This is the Second in a three part piece. Please read the previous post: Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy – 1 before you read this.
“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Winston Churchill
In the first part of this post, I suggested that democracy required more effort than periodic visits to the election booth. I also imagined, with the advantage of hindsight, what the Brexit vote might have looked like if the British government had the wisdom to engage its citizens in a genuine democratic process. In this post, revisiting the raison d’etre for democracy, I will seek to establish what I believe are the cornerstones of Democracy- Diversity, Dialogue, Freedom of Expression and Critical Thinking.
Let us, for a moment, leave aside the hapless citizen of Britain, India, France or the USA who, burdened by lowered wages, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of ‘foreigners’ and the breakdown of old traditions and virtues, panics into doing stupid things at the ballot box. What about us Conflict Resolution professionals? What was our initial reaction or even considered response to Brexit? Most of my peers sympathized with Remain voters because, like me, they are inclined to back the idea of open borders and internationalism worried as they are about nationalism and xenophobia.
Here are my second thoughts. But some context first: For years, I have struggled with the tension between building my professional practice and holding on to the reason and idealism that brought me into this work. During the first eight years, as I struggled to make Meta-Culture sustainable, I told myself that the best way to advocate for the field and the wonderful values that brought me to it, was to model an alternative way of addressing differences and conflicts. Once people experienced the magic of mediation, the power of dialogue, or the collaborative intelligence of consensus building, they would be transformed forever. The word would be out- no more adversarial litigation and unthinking competitiveness; no more ethnic and religious feuds; most importantly, no more war! I was never so stoned as to believe that the future would be one of eternal sunshine (with nice shade bearing trees for those wary of skin cancer). However I confess that, I did briefly entertain the not uncommon notion that, while planetary change was a long process, as long as enough good people did good work in their own or other people’s backyards eventually, one day, reason (or failing that, compassion and empathy) would prevail. I was unable to remain in this sanguine state for long, given my unfortunate interest in human history and my pre-occupation with individual autonomy and human rights.
I did not train as a mediator or facilitator solely to practice a trade, though I am relieved to say that over the past two decades there have been many years when I was able to do so gainfully. I also didn’t stick with this work for more than two decades because I thought it would create world peace (which, incidentally, is a smashing idea, not entirely unlike perpetual good health, eternal happiness or a never ending bar of Belgian dark chocolate). I came into this work for two reasons, one fairly modest and another rather ambitious:
- I found this to be an intelligent and humane way by which I could help people manage disputes and understand each other better.
- I realized that these non-adversarial and dialogic processes were pretty much the only ways in which pluralistic societies would be able to create order and manage themselves without endangering human dignity, particularly in an age marked by increasing complexity and discontinuity.
To many of us who do this work, the connection between conflict resolution and managing pluralistic societies may seem self evident, but please bear with me. Allow me to flesh out the ways in which this connection plays out and why, if we accept this as reasonable, we also have to question how we frame our careers and what we aspire for the field itself.
My mini-thesis goes thus:
- Democracy is uniquely equipped to address complex issues with regard to the challenges of pluralism and the management of diversity. While universal suffrage is one way to give people a voice, when used solely or as the primary way in which people exercise their right to self-government, it has serious limitations.
- Elections, even with proportional representation, tend to give mandates to majoritarian sentiments and agendas.
- Elections rarely allow the surfacing of substantive matters, complexity or nuance.
- Mass electoral campaigns tend to be catered to the broadest and lowest common denominator and hence encourage populism and its’ older evil sibling, demagoguery.
- Politicians almost always benefit from polarizing issues on ideological lines, which is easier to do than the hard work that it takes to distinguish themselves from their counterparts intellectually and substantively.
- The media benefits from dumbing complex matters down to sound bites that serves their business need to appeal to the largest consumer base.
- The mass of citizens, struggling as they are to survive, tend to be too tired, self absorbed, ignorant or apathetic to invest the time necessary to grapple with complex issues.
- What is true of elections is equally true for referendums, which are often touted as a form of ‘direct democracy’.
- Diversity is the primary problem that every democracy seeks to address. This is certainly true of complex heterogeneous nations like the US, UK or India. It is also true of relatively homogeneous countries like Sweden or Norway where, even with relatively limited racial and ethnic diversity, there almost always are competing ideologies and interests. Other systems of government such as autocracy, theocracy or oligarchy resort to maintaining order and harmony by privileging one world view and marginalizing minority groups, views and rights.
- Dialogue is one of the most egalitarian ways in which democratic societies can manage Diversity without coercion or repression. As the Brexit vote demonstrated, when complex issues are addressed through emotionally charged rhetoric, manipulated information, fallacious logic, tribalism and xenophobia, the results are almost entirely predictable. I say predictable not because I was prescient enough to predict the outcome, I wasn’t, but when the democratic process is reduced to periodic elections and its’ accompanying overheated rhetoric, it almost always creates simplistic and faulty decision-making. This brings me to the vital next link in creating successful democracies – the ability of the population (or at the very least a sizeable section of the population) to think
- Critical Thinking, not merely easy access to information, is what helps a citizenry weigh each issue on its’ merits and make effective decisions. Unfortunately, critical thinking is not intuitive and neither is it automatically bestowed on us when we arrive at puberty, acquire a college education or achieve a prized position (even that of CEO or Prime Minister). It cannot be accessed through an Internet search, reading a book or attending a 2-day workshop. It is a combination of knowledge, skills and most importantly, dispositions that have to be cultivated over many years. It requires that all branches of a society- the family, community, schools, work places- become places where the spirit of questioning, curiosity, intellectual exploration, individual autonomy, dialogic thinking and deliberate and conscious cooperation are prized. In other words critical thinking, like scientific temperament, has to be infused within the culture. While autocracies are threatened by a critically thinking populace, democracies can scarcely function without one.
- Freedom of Expression is what gives wing to Critical Thinking, which is why societies that rank at the bottom for freedom of expression, press, or human rights, also rank highest for killing journalists, cartoonists, bloggers or atheists. Freedom of expression has become a hot button issue around which sane and deliberate conversation is rarely possible. Many ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’, concerned as they are about discrimination and prejudice, tend to be wary of free expression. This can be seen in the grudging and less than effusive support given to authors, cartoonists or filmmakers who are threatened, jailed or killed for the ‘sin’ of blasphemy. This is also evident when speakers at universities are banned for holding ideas inimical to the larger student population or professors are fired for challenging prevailing conceptions around politics, race, gender, religion or sexuality. The Free Speech doubters see lurking behind the right to free speech a license for ‘hate speech’ and the marginalization of the voices of the disadvantaged. Well intentioned as this impulse is to protect the marginalized, democracy pays a high cost for this squeamishness. Honest dialogue, which requires the ability to say things that might be offensive to some, is almost always repressed. When speech is clamped down upon, ideas are driven underground where they fester without recourse to the disinfecting qualities of sunlight and fresh air.
Without freedom of expression, there can be little or no critical thinking. Without critical thinking, there can be no useful dialogue. Without dialogue, diversity can only be managed through coercion, repression and the silencing of dissent. And if not to manage diversity, who needs democracy? Its only purpose, then, becomes to rubber-stamp and provide legitimacy to despots.
As a dialogue practitioner who has worked with highly polarized groups for the better part of three decades, it is my experience that with rare exceptions, Minority Rights are best protected through minimum restrictions on expression. As someone who has found himself in a minority most everyplace and has been an immigrant three times in as many decades, the only thing that has ever protected me has been my right to express myself unhampered by fear or threat. Where either I, or people around me have been silenced it has not helped me feel welcomed or safe. Instead, the silence of the majority has almost always ended up disadvantaging me, causing me harm. I have rarely ever been protected by others holding their tongues.