Many of the societies we live in today are based on the majority’s decision, placing importance, and the right to make decisions, on the people, and their choices. Even in societies that do not function this way, the majority’s ways of thinking are reflected in how they act. Is this majority decision always right, however? Can the majority be trusted to make decisions and behave in ways that are considered “right”, “moral”, and “justified”?
In my opinion, believing that the majority will always be right is a questionable and debatable belief, as it can often be a false assumption, and it should also be acknowledged that the majority itself will change over time, as will their beliefs. A well-known example of poor decisions made by the majority is found in racism, or any other discriminatory thoughts and behaviours that have been, and are still, exhibited.
For example, the violent and wide-spread racism found in history, such as that in American history, was an instance where the majority, in this case, an American-Caucasian majority, decided that they were the superior race, that they were to have privileges, while African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and others of different ethnicities, were to be of a lesser status. This decision was a majority decision, but was it right?
Was it right to pay Chinese workers five dollars less when working on the transcontinental railroad, and give them no food, simply because they were not white? Was it right to purposely not cure African-American men that had syphilis to study the effects of the disease? Of course not. However, at the time that these acts occurred, they were not done without the public’s knowledge, nor were they considered “wrong” acts – after all, the people that were suffering were not Caucasians.
Although today these acts would be looked upon as immoral, and against human rights, it is only because the majority’s beliefs have changed that our opinions have changed also. The majority’s ways of thinking have altered, which is the only reason that the majority’s behaviour has become different also. The majority was not right in the past, in believing that everyone was equal, but that some people were more equal, and only because of changes over time have their opinions altered.
These changes, in turn, were the only things that enabled society to regard people that were not of a Caucasian background as equals, changes that we would now say are “for the better”. The above example brings up another question: what does “right” mean? The definition of “what is right? ” changes, just like the opinions of the majority over time. In the past, “right” was packing Japanese-Canadians or Japanese-Americans into internment camps, because they were from the same country as the enemy in World War II.
This is considered to be discriminatory and unjustified today, but only because the majority has chosen to believe now that, no matter your ethnicity or appearance, you are a human being, and therefore deserving of the same rights as other human beings. However, in the time that those discriminatory acts were being performed, they were regarded as the correct thing to do: after all, those people of Japanese ancestry, who were so similar to Caucasians, who had families, work, and such, could have been assisting our enemies, halfway around the world.
No matter that some of these Japanese citizens had adopted more of the North American culture than they had their predecessor’s, and no matter that they, as people of Japanese ancestry, went to war to fight other Japanese – they were still our enemies. These changes in beliefs and reasoning slowly led to changes in what is considered “right”. Therefore, the definition of whether the majority was correct, even when performing acts of racism, is questionable and debatable, as during the time that their beliefs were employed, they were right to discriminate.
Looking at past failures in the majority’s decision making is easy, and we quickly judge that they were wrong, but these judgments are based on our value systems, what we were taught, our environment, and what we believe today. These values create the idea of what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Therefore, the beliefs that are shared by the majority are the beliefs that are considered correct – in short, the majority separates what is right from what is wrong.
So, what if who the majority was had changed? What if what the majority believed was different? It should be remembered that these alterations have, in fact, occurred. Therefore, still using the examples of racism against Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians, the majority at that time believed that their actions were justified, that their nation was at war, and that these Japanese immigrants, who were from a nation that was America’s or Canada’s enemy, could also, in turn, be their enemies.
Therefore, they believed that their decision and actions were justified and the right thing to do, as well as there being less emphasis on human rights, resulting in few people thinking that the Japanese immigrants were entitled to certain rights. This mindset also contributed to the Japanese losing their property – everything was sold, including their land, farms, possessions in their homes as well as their houses, fishing boats, and more – by the government. Since no, or at least few, objections were made against these actions, this decision was obviously right, because the majority had decided it was so.
Also, it should be realized that the number of immigrants, and people of a non-Caucasian background in North America has increased, so that the majority, while still Caucasian, has been forced, in a way, to accommodate their beliefs and their actions to these changes in surroundings. Before, the amount of non-Caucasians was not enough to be unavoidably noticeable, since all the Chinese could still be packed into “Chinatown”, and all the African-Americans into the suburbs.
When the number of these minorities increased however, they sought more influence, more recognition, which they would slowly gain. Therefore, the context that the majority acted in is distinctly significant, and is the reason why I stated that believing the majority is always right is debatable – they were right at the time they acted, because they were the ones to distinguish acceptable behaviours from unacceptable ones, since the majority is the society, and society gives us our values.
Today, our society, along with many others, prides itself on being righteous, civilized, and intelligent, even though sometimes we display none of these qualities. We are able to look into past mistakes that predecessors have made, but we cannot seem to compare these past mistakes to what happens today. For instance, ever since the tragic incident of 9/11, wide-spread racism is once again beginning to surface and become apparent.
The majority believes that terrorists, who came from the Middle East, were responsible for such a horrifying act. Therefore, through the racially-based assumption that anyone from the Middle East or anyone who even appears to be from the Middle East is a terrorist, along with many other stereotypes, innocent people have become victims. In not only airports, but other public places as well, anyone that appears to be “Middle Eastern” in appearance are subject to suspicion, and, sometimes, acts of verbal or physical aggression.
This universal belief that people from the Middle East were responsible for an act of terrorism has somehow led to a widespread belief that therefore all people from the Middle East are terrorists. We, as a society, have accepted this belief, even though we as individuals may not believe in it, we allow others to believe it, and we allow these people to act on their discriminatory attitudes. This should clearly demonstrate our society’s inability to compare what we deem “unacceptable” to what we consider “acceptable”, and find that they are not that much different.
Hopefully, I have illustrated that whether or not the majority is always right is debatable, but that much of the time the majority falters and missteps, and that we must recognize these mistakes. We make mistakes, sometimes irreversible, but we must learn from them, and realize that the majority and its beliefs are not always right, that it does not always follow its own values, even though they were their own creations. The majority may define what is right, but they are not always the ones who are right in the end.