Malawi, Human Rights and Peer-Pressure

Recently Malawi has been highlighted in the media for placing two homosexual in prison for 14 years for “gross indecency and unnatural acts”. My point in this article is not to discuss the ‘gay issue’- I love people who label themselves ‘gay’, because they are made in the image of God, and as humans have dignity based on their being made in that image, I also believe that there is hope in the gospel to liberate people from anything which enslaves them.

My concern here is to analyze what seems to be general augment against such a law in a country, and against the idea that homosexuality is wrong. Please understand, I am not so much writing about human rights, homosexuality or politics… I am concerned with how (the method I will explain) people in general have been arguing against the aspect of the Malawian constitution that resulted in this sentencing.

The argument typically goes like this

A: Malawi is wrong to condemn homosexual acts

B: Why?

A: Because the rest of the world has progressed beyond this silly backward thinking that it is wrong. Furthermore that UN condemns it, and our constitution (South African) has been hailed as the best constitution, and we permit any expression of sexuality (Although there are certainly certain parameters- which ironically we have no basis for in a secular state)

My issue with this argument that, the majority, the whole world, everyone, most places etc, think that something is okay, therefore it is okay, is that it commits the fallacy of “Argumentum Ad Populum” The fallacy threatens an individual with exclusion or ostracizing based on the desires of the majority, the possible anger or fury of the majority, the traditions, beliefs, ideology, or any other attribute of a group of people. We can also call it the ‘appeal to the mob’ fallacy.

But the heart of this argument rests on the “1,000,000 people” claim: peer pressure at its best. Can you argue with “a million people”? Well, actually, yes. Consider that 1.22 Billion people worldwide smoke cigarettes daily, millions use illegal drugs resulting in thousands of deaths and over a million emergency room trips, tens of millions of people bought adjustable-rate mortgages with millions later forced into foreclosure, and millions upon millions each day contract a computer virus by clicking through spam emails. So I would say the “1,000,000 people” argument does not guarantee what’s “RIGHT FOR YOU TOO.” It may, in fact, have something terribly wrong waiting ahead for you.

This argument has the effect of Appealing to the emotions and desires of a particular group, and urging them to act as a group to achieve the agenda. All of this pushes aside reasoning and logical connections, and ignores any possible logical conclusions to the contrary.

The satirist and cynic Ambrose Bierce stumbled upon the roots of this fallacy in his The Devil’s Dictionary. Defining the word “multitude,” he wrote:

A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman’s adoration.… If any men of equal wisdom are wiser than any one of them, it must be that they acquire the excess of wisdom by the mere act of getting together. Whence comes it? Obviously from nowhere—as well say that a range of mountains is higher than the single mountains composing it. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish.

Human wisdom does not increase because several people, or millions, agree. In fact, human vices and avarice tend to amplify when compounded as mob lust. The greatness of “democracy” is a myth, and the old saying vox populi, vox dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) makes a political idol out of fallacious reasoning. Oddly enough, the first person to record this Latin proverb was the British cleric and scholar Alcuin of York (AD 735–804), who also subsequently refuted it. He wrote to Charlemagne, “Nor are those to be listened to who are accustomed to say, ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God.’ For the clamor of the crowd is very close to madness.[i]

Wisdom does not arise from mere societal consent or “group-think,” which could sooner plunge society into rebellion than enlighten us. We need wisdom from outside the darkened mind of the human race in order to enlighten the human race. This comes from the wisest member of the human race, Jesus Christ. If “a multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him,” then let us not give into Peer Pressure, but follow Christ.


[i] See George Boas, Vox populi; Essays in the History of an Idea (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), 9; also quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vox_populi, accessed May 22, 2010.

  3 comments for “Malawi, Human Rights and Peer-Pressure

  1. Nils
    May 25, 2010 at 9:06 am

    Heya Tyrell,

    Very thought provoking entry; I agree we shouldn’t just follow the crowd but rather pursue what is good and right and true. That being said, we were created as social creatures, designed to influence and be influenced by the environment we are placed in. Also we are fallible human beings with limited minds, we cannot perceive all things and the decisions we make are bound to be prejudiced or one sided. To discount entirely what the majority is saying is very dangerous. My point is that even though there may be 1,000,000+ people smoking; there are also 1,000,000+ people who know that murder is wrong. Crowd mentality is neither always ignorance nor wisdom.

    In a secular environment, many governments have created laws that are unjust; for example SA in the past. We were put under sanctions and other international pressures but refused to cave, the majority believing South Africa was wrong in the way it saw basic human rights etc. Should we have listened to international reason earlier instead of holding to our guns, looking at what other countries had already been through (USA for example), look at what the majority is very often wisdom. Comments?

    • tyrellh
      May 25, 2010 at 10:26 am

      Hey Nils

      Thanks for the comment.

      I think the reasoning for my post was not so much to discredit the need for democracy but rather as I said, “how (the method I will explain) people in general have been arguing against the aspect of the Malawian constitution that resulted in this sentencing.” In other words, ‘how people decide what is just’. Now this is not to say that the majority are always wrong, nor that they are always right. During apartheid the South African government could have bowed out to peer-pressure, but that would not mean that they did the right thing… the alternative is that they could have listened to Christ and come to the same conclusion that common grace allowed the world to have.

      In short, is democracy good, yes… does it ensure that we at justly? No

  2. June 8, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Excellent post Tyrell! Why is peer pressure such a big motivator? Could it be that humans were made to obey something bigger than themselves?

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