk to the lake. She doesn't pull or lurch, but rather dances along sideways for a block or so until it becomes clear that the "rest" of us (me and our geriatric standard poodle) are voting for a "shorty." Majority rules. And normally that's how it works, but every now and then both dogs will point their bodies. If I'm in a hurry I might compel them in my chosen direction, but more often than not, if I'm outvoted like this, majority rules.

I think it's our arrogance to believe that animals are not sophisticated enough to live according to democratic principles. Heck, many believe humans aren't sophisticated enough, yet the more we look for it, the more we find evidence of all animals behaving democratically. Even amoeba show evidence of democratic behavior.

When I teach the children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, I try to skip the part about his assassination. I've found that once that is introduced, it's all the kids can focus on, and there is already so much challenging information in his story: the legacy of slavery, segregation, racism, protests, and the mis-use of "helpers" like the police to quell those protests. This year, the children tended to focus on the protests, and were particularly interested in a photograph of firefighters turning a hose on protesters involved in a sit-in.

We tend to talk about MLK as a kind of saint, when in fact, he was, like most of the people we celebrate as great Americans, a radical, and his agenda, had he lived to pursue it, included so much more than civil rights. He talked of economic inequality, ending war, and in favor of unionized labor. What makes him great as a democratic figure is his rejection of violence, his powerful advocacy for the power of love, and his use of civil disobedience. I imagine MLK's story is a particularly challenging one for children who have been taught obedience, which is at it's core an anti-democratic principle.

I have a couple of books with photographs representing some of the perverse inequalities that existed during my childhood in South Carolina: segregated water fountains, "white only" signs in restaurant windows, blacks being forced to sit in the back of the bus. As we discuss these images, the children are very clear that it's not fair, often shouting out, "That's not fair!" There are always a few who become quite emotional, asking, "But why?"

If you've been reading here awhile, you know that I took part in the Occupy movement here in Seattle, and while I was not ready to be arrested for my civil disobedience, I did materially and morally support those who did. One of our slogans was, "This is what democracy looks like," and when I show children pictures of the peaceful marches and protests lead by MLK, I am showing them pictures of democracy, which is, after all, often a messy, contentious affair.

And again, just as it is hubris to assume that humans are the only ones who understand voting, it is equally arrogant to assume that only humans understand civil disobedience:

This dog has clearly reached a point at which he can take it no longer, going limp and voicing quite clearly a sound that for all the world sounds like the word "No." I love you, but I'm not going to do what you want me to do. It's not fair! But why? Some might try to dismiss this as a sort of tantrum, just as many did the Occupy protests or the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement, but I defy anyone to watch this without admitting that there is a powerful dignity in the loving defiance of this dog.

This is, too, is what democracy looks like.

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