Is a closed society a bad society?

author: Gabe Hopkins
date: 2009-04-06 13:09:14+00:00
slug: is-a-closed-society-a-bad-society
title: Is a closed society a bad society?
wordpress_id: 381

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A good friend of D2’s recently came to us with a question. He was stopped by the phrase "closed societies" which we use to describe some of the places where we work and have done research. We are posting both the question and answer below as a way of sharing this dialogue.
Q. How do you guys define a country as "bad" (which is how I read the term "closed") where you are going to support "dissidents" or refugees? For me, talking about Burma and Zimbabwe as being somehow morally equivalent governments or societies is problematic.How do you guys decide who is bad and who is good? There are obvious political decisions one must make in these things and I don’t think one can hide behind a notion of universal human rights to avoid them.
An excellent question and an important one for us to answer.

First, we mean something specific when we say "closed society" and it is not equivalent to "bad country". We use the term "closed society" to mean a society where access to information and communication resources is restricted. Some of the more prominent characteristics of this include obstacles to or bans on independent media outlets, restriction of opposition political parties, restrictions on citizen assembly and organizing, and tight control over information and communication moving across borders, among others.

Second, the reality of the word "closed" is that it is a relative term, not an absolute one. As we all know, there are restrictions on media, assembly, political parties and cross-border information traffic here in America, but we would call the US an open society. It’s definitely a spectrum and Burma, Cuba, Russia and Zimbabwe are all very different from each other and all of them occupy different places on the open-closed continuum. However, we do believe that they fall far enough to the closed side that they merit the attention of research.

While we use the term ‘closed society’ to refer to the conditions within a country, not to comment on the moral nature of its government, we do believe that these kinds of restrictions are bad for a society’s citizens and, consequently, bad for the society as a whole. That is not the same thing as giving a society the clumsy blanket label "bad" but it does carry political implications. We tread a fine line when it comes to political issues – a line that we are very conscious of – and it’s one of the reasons that we target our programming at civil society organizations which exist (at least in theory) outside the bounds of formal politics.