This is the Third in a three part piece. Please read the previous post: Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -2 before you read this. 

In the third post of the series, I write about how democracy as a system is inherently vulnerable and try to make the case for activists and peace builders to play an active role in developing and sustaining democracy. I also express concern about the costs we incur when we react to the slow pace of change in our democratic societies with impatience or forsake our philosophic and political roots in a scramble to accommodate to the demands of the market place.

To summarize from the last post:

  1. Democracy is the best system to manage Diversity (without coercion or suppressing minorities)
  2. However, managing Diversity requires Dialogue
  3. Dialogue requires Freedom of Expression
  4. Freedom of Expression, to be constructive, requires Critical Thinking

Unlike Mussolini’s definition of totalitarian states “all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” democracy privileges the individual citizen whom the state is designed to serve. Balancing the principles of majority rule and minority rights, democracies are driven and sustained by open free elections and active public participation. Public memory being short, and ignorance of history being the norm rather than the exception, few remember the days when much of the world was ruled by hereditary rulers or Dictators. It is sobering to remember that since 1900 only a handful of countries including the USA, UK, Australia, Sweden and Canada could be said to have had uninterrupted democratic governments; as late as 1991, half of Europe was communistic; and most of Asia and Africa, independent only since WW2, has always had a tumultuous relationship with democracy.

Tragedy of the righteous avenger: Citizens in democratic states who are passionate about pluralism, equality, justice and peace can get very enthusiastic about pushing the boundaries of freedom and rights. Disgusted with hypocritical representatives, frustrated with cumbersome decision-making, and angered by continued injustice and broken promises, it is easy to get impatient with our own governments. This is as it should be. Democracies will and must be held to a higher standard. However, righteous indignation can lead us to mistake complex (and hence labored) decision making for incompetence and stumbling cultural change for systemic malfeasance. We forget that social and cultural change is slow and sustainable transformations are rarely brought about by legislation or diktat.

In a democracy everything is always up for discussion and negotiation, which makes decision-making a tedious and cumbersome process. Even after seemingly interminable discussion, it is always possible that some interests will not be met and not everybody will get everything they deserve. The astonishing thing about a democracy, however, is that every voice will be heard and every stakeholder will have the right to influence decisions and outcomes.

In a despotic or autocratic system, the only legitimate voices are those of the government or the dominant groups, while minority voices are either marginalized or silenced. Throughout history, even when benign regimes have been conscientious about the welfare of their subjects, individual and minority rights have depended upon the capricious munificence of the rulers.

Tragedy of the immortal salesman: We live in a world where the act of ‘selling’ is not limited to the professional salesman or woman. In an age where presidential candidates are marketed using the same techniques used to sell Coco Cola or the iPhone, it should not surprise us that Donald Trump has become a credible candidate for, arguably, the most critical office on the planet. When, even private citizens and professionals create their own ‘personal brands,’ there is little to differentiate us anymore from tele-evangelists or purveyors of snake oil. Market wisdom today requires that NGOs and even Mediators brand themselves in order to be seen and heard. From ‘dressing up’ for the market, adopting the seemingly ‘credible’ language of B-Schools and Silicon Valley, to packaging our services so that they are market friendly, and finally ‘being flexible’ with one’s principles, it is a slow but inexorable decline into the narrow alleyways and circuitous logic of the bazaar.

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”.– Groucho Marx

The challenge facing a fledging field

If peace building and conflict resolution are to be relevant beyond the narrow confines of commercial or community mediation, we need to hold on to our own creation story and remind ourselves of the reasons that brought us to this work. After its birth, in a spurt of idealism and humanism, when it rose out of the cruelty and devastation of the great wars and the upheaval of the civil rights movements, conflict resolution now finds itself at the crossroads. We are today faced with two choices:

  1. We model ourselves as a profession in the manner of mechanical engineers, carpenters, switchboard operators, VCR mechanics or chimney sweeps have throughout history, as useful and productive professionals whose relevance rests almost solely upon the vagaries of the market.
  2. Or we fashion ourselves as a vocation like the original (non-market driven) scientists, artists and philosophers who were motivated by a passion or cause larger than themselves, whether it be the spirit of inquiry, justice, beauty, goodness or truth.

The roots of the work we do lie in the historically unique development of liberal and secular thought coming out of the Enlightenment. Mediators often talk about how traditional societies have had their own versions of mediation. Some, when challenged, will admit that this is a flimsy argument, but justify it as necessary. In their view, if mediation is seen as indigenous (and not foreign) it becomes an easier sell. I fear that this is disingenuous and dangerous. Indeed, in most traditional societies village elders or high status ‘outsiders’ have settled disputes or created peace and harmony through reconciliation processes, many of them wonderfully wise, such as Ho’oponopono. But with very rare exceptions, most traditional forms of dispute resolution tend not to be egalitarian, prize group harmony over individual interests, and pay short shrift to human rights. Our enthusiasm to spread mediation by making it “acceptable and accessible” should not blind us to how, what we understand to be mediation, is substantially different from traditional forms of dispute resolution. By obscuring the differences between mediation and traditional (and hierarchical) forms of dispute resolution, we misrepresent the essence of mediation and do not do justice to the liberal democratic culture from which it springs. Needless to say, mediation as self consciously egalitarian and based on individual autonomy might not find favor among the governments of Singapore, Qatar or China who might see little value in furthering democratic values or funding these projects. But is that too much of a price to pay for sustaining our own democratic values?

If we, the beneficiaries of democracy, allow it to flounder because of our inability or unwillingness to hold steadfast to its values or fight for it when need be, these values will steadily, and most decidedly, deteriorate. As we get impatient with the pace of change and become cynical about the system itself, the demagogues and technocrats will demean and chip away at its core until it is no more different from plutocratic or oligarchic rule. If democracy becomes a faint parody of itself or ceases to exist, there will also be no mediation or peace building as we understand it anymore. We will become just dispute settlement professionals scrambling to sell our services, cogs in a market driven economy or, even worse, fig leaves for despots of all stripes who will offer us silver to cover up their human rights abuses at home.

If this strikes some readers as an exaggeration or unlikely, I would request you to look closely at the key political and intellectual developments of the last couple of decades. Even without Brexit, after bringing down the Berlin Wall, the signs were clear. First, there was the intellectual repudiation of universal human rights in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries that espoused traditional “Asian Values” that privileged duty and tradition above individual conscience and autonomy. This was buttressed by the rise of a capitalist and repressive China and the economic success of authoritarian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This was, in turn followed by growing ideological intolerance and the weakening of democratic institutions in countries like India. Finally, we now see the cracks in the most powerful example of international humanism, the European Project and the rise of demagoguery and right wing forces in the USA.

As always, it is the writers, teachers and dissidents amongst us who are the canaries in the mine of democracy. Look, too, at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989; the increasing intimidation of writers and artists since then; the intolerance of ‘liberal’ students towards ‘offensive’ views on campus; the disappearing space for constructive discourse even in the ‘developed’ democracies; and finally the inescapable violence in our public spaces. Now please try to connect the dots.

We might just be witnessing the end of 20th century idealism and a return to nationalism, tribalism and intolerance. With this we will witness once again, after a historically astonishing seventy year breather, minorities relegated to the margins, human rights observed only when it doesn’t clash with national interest, and individual human beings accommodated to what the majority believes is the collective good.

The choice is ours as activists and mediators. Will we have the courage and wisdom to stand up for our inconvenient values and principles in the face of pressure from those who are threatened by pluralism and what it encompasses- human dignity, freedom and equality? Or, will we fall prey to market forces that have co-opted other idealists before us, inventors, thinkers, teachers, scholars, artists and even social workers who have been forced to become de-politicized ‘professionals’ in an unfeeling and unreasonable market environment?

You don’t have to be a Cassandra, a voice of doom or a conspiracy theorist and most of all, you don’t have to be ‘negative’. All you have to do is revisit the history of the last five hundred years, the growth and decline of the world’s civilizations, and the freak circumstances that gave rise to liberal philosophy and democratic institutions. If you do, you may possibly come to similar conclusions and be called pessimistic. However, no conscious and truly educated person could honestly call you unrealistic.

We, who have benefited most from the rise of the liberal, secular democratic state, have a few choices before us. We can continue to rant in frustration against slow moving democratic processes and even help tear down its ‘corrupt’ institutions. Or, like most folks, we can try and focus on thriving and growing in an unforgiving market environment like other cogs in the capitalist machinery. Or, and this is the most difficult thing to do, even as each one of us struggles in these uncertain times to survive economically, we can with a sense of urgency, invest in protecting the most humane system of government that our species has ever created. Democracy is the only one that can guarantee our dignity, freedoms and autonomy; if it goes we lose way more than the right to vote in elections or an ability to make fun of Donald Trump.

What would the field of conflict resolution look like if we practitioners were to stake out our powerful claim to be front line advocates for democracy, mediating in the trenches of human relationships?


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