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Becoming Sceptical in a Democracy is Not All That Bad

Trust, some people claim, is the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy. An extension to this argument is that the erosion of trust in democratic structures could cause the decadence of democracy. Oftentimes, political trust has caused belief in democracy and is a consequence of democracy.

Citizens cooperate with a trustworthy government and respond to its policies. Conversely, in dysfunctional democracies, trust is fragile in its form and content. There is widespread polarisation and unencumbered discontent in such democracies.

Today’s world is replete with examples of such democracies, where citizen trust has ceased to exist. I want to try and turn this around and make a case that “not trusting” democracies could be the best strategy for sustaining democracy.

Being sceptical about what my government does could be the best way to deal with what the government does. Let me try to build this further. But, before that, let me shed some light on what it means to be sceptical.

What Does it Mean to Be Sceptical?

We are all sceptical, more or less. But, the degrees to which we are sceptical differ—drastically. Some of us are much more sceptical of things than, say, my mother—who readily accepts what has been passed onto her as practice. A sceptic, in general parlance, refers to someone doubtful of things—who does not readily accept all that is to them.

The emphasis here is DOUBT. Without our ability to know, we all doubt on different occasions. Instead of asking how do we know something is true, as several other schools of thought did, sceptics just asked: Do we really know it?

md mahdi c8zKeFB1XoI unsplash
Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash

Like many schools of thought that gained coherence in the Greek philosophical schools, scepticism’s origin is attributed to a Greek sceptic, Sextus Empiricus. It is said that he had developed techniques to make sure he never accepted anything at its face value. Apart from this, there is barely anything known about this individual: Sextus Empiricus.

The maximum one could gather, as Richard Bett writes in his work How to Keep an Open Mind, is that Sextus lived during the Roman Empire. Maybe he was a doctor, too. (Now, don’t fancy imagining the one with a pair of stethoscopes; you will be disappointed!).

Sextus Empiricus and the Philosophy of Scepticism

In his well-known works Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus thought of scepticism (also skepticism in American English) as the ability “that produces oppositions among things that appear and things that are thought in any way whatsoever, from which, because of equal strength in the opposing objects and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgement, and after that to tranquillity”. This complicated definition is explained here better:

The sceptical way of life, on Sextus’ presentation, follows a certain rhythm. You feel puzzlement about something. You search for knowledge about it. You arrive at two equally weighty considerations about what is happening. You let go trying to find an answer. And once you recognise that you might not find a solution, it brings some mental tranquillity.

As opposed to dogmatists (a belief in something without reflection), sceptics seek to doubt how things are. Heracleitus and Xenophanes are some of the earliest sceptics. They challenged various ways of knowing the truth and doubted if humans could distinguish between truth and false.

Since then, sceptics everywhere have challenged the reliability of knowledge claims and challenged them on various grounds. But it is difficult to suspend judgments about everything—around us. It is also difficult to doubt everything.

Despite these practical challenges, doubting your government’s actions is vital to sustain democracy. It allows one to keep a tab on whether what governments tell us is true—and if it really has ulterior motives in what it does. As societies began to adopt democratic structures, they were so eager to see them function that they forgot to instil a sense of scepticism in their citizens.

Rethinking Trust in Democratic Institutions

As a result, in societies such as ours, there is an altruistic worshipping of what the government does without questions asked. In fact, in the Indian state of Karnataka, the state legislative building, Vidhan Soudha, is inscribed with: “GOVERNMENT WORK IS GOD’S WORK”.

A sense of climate is inherently created within democracies (like in India) that the elected representatives are godly beings who are fixing things for us and doing everything in their power to fix the mess the previous government left us in. And so on.

Since trust is seen as an essential element of democracies, there is a tendency among people to trust whatever their government does is merely for their good—and that there could be no other way around it. In addition, this misguided ability to keep trust in the elected governments allows us to be complicit in their actions.

Karnataka State Legislative Assembly is inscribed: "Government Work is God's Work" - sceptical
Karnataka State Legislative Assembly is inscribed: “Government Work is God’s Work” | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As Matthew Cleary and Susan Stones in their work Democracy and the Culture of Scepticism show, scepticism could be the hallmark of a well-functioning democracy. Through extensive research on countries in Latin America, Cleary and Stones show that not trusting governments is a good thing.

They argue that healthy democracies sustain nurturing a sensibility of scepticism about governments. They elaborate that being sceptical about government actions and their ability to think beyond what is told to them in some senses creates mechanisms to sustain political culture.

Making a Sceptical Citizen and Thinking Democracy

Let’s illustrate this point further. If governments and citizens were to trust each other, where are the incentives for governments to do more? Why would citizens participate in governance in a system where they don’t practice scepticism?

In societies that expect citizens to trust their democratic governments, citizens are less incentivised to demand their rights—and keep the governments in check. Scepticism leads to an increased instance of accountability in democratic structures. Where citizens are sceptical of their governments, the democratic structures are more efficient, responsive and accountable.

Now, what does it mean to be a sceptic in a democracy? Does it merely mean that we need to be doubtful of all that governments do? Or is there more to it? For any democracy to function, as much as there is a necessity for trust between citizens and governments, there is also a need for scepticism among citizens.

Being sceptical allows us to see through what a government circular really means. It gives us inputs about what it entails to achieve, who it seeks to benefit more, who it discounts in its plan, how it treats one over the other, how it aims to push narratives, what it targets, and what function it holds, among others.

As much as we build robust democratic institutions, we should also strive to create citizens who are sceptical enough about democracies—and how they function.

Concluding Thoughts

Being sceptical in a democracy is about asking (often uncomfortable) questions. It is also about engaging with your government. This may entail that you write to them. You may also have to post or tweet (if that is what it is called anymore!) about (and for) them.

It is a process through which you hold your governments accountable, regardless of whether you have voted for them. It would also entail allowing yourself to express your dissent—at times. Allowing yourself to dissent also expresses scepticism about what your government is doing.

And doing scepticism every day is a form of allowing democracies to function well. Therefore, scepticism is essential for democracies and must be nurtured as much as trust is.

Cover Photo by Sir Manuel on Unsplash

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