The myth of moral majorities

People like to brandish the phrase ‘moral majority’ as if it is some kind of argumentative trump card. You want a minimum wage? How about a government grant to write a politically sensitive graphic novel? Or basic rights for LGBT individuals enshrined in law? Oh well, too bad you’re in the minority. Try again when there are more people on your side.

What a coincidence that whatever this ‘moral majority’ supports just so happens to align exactly with your personal beliefs. Unless, of course, you’re simply extrapolating your own subjective intellectual intuitions onto the rest of society. And this rhetoric about a ‘moral majority’ is a smokescreen that lets you conveniently avoid defending your political views.

Case in point: when former NMP Calvin Cheng weighed in on the National Arts Council grant controversy, he argued that:

If you have your own money, go ahead and produce whatever content you want, subject to regulations agreed on by the moral majority. But it is doubly hateful to be taking taxpayers’ money to produce socially subversive content in the name of ‘art’.

Cheng is conflating “decisions made by the Government” with “regulations agreed on by the moral majority” in a spectacular display of status quo bias. Take Sonny Liew’s graphic novel for instance – perhaps only 1 in 5 Singaporeans are angry that the NAC withdrew its grant. But that doesn’t mean that 4 in 5 Singaporeans support the NAC’s decision. The fact that less than 250 people ‘liked’ Cheng’s status is very revealing. Calvin Cheng’s public Facebook page has 17,000 followers. Even among Cheng’s supporters, the approval rate is literally below 2 percent. More plausibly, most Singaporeans just don’t care that much either way. They might lean slightly more to one side, but it’s up to people with strong opinions to sway this undecided middle.

When Cheng (and at times, the Government) claims the support of the ‘moral majority’, he’s actually saying “Look guys. The fact that these regulations still exist and aren’t buckling under massive electoral protest surely must mean they are popular.” The ‘moral majority’ could more accurately be re-defined as ‘The Defenders of The Status Quo’. Instead of examining the substantive merits of Cheng’s arguments, the undecided Singaporean might buy into the myth that the status quo confers moral legitimacy. After all, it always takes more effort to do, rather than not do something.

This is particularly dangerous because Cheng can no more determine what the majority of Singaporeans believe than I can tell you how many grains of sand there are in Sentosa. Just take a look at this infographic, sourced by Today newspaper from the Our Singapore Conversation survey results in 2013. It completely busts the assertion that most Singaporeans prefer limitations on expression over free speech. The survey showed Singaporeans split right down the centre on this issue. If you’re resourceful, you might point out that this other infographic from the same article demonstrates a clear Singaporean anti-gay stance. Problem is, one must consider the possibility that more conservatives than liberals might have turned up for the government dialogue. Also, the phrasing of a survey question can influence people’s answers – what does it mean to “reject gay lifestyles”? Can one “reject” gay lifestyles while at the same time believe that gay sex shouldn’t be criminalized? Might the word “lifestyle” imply that homosexuality is created out of choice rather than circumstance? The sample size itself might also be unrepresentative.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the first survey was accurate while the second survey is full of inaccuracies. I’m arguing that surveys in general are really bad for determining what a majority of Singaporeans do or do not believe. A talented and shrewd researcher could very well load his questions to produce the intended results. That’s why I take every survey and study with a pinch of salt, regardless of whether they corroborate my personal views.

Now, someone who believes in the ‘moral majority’ might retreat by arguing: “Ah! But the PAP is voted in with a resounding majority every election. Over 60 percent! That’s the majority speaking.”

That’s true. But just because the majority is speaking doesn’t mean you can discern what exactly the majority is saying. Voting for the PAP doesn’t mean you agree with their entire slate of policies and broad political ideology. I could be a staunch atheist and vote for the PAP because it’s the least bad option out there. I could be an Evangelical Christian and vote for the PAP because it supports ‘family values’. I could be a libertarian who votes PAP because I don’t believe in expansive state welfare. I could be a socialist who votes PAP because I don’t think the Opposition can deliver on the economic growth needed to sustain a welfare state. It seems painfully obvious, but no two voters are the same. It’s lazy and dishonest to superimpose your reasons for voting in the government onto everyone else’s decision to vote PAP.

More insidiously, the ‘moral majority’ argument makes the assumption that people’s moral codes and static and unchanging. Our conception of what’s moral and right often stems from what we perceive to be socially acceptable. This means that the relationship between national laws and public morality is bi-directional rather than mono-directional – the law conditions us to believe the status quo is moral (or at very least, acceptable and not worth protesting) just as much as our collective moral intuitions condition the law. When the government first mooted the idea of building casinos in Singapore to attract tourism, it caused quite the uproar from Singaporeans who claimed they had the masses on their side. Once the casinos were constructed, however, life just carried on as per normal. We didn’t see this mythical moral majority wielding placards and protesting in Hong Lim Park. We didn’t see the PAP suddenly get voted out on a wave of moral anger. The undecided middle just accepted this change, and grew comfortable with the new status quo.

In short, we should stop using a mythical ‘moral majority’ to justify our personal beliefs and views. Stop thinking you have an imaginary mob on your side, because that’s terrible for discourse. We all are, at the end of the day, a minority of one. And it’s no use deluding yourself otherwise.

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