There are many reasons why some societies would prefer a democratic system over a more despotic one. The most often stated reasons are that it promises, amongst other benefits, equal rights under the law and the right of citizens to select their own representatives or leaders. There is another, less familiar reason- Beauty. I would like to share with you, over the next few posts, the ways in which democracy enables us to create, experience and savour three types of beauty: Aesthetic, Moral and Procedural.

The aesthetic beauty of democracy comes from the fact that it will always be imperfect no matter how well it might function for a while. It is and will always be a work that is perpetually in progress and reinventing itself, everything about it being all too human.

Democracy is clumsy, rough around the edges, noisy and almost always tending towards the chaotic. Yet, when it works, it is suspended in this incipient state of chaos, always teetering at the edge, but never really collapsing. Within this state it even manages a kind of a precarious balance, spontaneous and unpredictable rhythm and a kind of dynamic harmony. Best of all, at moments when, through the combination of reason, understanding, generosity and skill, genuine dialogue takes wing; there is a wholly unexpected denouement that can only be found in the most exquisite art.

There is a tendency for many to look at beauty as arising out of perfection, the perfectly symmetrical face or the highly manicured formal garden for instance. In matters of human values and behaviour though, perfection is not always something that is to be striven for. Perfection almost always comes at a steep cost.To create a ‘perfect’ and error free world, we must try to prevent the mistakes and errors that all people, experts and the lay person alike, are likely to make. This requires that we take away the quirks, eccentricities and foibles that make us human, for these are what prevent managers in businesses and quality control mavens from achieving predictable, glitch-proof results. Other than the conduct of free and fair elections, the heart of a Democracy lies in our ability to deliberate, through robust discussion, about the best ways in which to order society, negotiate with each other about our competing interests, and try, most often with awkward results, to cooperate and collaborate. In other words, we can create perfection in human affairs only by taking the humanity out of the Homo Sapiens, the genius out of the artist and indeed, the artist out of the creator.

No dictatorship or Mullah driven state is constrained to create music that is spontaneous and alive. Not for them the barbaric honesty of Whitman’s “Yawp”! They fear not just the deep and honest expression, but also the unscripted engagement and most of all, the open-ended discussion that does not yield to a predetermined outcome. Their playbook has all the answers and your questions are at best a distraction, and at worst, an act of sedition. If we prefer the perfectly symmetrical, which has its undeniable appeal for many, we should plumb for an autocratic or hierarchical society where there is a ‘place for everything and everything is in its (final) place’. Woe to you though, if the majority or those in power deem that your place is outside the pale, or in prison. Attempts at perfection in human values or behaviour lead inexorably towards the despotic or coercive. Oppression is ugly!

Those who have experienced or been privy to great conversations, genuinely constructive dialogue or the arts of mediation or consensus building, understand that these processes engage parts of us that are not usually stimulated by an ordinary conversation. They arouse the senses as much as they clarify issues, build understanding or solve problems. A beautiful dialogue or mediation balances the emotional with the cerebral or humour and irreverence with lofty aspirations. There is extraordinary beauty in an exquisitely framed question that cuts through the obfuscation and gets to the heart of an issue. At their best, great dialogues create, out of muddled complications and befuddling complexity, elegantly simple philosophic and spiritual insights that are usually only visible in the hallowed confines of the Louvre or the Guggenheim. You see it when participants, in striving for empathy or compassion, do not have to sacrifice radical honesty and their honest expression. You experience it when the heartfelt acknowledgement of each others’ experience and feelings, and the unmitigated clarity brought about liberates the victim and the perpetrator alike. The beauty in a consensus building process is, amongst other things, in the almost magical ways in which competing interests yield mutual gains under expert facilitation. It is in the ways in which stakeholders use their imagination to reframe the problem at hand and use creativity to find beautiful and hitherto unimagined solutions.

Similarly, the arts of cooperation and collaboration are profoundly neglected in human affairs. They are either glaringly absent in our egocentric and individualistic societies or they are forced into uneasy existence through the tactics of drill masters and autocrats. While extraordinary acts of individual expression are always inspiring and beautiful, we have forgotten or have rarely known the exquisite dance that takes place when people collaborate. When individuals or groups put aside their egos, and find a way to synchronise their motivations and energies towards a larger common endeavour, what we witness and experience is art in the making- a complex choreography in vision, time, motion and energy. Think of high performing work groups, the great football teams or even the great music bands.They rock!

This is why conflict resolution processes are at the heart of a democratic society. A democracy that does not foster and nurture constructive dialogue amongst those who have differing perspectives loses out on the benefits that could accrue from diversity; is poorer aesthetically; and is vulnerable to a coarsening of its public discourse.

Here is my question for the day: When did you last come out of a discussion, meeting or public engagement with a sense of exhilaration or aesthetic fulfilment?

2 thoughts on “The Exquisite and Unusual Beauty of a Liberal Democracy- 1

  1. But don’t autocratic societies also have competing and conflicting forces and interests? Perhaps the difference is the outsized power vested with one individual or entity, that overwhelms all other competing interests. Yet, isn’t there a place for conflict resolution processes in autocratic societies? Perhaps more so, because the nature of democracy can sometimes allow for dialogue to take place even without an enabler. In autocratic societies, the enabler is critical to facilitate a dialogue between the powerful and the powerless.

    Also, most democracies vest so much power with one individual, they are probably camouflaged autocracies masquerading as democracies, legitimized by ‘popular vote’.

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    1. Absolutely, autocratic societies also have competing forces with their conflicting interests. The advantages that autocratic societies have is that dissent and forms of dispute resolution are rather circumscribed and hence conflict is, at least superficially, easier to manage. If nothing else works autocrats can always use one sided and oppressive laws to coerce and suppress. Neither Putin or the Saudi King loses any significant legitimacy by oppressing dissidents or imprisoning journalists. Democracies lose legitimacy without dialogue and if the voice of the people is not heard. This requires them to have more responsive, humane and egalitarian dispute resolution mechanisms.

      The reason enablers are rarely allowed to facilitate dialogues between the powerful and the powerless is because autocracies are threatened by non-adversarial conflict resolution processes. Most non-adversarial dispute resolution mechanisms are moored in the values and principles of democratic discourse- freedom of expression, right to dissent, sanctity of the individual and minority rights. Most of this is anathema to autocratic regimes, be they religious, oligarchic or military. They are more at home with kangaroo courts or legal systems that are heavily weighed against the powerless or the minorities.

      I agree that few democracies are genuine democracies today. When ‘democratic’ functioning is limited to periodic elections without robust civic engagement and dialogue, democracy itself becomes a parody of itself. They become psephocracies, or as you say, “camouflaged autocracies, legitimized by popular vote”.

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