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"I'll tell you what the Government should do!"
(Sir Edwin Landseer. Laying Down the Law. Source)
On a regular basis, I get e-mails asking me to sign some electronic petition, to complain to the Government about such and such an issue. Should we sign such petitions?
Of course, most of these petitions are legitimate, but your first reflex should be to suspect fraud. I once received an e-mail from a very trusted person telling me to call such a number to vote against homosexual "marriage". I did, and forwarded that e-mail to my whole mailing list. Then we found out it was actually a poll in favor of pit-bull dogs! Ouch! I was bitten by my thoughtlessness!
A good rule of thumb is:
Never give more information about yourself, then what they give about themselves!
Honest people have nothing to hide, and they will put their picture, their phone number, their address, etc., on their web site.
Assuming now that the petition is not a fraud, I still find that most of them suffer from one or more of these shortcomings:
3.1) Many assertions, with little or no proofs. Often these petitions have a title, a list of names and a few very rhetorical (and even superficial) arguments. But why? It's so easy these days to add hyperlinks to first-hand sources of information (not second-hand). Let's not forget that one of the worst enemies of democracy is religious obscurantism!
3.2) Confusion between a petition, and spam. Some petitions aren't real petitions anymore, but just attempts to "flood" the Government with spam. There is an important distinction between a single letter, well written, developing a solid argument (with hyperlinks to first-hand sources), supported by a long list of signatures (with addresses, phone numbers and e-mails!), and a stupid "spam storm". Many politicians really do try to listen to their constituents, and therefore they offer means to reach them quite directly (e-mail address, snail-mail address, etc.). If each person sends an e-mail, or a post card, then the system will be overloaded. This just punishes the politicians who are trying to be close to the people, and rewards the ones who hide away in their ivory tower!
3.3) No links to the "other side of the story". If an issue is serious enough to cause debates and even divisions, then necessarily there will be other points of view. It is basic intellectual honesty to tell people where to get the other side of the story, especially when you are pressing them to decide which side is right!
3.4) Nobody is in charge, and/or no way to contact him or her. All petitions should have at least one person who is accountable (a real flesh-and-blood person), along with his contact info (and not just an e-mail or a post office box). Leave the masks to the terrorists!
3.5) No correct concept of the nature of Government. One of the worst "intellectual viruses" which can infect a democracy is the idea that "The Government" is different from "Us". According to this false notion, we can insult and attack the Government, without punishing ourselves. Of course, some politicians can make serious errors, which must be opposed, but we mustn't attack "the Government" as if it were some sort of foreign body. Imagine somebody stabbing himself in the legs while saying: "Take that, bad legs, nasty legs!", and then being surprised when he has trouble walking!
This latter shortcoming deserves more thought. In a way, a really good petition is much more than a sheet of paper with signatures. A good petition is a kind of "small bottle filled with political prudence".
Prudence or "prudentia" in Latin (not to be confused with caution, or "cautio" in Latin), is the most important of the four cardinal virtues [see Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 47-51]. Prudence is the moral virtue that lets us see the goal clearly, and determine the proper means to attain this goal. A good politician is by definition a person who has this virtue of "political prudence", which lets him clearly see the goal (the common good of the society entrusted to him), and the means to attain that goal (whether taxes, laws to be adopted or repealed, incentives or sanctions to impose, etc.).
By the very fact that you present a petition to a Government, you are telling it something like: "Dear Government (who is basically the same thing as Us), we think that your prudential thought process, for such a specific issue, can be improved. Knowing you are overloaded with work, and pulled every which way by the requests of citizens, we wanted to help you. Here therefore is the result of our careful thinking."
To write up a good petition, we have to know how to govern properly, at least a little bit. Eventually, I'll try to supply hyperlinks to resources explaining how to govern well, in the Politics section of the site.
Let's make an effort to make good electronic petitions! Let's not vandalize our own Democracy!
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