Feedback as the Backbone of Self-Governing Society

In systems of government like monarchy and dictatorship, feedback from the people is only taken into account when it gets to be so loud, so disruptive that business can no longer go on as usual. Over and over, totalitarian regimes have been toppled by the very voices they ignored for so long, and history is filled with examples like the French Revolution, which toppled its Monarchy to replaced it with a Republic.

You could argue that certain events of the Revolutionary Wars in the Americas — like the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s ride, Simón Bolívar’s Admirable Campaign — were methods of providing feedback to the colonial system of government. Namely, the message was: “We do not want your monarchy.”

The form of government chosen by the leaders of the North and South American revolutions wasn’t monarchy, but democracy — a theory of government built around the solicitation and consideration of public feedback, rather than on imposing the will of the few onto the masses. In theory, the people ruled by a democracy get a say in who rules them, and how laws are formed.

But even with those principles in mind the voices of all people aren’t always heard.

“That government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.”
— Thomas Jefferson
Image from the Black Lives Matter-Selma Facebook group.

The Civil Rights movement was born out of the fact that the US government wasn’t listening to all voices fairly. The Arab Spring was born out of frustrations of voicelessness. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement has echoes of the same feeling — that the usual channels through which feedback is given to the government have been closed.

As Thomas Jefferson hints at in the quote above, governments ignore the voices of their citizens at their peril. Those that do will be weak — not only because they won’t represent the entirety of their populations, but because those citizens who feel unheard will actively oppose them.

Murdering the messenger

“It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” — Voltaire

History is filled with examples of people who were murdered by governments who didn’t want to hear the feedback they had to give. Like Sophie Scholl, who was executed at age 21 by the Nazis in 1943 for her involvement with the White Rose non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany. She, her brother, and other members of the White Rose had been distributing leaflets at the University of Munich, calling for passive resistance to the Nazis.

Sophie was aware that the opinion of the White Rose was a common one — although she also knew that most were too afraid to say it in public. As she noted at her trial:

Sophie Scholl and the White Rose, via WarHistoryOnline.com
“Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.”
— Sophie Scholl

In the United States, we don’t often need to fear public execution at the hands of a government who doesn’t agree with our point of view. We can speak up in local politics without fear of being imprisoned. We can write essays about our opinions without fear of being censored. We can hold political rallies and protests to bring issues to light without fear of finding ourselves in a Tiananmen Square.

PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS, via Time.com

Yet so many of us remain silent. Why censor our own voices?

The burden of being an educated person in society is that one must take part in government. In a representative democracy such as the US has, refusing to give your feedback in local and federal elections has consequences. As Plato said:

“The punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is to live under the government of worse men.”
— Plato
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