The Law of Averages

I once heard something to the effect that if aliens wanted to meet with an average, typical representative of the human race, they would be given an audience with a middle-aged Chinese woman – statistically, there are more of them than any other category of person on the planet. Yet such numerical considerations are often at odds with other imperatives by which we count ourselves. Today, being “average,” “typical,” or “representative” can be a problem to fix more than a fact to accept. We spend an inordinate amount of effort placating the sensitivities of those who’ve wound up on the short end of the demographic stick, and we try almost as hard to obscure the realities of who holds the greater portion, and why.

At least as far back as the French Revolution, it was detected that the benefits of some social structures skewed to the few (i.e. the aristocracy) rather than the many (the peasants or the rabble). The development of elected legislatures and popular sovereignty in Europe and the Americas advanced the political principle of majority rule, whereby the people’s will, expressed through voting, outweighed the divine right of kings or emperors. Over the same period, philosophers and leaders sought means to prevent a tyranny of the majority, such that certain constitutional guarantees would always extend to every citizen, no matter his place in the overall society: just because you were in some way outnumbered wouldn’t mean you were eternally at the mercy of the mob. In practice, of course, it took a long time for those guarantees to be applied (to women and non-whites, most obviously), but the values of adult suffrage, free speech, and religious tolerance struck a realistic balance between what any one person was entitled to do and what most people actually did.

But for several decades now that balance has teetered uneasily on a newer slate of ideals. Since it was soon evident that supposedly universal rights were not granted across whole populations, different subsets of the public had to remind the rest of us of these injustices again and again. Laws were changed; franchises were expanded; constitutions were rewritten; history was made. In safeguarding against a tyranny of the majority, though, the most ambitious safeguards seemed to deny the majority’s very existence. To ensure that everyone was treated the same, we had to believe that everyone was the same, not just in court or the voting booth but on the street, in the school, and in the polls as well. It was no longer enough just to protect the vulnerable – they had to be empowered to the point of invulnerability.

There are a lot of examples to cite here, but I would point to Canada’s policy of official bilingualism as an illustration. Since 1969 the federal public service and everything it’s mandated to oversee must be available in both French and English, even though censuses have repeatedly shown that scarcely more than 20 percent of Canadians are Francophone. The typical citizen of the country, according to the numbers (or a visiting ET), speaks only English – but according to the government, he or she is perfectly fluent in French as well. Thus a narrow minority is artificially elevated into an equal, and an otherwise secure majority is handicapped down into merely an alternative. Many variations of this dynamic play out in other political arrangements, where small communities are recognized and accommodated out of all proportion to their size within the national collective, and the day-to-day familiarity of broader cohorts is downplayed. In order that no one feels left out, someone else has to make way. In order that everything is even, we have to be a little unfair. Apparently, when it comes to the enforcement of bilingualism – and of diversity, equity, and inclusion – there must always be a thumb on the scale of social justice.

It’s important to recall that the words demographics and democracy share the same Greek root: demos, or people. We’ve long assumed that the interests of the majority determine how our social systems are run and how we define our cultures, but lately, and unfortunately, that expectation has been thwarted. When a lot of people feel they are being drowned out or discounted in favor of a handful, populism surges. When common standards and common sense are vetoed by legal loopholes, trust in lawmakers and the law declines. When empirical, quantifiable averages are displaced by the celebration of difference, there’s really nothing to celebrate. When the hard numbers of demographics aren’t accurately reflected in a nation’s civics, or its discourse, or its other institutions, it isn’t really a democracy.