What do people mean when they talk about democracy? I’m not thinking of historians, politicians or philosophers; just people.

When I arrived in Tunis, where the Arab Spring began, which spread to Cairo and then was the model for Real Democracy Now in Madrid, which in turn inspired the Occupy movements everywhere, I was hustled by a driver into his taxi. I sat beside him. Neither of us had our seatbelts buckled.

He asked if they’re mandatory where I’m from. I said yes and asked about here. He said it used to be but that was Before the Revolution. He beamed. Freedom is not doing something even when you know it’s in your best interest to do it.

I realize I asked what people mean by democracy, not what they mean by freedom. But that’s another thing they do: They think of both together. When Tunisia won its freedom from French rule in 1956, it was under the (relatively benign) dictator Habib Bourguiba. After a while, people felt less free. After 30 years, Bourguiba was removed and replaced by the (also, at the start, well-thought-of) dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but people still didn’t feel free. Last year they tossed him out and began genuinely electing their leaders.

Freedom is like democracy for one, and democracy is like freedom for all. In either case, you get to do what’s bad for you, if you choose to.

On my way to the airport at the end of my visit, the roads were blocked by a march called Occupy Tunis. (“We already occupied Tunis,” someone said. “In New York they learned about it from us. Now it comes back here.”)

My driver veered onto a dedicated streetcar track, bumping along and cursing at the wear on his car. I asked if this was allowed. He snarled no, and asked if I wanted to catch my plane or not. I said I only asked out of curiosity. I asked if he’d have done it Before the Revolution. No, he scoffed, as if I was stupid to even ask.

Another thing people mention when they talk about democracy is dignity, especially in the current phase. Journalists and outsiders tried calling Tunisia’s uprising the Jasmine Revolution, linking it with the Velvet, Orange and other cases. But Tunisians call it the Dignity Revolution, Thawrat al Karama.

This grows directly out of the event that set it off. (You can’t always find a single initiating event, but you can here.) It was the self-immolation of a street vendor of fruit and vegetables named Mohammed Bouazizi, age 25, who was the main support of his family, in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 17, 2010.

That morning he was harassed, yet again, by police for not having a permit (or not bribing them; accounts vary). A female officer slapped or spat at him, humiliating him in public. I asked if the fact a woman did it was significant and was told no; Tunisian women have long served in the police and military.

Bouazizi went to the local police station to complain and was ignored. That seemed to upset him more than the original incident. Frustrated, he went and got some gasoline, doused and immolated himself in the street. He was taken to hospital and died three weeks later.

The event was unusual for a Muslim country but not unique. Six weeks earlier someone else set himself on fire in protest. There have been numerous cases in neighbouring Algeria.

Yet public reaction to the event was seismic, partly due to social media, though that hardly explains it. Protests in his name spread, were heavily repressed by police and multiplied. The dictator actually visited Bouazizi in hospital in a vain effort to quell the dissent, before fleeing the country on Jan. 14.

The remarkable thing about this inciting incident is that it is utterly common. You can find thousands of humiliations like it every hour of every day anywhere in the world. It has nothing to do with democracy or dictatorship; that kind of high-handed misbehaviour is ubiquitous. That’s surely why it reverberated. Its complete normalcy made it an instant symbol.

Why it led to an outbreak of mass protest that spread globally is harder to answer. I asked everyone I met in Tunisia what they thought and never got the same reply, though everyone had an opinion.

Mohammed Ferjani of the Islamist party Ennahda, which played a long, honourable role opposing the dictatorship and won the most seats in the first unrigged election last fall, told me “the generosity of people and their deep sense of care is what took it out of the ordinary.

“We all felt that never again should it happen to anyone. I know that’s used about the victims of Auschwitz, but it’s a universal feeling wherever, as a fellow human being, you see suffering.”

That doesn’t answer the question but it does make you think. In fact, you could ask the reverse question just as reasonably: Since humiliation like this is so common, why do we rarely see public outcries for it to stop and not recur?

The answer that moved me most came from Mohammed Binnou, also with an honourable opposition party, though on the liberal, secular side. He said Bouazizi “never knew what happened because of him. He made three regimes fall, nearly 100 million Arab lives changed because of what he did and there are others where Arab leaders still tremble and can’t stabilize.

“The agony of youth who aren’t permitted to thrive crystallized at that moment. What can you do when faced with such a loss of hope as his? There is only one response, the road followed by Tunisian and Arab youth: to mobilize and say with one voice to the tyrant: ‘Get out!’ “

It wasn’t an answer to my question either, but it was a meaningful response.

There is something dignified about turning on yourself instead of accepting more abuse, or complaining pointlessly or reacting with rage and so reducing yourself to the kind of behaviour you’re protesting.

It’s like the dignity of Gandhian non-violence, or the 38 Tibetans who’ve set fire to themselves since 2009: a self-contained response that leaves it to others, as Ferjani and Binnou both said, to see it doesn’t continue to happen. As if you’re saying: “This is all I can do, now it’s over to the rest of you.” Others then become Indignados, as protesters everywhere are now known — a word that in Spanish has a stronger hint of dignity alongside the sense of outrage than it does in English.

Such suicides and immolations in the name of dignity have grown more common and visible in this age of economic collapse and democratic demand.

“Tunisians are happy people,” said broadcaster Elyes Gharbi. “They live in the sun. How did it happen that one of ours came to immolate himself in public, before everyone?”

They aren’t only private tragedies; they acquire a public significance, or at least members of the public see them in larger, political terms.

In Greece, another country where people live in the sun, suicide rates rose by 18 per cent from 2010 to 2011.

Last April, in Syntagma Square, where hundreds of thousands of Greeks frequently meet to denounce their parliament, retired pharmacist Dmitris Christoulas shot himself in the head.

He left a note saying it was because of a leadership that “has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state. And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance. I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”

He clearly didn’t agree that we get the governments we deserve.

Earlier this month, an Israeli small businessman, Moshe Silman, died after setting himself on fire at one of the protests there, leaving a letter echoing the despair of Dmitris Christoulas. A week ago, on the day of Silman’s funeral, another protester, disabled Israeli army veteran Akiva Mafai’I, utterly frustrated about receiving care for his injuries, set himself afire at a bus stop.

A loss of dignity results from the loss of an individual’s sense of freedom, and if a democracy has somehow been responsible for that loss, it doesn’t really deserve the name.

That’s the nature of the relationship between freedom for all (democracy) and democracy for each (freedom).

Henry David Thoreau, the 19th-century American writer who was a great advocate of individual freedom (and lived alone in a cabin at Walden Pond to make his point), said: “That government is best which governs least.”

But it sometimes takes a considerable amount of governing to assure the freedom of an individual from constricting forces like governments. If you’re burdened with a serious illness, or illiteracy or poverty, or someone in your family is, you might need the help of others through public institutions merely to let you live a dignified life and express your individuality. It’s up to a democratic government to do however much or little it takes.

This kind of thinking sees democracy as a means to an end. The end might be maximizing the freedom(s) or dignity of the individual, or the greatest good of the greatest number (or their greatest happiness) as other 19th-century democratic philosophers said.

One of Canada’s finest political thinkers, C.B. McPherson, said the “ultimate” principle of democracy is “to provide the conditions for the development of human capacities and to do this equally for all members of society” — since the “essence” of being human is “activity in pursuit of a rational conscious purpose.”

That sounds worthy: democracy as a means to guarantee the fulfillment of everybody’s potential, with no one left out due to where or how they were born or what kind of luck they happen to have.

But how many human beings actually see their lives in those terms? That’s why I began by asking how most people think about democracy. They might well see things differently than full-time thinkers or political activists. They might agree that rational purposes are part of us but don’t define us overall and, even if they did, democracy isn’t likely to provide us with results like happiness and fulfillment in our own or perhaps anyone’s lifetimes.

If that’s so, then could freedom and democracy simply be ends in themselves? So that it’s not about what they help you to achieve, it’s more about the satisfactions of simply acting democratically along the way? That would be a whole other way of thinking.

I had a teacher, Hannah Arendt, who felt that’s what Greek democracy was about: not goals achieved but the action aiming at those goals, whatever wound up being accomplished. That makes sense to me, based on my own experience.

I’d like to feel I’ve made myself heard and played a role in my world and society, even if it hasn’t necessarily succeeded. Sometimes what you do works out but even then, the success is provisional, it can always be rolled back. And mostly it doesn’t work out, but you still feel you’ve spent your time doing something that makes you more fully human, win or lose.

Stav Shaffir, the very focused Israeli militant who said her movement must succeed or it’s all over for Israel, also told me, “I spent my life doing activism, constantly waiting for something to happen. When we organized in the past, you knew not more than 1,000 would come. You’d stand on a corner with a sign and nobody noticed but you do it because you feel you have to.”

Then she and others like her struck a chord. Thousands responded, hundreds of thousands, even the government, in its cagey way.

You do it because you have to, because it’s who you are, or a part of who you are: the piece of you that’s political, the citizen piece. Sometimes it works and has a gratifying result but other times it doesn’t.

This would be democracy as, more or less, an end in itself. Not a means to something else, even if that something is real, true democracy (which I think I’ve been pining for throughout this series and will continue to pine for).

Such goals are worth pursuing but they’re distant, perhaps unreachable. Merely acting, hanging in there politically — so long as we keep trying to open the thing up, let it breathe, and use that as a reminder of what else could also exist . . .

This is part six of a six-part series. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Olmo Calvo Rodríguez/Flickr


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.