Democracy and Our Obsession with the Law

The boundary of democracy is democracy itself. Legality is not its substitute
Lai Ten-herng

Responding to the protests that surrounded last month’s visit to Taiwan by Taiwan Affairs Office chief Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), Sean Lien (連勝文), the Taipei City mayoral candidate for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), had nothing more to say than, “… as long as these activities don’t violate the law, they are all part of what constitutes a democratic society in Taiwan.”

Such remarks — and to be fair to Lien, he isn’t the only politician to have made them — betray a lack of understanding of the true meaning of democracy. Lien, like a tame politician, sees legality as the definition of democracy. People like him think that universal suffrage means democracy; that abiding by the law means democracy; and that following the rules means democracy.

Equality in voting is indeed a requirement for democracy. However, as N. Kolodny, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, equal opportunities afforded to all are of paramount importance. For instance, freedom of information and the access points from which opinions can be heard and acted upon by the government are just as important as one’s ability to cast a vote. This is because democracy is not simply the aggregate of votes, but equal opportunity for all citizens to participate in the decision-making process.

A major obstacle to democracy in Taiwan is that we exclude certain opinions and viewpoints. Public discussion often focuses on trivial matters, such as whether Yuan Zai (圓仔), the infamous baby panda at the Taipei Zoo, has learned to walk, or whether or not the sunflower symbol used by the movement that occupied the Legislative Yuan in March and April this year looks like a banana.Consequently, oppression and injustice go unreported.In some cases, the news is simply covered up. This further results in the marginalization of social issues, and needless to say, without attracting public attention, it is unlikely that they will find an adequate solution.

That is why many academics who have observed contemporary civil disobedience, such D. Markovits, W. Smith, and K. Brownlee, all agree that certain illegal means of achieving communication between the people and the government are not in contempt of democratic ideals, but rather a force that strengthens democracy. By publicly breaking the law, civil disobedience can stir up dissension among the people, but the disharmony that the dispute engenders is exactly what will catch the attention of the media and the public, and bring the issues to the table.

Of course, civil disobedience is often very forceful — it “forces” discussion on conveniently ignored topics and it “forces” the authorities to confront the problems, sometimes aggressively. However, the moment the issues are brought to light, the activists will not oblige the other parties to accept their standpoint; rather, what they are hoping to gain from their activism is a chance for perspectives that have been overlooked to be reconsidered. Through these “illegal” acts and violations of the law, neglected views are taken into consideration by the government and equality in the form of political participation has been restored, in other words — democracy is strengthened.

Perhaps what we have forgotten is that the democratic society in which we live is the product of civil disobedience initiated by so-called “rioters,” the result of the blood and tears shed by those people. We must never forget that for the oppressed and those who issue from excluded sectors of society, the law is a luxury that they cannot afford. The boundary of democracy is democracy itself; legality is not its substitute.

Lai Ten-herng is a postgraduate in philosophy at Australian National University

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