In Search of a New Democracy: ‘A soft lump of butter’

Dilara Bilgic (18) asked the students of IJburg College in Amsterdam: what does democracy mean to you?, during the interactive performance In Search of a New Democracy during the thrid edition of the Forum on European Culture. This is the response she got from her own generation:

Part of
Forum on European Culture
Written by
Dilara Bilgic

‘’When I say democracy, what’s the first thing you think of?’’

‘’Freedom’’, says one pupil. ‘’Representation of the people’’ shouts another student. ‘’Equal rights’’ says a third one. 

During the interactive performance In Search Of Democracy 3.0. at IJburg College, Lucas de Man and Niels Kuiters metamorphosed the hall into a mini democracy. The pupils were encouraged to think, talk and learn as they were participating in a sense of togetherness.

The audience consisted of students of two different secondary schools. Niels and Lucas strategically pitted them against each other, thus creating an interactive ambiance (and at the same time creating an ‘us vs. them’ culture). ‘’I know that the pupils from IJburg College know a lot, but how about the people from the Amsterdams Lyceum? Can anyone tell me where democracy originally comes from?’’

 ‘’The ancient Greeks!’’ shouted one IJburg College student.

  ‘’That’s true! It comes from Athens, 508 before Christ,’’ Niels said. 1-0 for IJburg College

‘’But at the same time, it’s absolutely not true,’’ he continued. 0-0.

It became tremendously silent.

‘’The Phoenicians used to have a democracy around 1500 before Christ.’’ Lucas said. ‘’However, they were also not the first ones. The history of democracy goes way back. In Mesopotamia they also used to have a democracy, already in 3000 before Christ. When voting you would kneel or walk to the speaker you agreed with. That way you could show your approval. And if they weren’t able to reach consensus, then women and teenagers would vote too. Mesopotamians believed that the ear is the key to intelligence. They attached great importance to listening.’’ The students seemed to interpret the last comment as an implicit criticism, because the noise remarkably decreased. 

            ‘’You could actually argue that western democracy originated in Syria. The place where we, ‘westerners’, want to bring the oh so western democracy to. We are trying to put a democratic blanket over these countries, but in fact we are merely returning democracy to its birthplace.‘’

  ‘’However, if we go further back in time, we see other types of democracies as well. In Australia – although there was not something called Australia 40.000 years ago – everyone had to agree before they would make a decision. Additionally, when talking about for example a tree, one person had to speak as a representative of the trees. 40.000 years ago, they used to have a democracy better than ours. Democracy is as old as humanity, but that is not a reason to take it for granted: you could lose it in an eyeblink. That’s why it is so important that we think about it, over and over again.’’ 

‘’What are the essentials of democracy? Just call out your ideas, and thereafter everyone will vote about it by means of the pieces of paper on your desks: green means that you agree, red that you disagree and blue that you just don’t give a shit about it (sic).’’ The tone of voice of the actors created a certain connection with the students, they felt understood; their language was being used, appreciated.

‘’No racism!’’ one put forward.

            The audience’s reaction could best be described as a Hungergames scene. All citizens of our mini democracy voted unanimously, not with words, but with their hands. They raised their hands, to show the same message: we agree with you, and we stand beside you. The room was transformed into a forest, deeply green. 

‘’The rich should pay more taxes than the elderly’’, someone put forth. This one was tricky: the opinions differed – if the majority had an opinion about this at all. Most of them were surprisingly ignorant about it.

            Lucas started to play devil’s advocate: ‘’Did you know that the richest people in the Netherlands pay the least taxes?’’ ‘’WHAT?!’’ one girl shouted indignantly. A clamour of voices arised. ‘’Yes, it’s true. Starbucks pays less taxes than one single doctor.’’ The students were resentful, or shocked. Either way, they were – after Lucas’ comment – hanging on the lips of Lucas and Niels. This was the right time to get to the real question:

  ‘’Who is satisfied with the democracy in the Netherlands?’’ The room slowly became green, with here and there some blue and red notes. ‘’Now: come on up team red!’’ A few people came to the stage. Reluctantly though – but at least they came. ‘’I would like to ask team blue to come, too.’’ It was time to listen to the dissatisfied and indifferent citizens. 

The green cardholders remained contently seated on their thrones. Niels emphasized once more what their role would be from that moment on: ‘’it is important that you, as the ruling class …’’ He hesitated. ‘’Shut up (sic) when team red and blue start to complain’’, Lucas added. Spoiler alert: they didn’t remain silent. As soon as the students on stage started to speak up, the theatre transformed into a democracy: no elite or ruling class, just people. The roles that Lucas and Niels had given to them (i.e. the ‘ruling class’ staying silent, and ‘the people’ speaking up) were turned upside down, inside out. The people on stage started speaking up on why our democracy is – according to them – doomed to failure, ready to be buried or stored in a museum. 

–        ‘’Our democracy doesn’t work because citizens know too little about democracy,’’ one of them suggested.

–        ‘’Because there is still too much social inequity’’, said another person. The latter received a little more applause than the first. I felt a raindrop on my face and knew that it would rain: it would rain more sensitive comments. The thunderous applause had encouraged them. 

–        ‘’Because racism still exists.’’ The audience started to cheer and whistle. The Achilles heel of this crowd had clearly been touched. 

–        ‘’Because citizen’s voices are not heard.’’ An anti-climax. No cheering, some applause. 

–        ‘’The democracy doesn’t work because some opinions are not spoken out loud.’’ Rising action.

–        ‘’Our democracy doesn’t work because a paedophile party is being accepted.’’ Now all hell broke loose: cheering and whistling dominated the space. 

The girl behind me was confused: ‘’wait, I don’t get it. Is this a competition?’’ What started as giving ‘the people’ a voice, indeed transformed into a contest, a Who’s Got Talent performance.

The ‘ruling class’ (as far as they had ruled) cheered, screamed or applauded whenever a personally heart-touching topic came up. These ‘cardholder-politicians’ were given the task to remain silent, but they did not seem to care about it: the atmosphere mostly resembled the British Parliament, with the teachers as personifications of the ‘’order, order’’ message (John Bercow).

Without realising, these youngsters had replicated many aspects of society on microscale. And that is what made this show so noteworthy: it allowed us to measure which topics were important to them and what empowered them. These students of all backgrounds, school levels and social positions: so much diversity, but despite that – or maybe thanks to that – there was a significant atmosphere of respect. I could feel and see their outrage or aversion, but even more often, I sensed a humanness, a feeling of love. 

At some point they were cheering and screaming so loudly, that it seemed to escalate into a ‘popular revolt’ – maybe as a result of peer pressure or herd behaviour – but after all: the comments that they made were often an ‘exhaust valve’, an expression of needs and desires that were not being met over and over again. These needs, trapped inside their bodies, needed (literally) to be rescued – but these pupils either didn’t have the words for it yet, or weren’t aware of the needs. They were merely aware of the result of neglecting those needs: an emotional rollercoaster resulting in screaming occasionally. 

This performance demonstrated one thing very clearly, made it tangible: the bunch was not a liquified big, homogenous, and dangerous body, though sometimes it might have seemed like that. That threatening mass was actually a collection of individuals with individual needs. And by giving these individuals a voice, we were able to turn this seemingly tough mass into a soft lump of butter. Just like society, huh?