Petitions and the Curse of Crowdsplaining

28/06/2016 11:36 | Updated 28 June 2016

I've not signed the petition calling for a second EU referendum, or the petition calling for the result of the first simply to be ignored, or the petition for immediate invocation of Article 50, or any of the other petitions.

They're a stupid idea. Petitions are as stupid as referenda, but without the redeeming merit of legitimacy. (The 'second referendum' petition, for example, has received 37,000 signatures from people in the Vatican City - with its population of 800.)

At its heart, a petition is an attempt at mob rule doomed to failure. It's a form of 'slacktivism' where people sign up without seriously considering the achievability or the consequences of what they're demanding, and then sit back satisfied at having contributed to the civic life of the nation.

There's a petition to "stop" the Supreme Court from considering whether parents should be penalised for taking their children out of school in term-time. What? In this democracy, either party to a dispute has a right to lay their case before a judge. Any signatory to a petition which seeks to abridge that right in a particular case because they're worried they might disagree with the outcome, is attempting to attack democracy.

Only 'attempting' because there is absolutely no chance that the Supreme Court will refuse to hear a case on the grounds that some people don't want it to. The petition is fruitless and the people supporting it either have no understanding of how society functions, or just didn't engage their brains before signing.

"But we just want to tell the judges how strongly the public feels!" they say (obviously treating their signatories as entirely representative of The Public). You know what though? The judges literally do not care how strongly the public feels. It's a legal process, not Strictly Come Dancing.

There's a story in the Jewish Talmud about a group of rabbis discussing a complex legal problem. The rabbi in the minority said, "I'm right, and just to prove it, I'll make this river flow backwards." Erm... sorry? How does a conjuring trick with a river 'prove' that your legal argument is better than anyone else's?

It's the same with a petition. All it does is seek to 'wow' decision-makers - or those incorrectly believed to be decision-makers - into blindly doing whatever the petitioners demand.

It's predicated on the idea that if lots of ill-informed people agree on something, they're likely to be right: and if a petition organiser can orchestrate identical emails to flood into a politician's inbox in such a volume that it breaks their server, they must be very right indeed.

Petitions are one of the worst forms of 'crowdsplaining' and they really annoy me. I don't know whether they're so irksome because they're utterly useless, or because if they actually worked they'd be so detrimental to reasoned democracy.

The Indian Supreme Court put it well:

Democracy is a government by the people via open discussion. The democratic form of government itself demands of its citizens an active and intelligent participation in the affairs of the community. The public discussion with people's participation is a basic feature and a rational process of democracy which distinguishes it from all other forms of government.

So if you agree that petitions should be banned, just sign your name and address in the comments box below.