When popes are chosen by conclave, cardinals choose to ignore an old law that provides that if enough of them shout out a name in unison, the divine spirit must have revealed its intentions in their approbation, and the dull balloting process can be done away with.
The papal balloting process is still presumably governed by divine inspiration but the mechanics of process ensure that, in place of dangerously febrile enthusiasm, cold calculated procedure leads electors to a rational and wise choice.
The secular religion of democracy is also premised on the theoretical notion that the voice of the people is the sound of the divine. Yet do we fear human nature? That is why we moderate spontaneity and inspiration with process and rules.
If democracy is the will of the people, then surely the key to a functioning and fair society is that will is formed from cogency, lucidity, reflection and thought, before it is given expression. If there is to be clarity, then there must be discernment of the facts that inform debate. If facts are to be known, they must be discoverable and information exchanged freely and honestly.
Distortions along the path leading from the discovery of information to the expression of popular will impair the functioning of democracy. When popular will is expressed on the back of incoherence or misinformation, the wrong choices are made, even if by acclamation.
This is far from being a uniquely Maltese problem or even a problem of our time. All manner of power seeks legitimacy from popular support and corrals that support through all manner of persuasion, and sometimes coercion. In this sense the distortion in information or thinking is sometimes intentional: manipulation perpetrated by the powerful to persuade enough people to support the extension of their power.
The counterpoint to this is that ‘the people’ are not a herd that think and act collectively like a hive of bees. People are individuals, each endowed with the faculty of thinking critically and independently and making a choice after filtering all attempts from competing interests to persuade them one way or another.
But thinking is hard work; filtering contradictory information is hard work. Not everyone has the time or the inclination to evaluate all they are given and to reveal what is hidden from them. What they are left with is the choice of trust: to choose between sources of information according to familiarity and credibility accumulated over time.
The party media now goes back to reporting and carrying the official story without contradiction or doubt: as if it were inherent and incontrovertible
The 2017 way of describing this perennial phenomenon is the comfort of the echo chamber that we build around us to filter out information from sources we would rather not believe. Social media allows us to do this by encouraging us to choose friends and feeds from whom we are happy to receive information and block the ones we dislike.
But this is only the latest version of ignoring TV stations, radio stations, newspapers, books, pamphlets and speeches of the people we would rather not believe.
In our own context, political parties have built a bond of trust, familiarity and comfort with large chunks of the population over generations, persuading them to stick with the information they provide and filter out what is sent from other sources.
People bought into this because it is more cerebrally economical to rely on one’s own party to inform and develop one’s opinion than to have to take the trouble to build it and research it for oneself.
This is why party leadership elections are such traumatic experiences for many. Leadership elections thankfully happen rather rarely. During leaders’ long reigns, the message from party media is comfortably consistent. A position is transmitted externally after it has been debated and decided upon internally. From the outside, the carefully crafted message is not perceived as having been hammered out of compromise after dirty disagreement, but rather as an ingrained truth.
On the basis of the trust and familiarity acquired over time between voter and party, the message is presumed to be true.
Contrast that with a context where party elders debate openly who should and should not be party leader. The entire intellectual fiction of quasi-divine infallibility collapses. The party’s media reports all contradictory views equally, and entirely out of its usual habit, treats competing views dispassionately without guiding the audience towards a single outcome that is right when all others are wrong.
Until someone wins. And when someone does, very quickly a brand new system of belief takes over from the old and casts itself as if it has always been there.
Very quickly things fall into place. Now that a new leader is elected, there is dissent no longer – at least not in public view. The party media now goes back to reporting and carrying the official story without contradiction or doubt: as if it were inherent and incontrovertible.
Hours after the election of a leader who railed against The Establishment within the party, the victor becomes The Establishment and writes the official history before it happens. Dissent that was branded liberating in the hands of the rebel is quickly branded treacherous in the hands of the recalcitrant.
Choosing a leader was hard work. It required evaluating conflicting views and ultimately making a choice. Bones creaked, muscles wasted and heads hurt.
But now we have a pope, we have no need to face up to our mental fragility, because all the answers will be given to us. Now the people can speak with the voice of the gods.
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