The curious tale of Boaty McBoatface may soon be forgotten, but it might possibly mark a significant moment in the history of participative democracy.
The Natural Environment Research Council invited members of the public to put forward and vote on names for its new polar research vessel. Someone suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and I guess lots of people thought, that’s a laugh. Through digital media, endorsement is almost effortless, and it easily topped the poll.
Personally I’d have favoured one of the alternatives, ‘It's Bloody Cold Here’ – but anyway it doesn’t look as though the vote-winning suggestion will be adopted.
This modestly silly saga reminds us of the manifest lack of wisdom of crowds, which is effectively what Stuart Heritage seems to be on about in this recent Guardian piece. More pointedly I think, it is a little reminder that the ways in which organisations push notions of ‘public engagement’ and democratic participation can lead them into difficulties: and in so doing, perhaps they are exposing the limits of democracy. As Sophie Blake noted on the Involve blog,
‘engagement that hasn’t been thought out can damage the reputation of public engagement as a whole.’
Meanwhile, there’s been much ado about today’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, a man who understood clearly that crimes (or sins) and their forgiveness or payment of dues are often not equalised. In this respect, I do wonder with what forcefulness he might have written about the ways in which global corporations can buy and sell the right to pollute.
Here I just want to draw attention to further, and more powerful, insights into the evolution of democracy, with reference to Gabriel Chanan’s marvelously lucid and readable book Shakespeare and democracy.
Gabriel explains how Shakespeare played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies modern democracy: he also argues that that contribution ‘continues to be essential to its survival and further progress’. This point is well worth pondering on the day when Barrack Obama visited the Globe Theatre in London.
At its conclusion, the book offers a delightful reading of The tempest, first performed before King James and his courtiers. Gabriel suggests that perhaps the playwright is saying:
‘As for me, Shakespeare, all I have done is write harmless plays and given free rein to my imagination. You kings and nobles, on the other hand, have made aggressive wars, oppressed the poor, condemned the innocent and killed helpless people.’