How to Abuse a Democracy, Plebiscite Edition

Image from chadstjames.

A plebiscite means nothing.

It is not legally binding. It has the same importance as the opinion polls on your nominal breakfast news, for that is what it amounts to: a government-sponsored opinion poll.

The result of a plebiscite, no matter how decisive, will not change the law.

What it does accomplish is starting debates around issues that no longer require debate.

By pitching a yes-or-no scenario on a topic – any topic – it artificially legitimizes both sides of the argument.

Here is an example:

Plebiscite question: The Earth is Flat, yay or nay?

Rationally, in the year 2k17, this question should not even be posed. It is not a matter of argument or debate whether the earth is flat; overwhelming evidence exist that it is. Though there is always reason for doubt, we as human beings accept small margins or error as a matter of course – otherwise we’d never go outside, since going outside meant accepting the small chance that a car might run us over.

By affording this question a forum of discussion, we are artificially amplifying the validity of the ‘earth is flat’ argument. That miniscule chance of the earth actually being flat has been elevated to a fifty-fifty – a yes or no, which is not the odds our cumulative scientific evidence would suggest.

This forced balancing of the odds doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but we humans, as do all living creatures, make choices based on the highest chance of success. By forcefully subjecting us to this equal-importance of the two arguments, the very act of posing the question injects uncertainty and confusion into our rational consciousness.

I.e., we start believing that there is a considerable chance that the earth might be flat, despite there is no good reason for thinking so.

Effectively, posing this sort of question to the public is the equivalent of forcibly injecting irrationality into our consciousness, making us believe that somehow both sides are equally valid when it is not so.

Let’s apply this to another question:

Marriage Equality, yay or nay?

As of now, the Australian Constitution definition of “Marriage” includes marriage between persons of the same sex, while the Marriage Act 1961 does not provide for the formation or recognition of marriage between same sex couples.

A plebiscite will change neither of these. It is not a referendum; it cannot change the Constitution. It is an expression of public opinion, which supposedly holds considerable weight in changing the law, but now, with the artificial equivalence of the two sides of the argument – instigated by the very asking of this question – will forcibly change opinions.

It is not a question that needs to be asked.

The ruling of the High Court on the definition of “marriage” means that the debate has already moved past the ‘Is this acceptable’ stage. Right now we should be on the ‘How to change the law to fit the Constitution’ debate, not another ‘Is this acceptable’ opinion poll, artificially posed onto the public in order to re-argue an established result. The earth is already round. No amount of debate will make it flat again.

Unless, due to this very plebiscite, public opinion changes.

Remember, debating a yes-or-no question makes both sides appear equally valid. People who don’t care one way or the other will be presented with what appears to be a mired debate, with good reasons to lean either way, when the debate itself should no longer exist.

So really, the very act of asking for a plebiscite on Marriage Equality – when plebiscites have no legal import, when the public opinion firmly established, when the High Court decision has already moved us past the whole argument – is effectively an attempt to change the established opinion.

So we all need to be careful.

Plebiscites are not the open forums they pretend to be. Frank expressions of our opinions will not be enough – answering the question is not at all the point of this exercise.

So don’t sit back after sending in your vote. Don’t be content with just expressing your own opinion, when those who still think the earth is flat are pushing as hard as they could to change peoples’ minds.