An urgent initiative

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”.

Winston Churchill

‘Demos’ coming as it does from the Greek word for common people, today also refers to the populace of a democracy as a political unit. A ‘Citizen’ is a legal inhabitant of a nation or state, one who is entitled to all the rights and privileges of a free person. Inhabitants of monarchies and authoritarian states cannot be Citizens. They are technically, Subjects with limited freedoms, few rights who, by definition, are ‘subjected’ to the decisions and vagaries of their rulers.

Who We Are

We are a voluntary initiative created for the express purpose of strengthening the values of open, free, and self-governing societies- what democracies were meant to be. Started by Meta-Culture, a human engagement and thinking studio ( we will partner with other individuals, groups and organizations who are similarly committed to rediscovering and re-creating the civic culture necessary for a thriving democracy.

Why CitizenDEMOS?

Over the years there have been various approaches and innovations giving rise to as many variations to democracy as there are groups and ideologies in human society. This includes direct, representative or participatory democratic systems. Many consider the holding of free and fair elections or the presence of institutions, with their much vaunted checks and balances, to be the essence of democracy. Alas, there is little that is simple, natural or obvious about democracy. Democracy, as confusing as the term has become, is an extraordinary experiment in self-government that is counter intuitive to the very human propensity for reactivity and need for instant gratification. As overly enthusiastic Western Presidents and Prime Ministers have tragically demonstrated, it is just as futile to encourage democracy with generous foreign aid as it is to bomb a people into respecting human rights. At CitizenDEMOS, we understand democracy to be a very complex balancing act between institutions, robust adherence to procedures, and mature human beings.

The Democratic Triad- Hardware, Software, and Mindware

Institutions such as the branches of Democracy, the legislature, judiciary, and the executive are the hardware. The laws, decision making processes, electoral mechanisms, and the communication platforms (media) that promote reasoned deliberation and communication are the software. The dispositions and human capabilities that allow for rational engagement and transparent communication, the values, character, and the culture of its people are the mindware.

Good intentions, strong will, and sufficient financial investment combined with technical expertise and managerial capabilities can put the hardware and the software in place. However, without a citizenry and leadership that strives to balance self-interest with the common good, and is capable of both critical thinking, understanding of human psychology, as well as generosity of spirit, democracy cannot be sustained. Without considerable and ongoing investment in developing mature and wise citizens (remember Homo Sapiens?) through education, explicit private and social modeling and continuous practice in homes, neighborhoods, schools and offices, not to mention the corridors of political power, democracy itself becomes a cardboard marionette, manipulated by anyone who holds its strings.

Failing democracies are easy enough to spot- the public’s complacency turns into cynicism and eventual withdrawal of citizens from the public space into their own personal and professional lives. With no one watching out for the public or common good and even fewer people willing to invest (leave alone sacrifice) for anything outside their homes or tribal affinities, the state and its institutions become first inefficient and then wholly corrupt. The movement from corruption to the hijacking of the state by an interested oligarchy is inevitable. Frustration with the openly contemptuous behavior and mismanagement of the oligarchy soon breeds frustration and anger towards all who are perceived as elites. This leads to the election of undemocratic demagogues who either rule with complete authoritarianism or allow the state to collapse into chaos and tyranny. Democracy disappears even as we, its citizens, are more interested in our own self-care, self-preservation and amusements.

When our citizens eventually realize that neither our tucked, toned or waxed bodies, nor our thousands of Facebook friends or LinkedIn connections, nor our organic coffees lattes, or even our retirement accounts will help us, if society withers away and the political center itself doesn’t hold, democracy can be rebuilt.

If CitizenDEMOS didn’t exist it would, urgently, need to be created. After years of neglect and abuse, liberal, secular democracy’s unrealized vision of a humane society founded on reason, respectful of human autonomy, dissent and dependent upon active civic participation cries out to be fed and nurtured.

Cultivating democratic minds

“A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself”  

Franklin Deleno Roosevelt


Hello from Washington DC, the palpitating heart of democracy! So, these might not look like the best of times but they are, despite everything, still much better than they could have been or, indeed, could be. We must never underestimate the human genius for wrenching utter and complete destruction from what might be mere momentary setbacks.

My apologies for the long silence and my less than optimistic tone. Not being American I am not constitutionally required to either pursue happiness or be, always and unremittingly, positive.  Since January of this year, both Meta-Culture and I have been in transit. The distance from Bangalore to Washington DC is, as many immigrants before me have discovered, longer than the nautical or sky miles, the delays at immigration, or the wait for one’s working papers, and it is certainly way longer than the time that it takes to recover from jet lag.

The discomfort was expected- shutting down Meta-Culture’s Indian office after twelve years, the resulting (and terrifying) loss of income, and moving my suitcases and self, ten thousand miles away to create a new life- all over again.

The angst should have been expected but was not. Yes, I knew that I would miss the couple of thousand books that I left behind in storage, but it was not as much as I missed my colleagues and the support of a fabulous team in Bangalore. Raghav, Rachana, Usha, Ufra, Fayiqa, Mihika and Mike were only the most recent generation of passionate and intelligent people that Meta-Culture was fortunate enough to attract. Their freshness and idealism allowed me to survive the intellectual, material and atmospheric pollution around me and their openness to learning and experimentation helped us conjure up innovative ideas despite the prevailing complacency and cynicism. The best amongst my team became my psychic and technical extensions. Without them it would have been impossible to, as Rachana once put it, shaking her head in stupefaction, “create projects out of thin air”- without clients, funding or even any ostensible demand from the community, civil society or market.

Without this team, while I would still have been fretting about the state of international democracy in 2012- way before the rise of the right wing in Europe and India, Charlie Hebdo, Brexit, the 2016 US elections, or Erdogan’s giving up any pretense of democratic functioning- I might not have been able to do much about it.

Without them we couldn’t have initiated the Public Intelligence Project in 2013 to rediscover the method within the madness and chaos of democracy. Without them, Meta-Culture couldn’t have succeeded in bringing together orthodox and dogmatic Hindus and Muslims to the table starting in 2014 at multi-year Meta-Dialogues to audaciously challenge their deepest cultural assumptions and confront their own religious blind spots. We wouldn’t have been able to create Ah!Wake in 2014, an ambitious ‘boot camp for the thinking person’, to help create a critical thinking and compassionate citizenry, nor would we have been able to organize bi-monthly events like Socrates Last Stand, starting from 2015, creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to engage in meaningful and deep conversations. Lastly, we wouldn’t have been able to create from scratch a seven month long democratic skills workshop, the Alternative Future’s Project in 2016, to bring together ideologically competing leaders to collaboratively imagine what a collective future would look like.

The angst, as I said earlier, should have been expected but was not. It was mostly in my realization of how much this country has changed since I last lived here between 1995 and 2005. The America I knew, even in the aftermath of 9/11 was a far more creative, generous, hopeful and trusting place. Today much of the public and private discourse is built around insecurity, fear and anger. It is a place where, as economic inequalities have become obscene, even those from once seemingly dominant groups- the affluent, educated, male or white- feel insecure, victimized and weighed down by crippling pain and suffering. It has also become, for all its infamous Judeo-Christian guilt, a culture of shame- where relentless public shaming, rather than reason or argument, is seen as the most effective way of righting wrongs, framing policy, or destroying those perceived as enemies. It is a culture where evidence stands discredited, reason hides in the shadows, and the rawest emotions and stories of desperation, imagined and real, are deemed equally legitimate. It does sometimes seem, in my darkest moments, that we are all now trashing about in the swamp of our basest emotions while Reason, Understanding, Compassion and Truth itself have left the agora.

But perhaps not just yet. There are intelligent people who now realize that yesterday’s battles are as relevant today as squabbling with one’s sibling is, when faced with family bankruptcy or the possible demise of a parent. There are many who now realize that, in the light of the extraordinary threats to the liberal democratic order, without which all conversations about rights and freedoms are moot, our collective and primary responsibility is to protect our social and political system. We now know that the democratic system is extraordinarily fragile, as vulnerable to the rage that comes from discontent within as it is to machinations from without.

Our task is not just necessary, but urgent. Our own team’s contribution, to what is nothing less than a project for civilizational renewal, is Citizen Demos. Keep tuned.


Democratic dispositions- 3

Democratic dispositions- 3                                             Dispositions vital for a culture of democracy

Human kind has, at various times in its evolution, sought to extend, overcome or breach frontiers to escape restrictive or oppressive conditions. Once physically limited by mountains, oceans, deserts and outer space, we sought to overcome these first, through brute strength, grit and crude ingenuity and thereafter through expanding the ways in which we understand and define the world itself through scientific discovery, technological innovation and cultural re-definition.

In the process, first, our puny bodies were extended by technologies such as the wheel, internal combustion engines and rocket technology and thereafter our complex, if limited, nervous systems themselves were extended by the electric light, telephone, television and the internet in ways that would astound even those who lived merely a generation or two before these inventions. Some now believe that more than settlements on Mars, Robotics or AI the newest and most challenging frontier that human beings face is in taming and liberating the brains that lie trapped in our skulls. While this is by no means the final frontier, it is a very critical one- if we are to ensure our survival as a species. Technologists at Silicon Valley, MIT or Caltech will seek to extend or even bulldoze through the limitations of our brains and minds by bypassing them through brute computational power (AI, robotics and other ways of making the human mind redundant). I would ask that, no matter how clever, ingenious or convenient these attempts might seem, we consider the possibility that these might also be intellectually lazy, philosophically questionable, morally dubious, commercially expedient. These extrinsic and mechanical ways of extending our minds might even, possibly, hasten our own specicide (mass extinction of a species caused deliberately or by human neglect and indifference).

From Stephen Hawking to Sam Harris, scientists and thinkers who have out grown the adolescent craving for stimulation, novelty and excitement warn us about tinkering without understanding. They, and others of much more modest intelligence like me, are starting to fear that we may be on the cusp of creating what might be the 21st century equivalent of the unleashing of the nuclear bomb. Many of you may remember Oppenheimer’s response upon realizing, alas too late, Vishnu’s words from the Bhagavat Gita-“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

If we are not to similarly destroy what we have barely started understanding, we should recognize the centrality of our biology to our existence and with it that of our human brain (and mind) to our development as a species. It is as irresponsible and dangerous to prattle on about Post-Truth (without really cracking the mysteries of truth, human consciousness, perception and development of critical thinking in our citizenry) as it is to talk of a Post-Human future (without completely understanding what it is to be an optimal human, capable of sensitivity, collaboration, creativity and generosity).

Imagine if the whiz kids, their angel investors and benefactors decided to use their redoubtable intellects and munificent resources to stretch their own impressive and largely untapped sentient capabilities and helped us evolve our quintessentially human qualities through transcending the limitations of our reactive and self-centered mind. What a world they might help us create!

It is my case that in order to address and resolve the momentous challenges we face as a species and planet today we have to develop our, as yet untapped, extraordinary potential as humans. This requires us to recognize that merely investing in furthering human scientific and technological knowledge or developing computational skills and technological tools in our citizenry (or as some would have it- workforce) is not enough if we do not simultaneously find ways to develop key dispositions that will enable us to think critically, engage with each other with generosity, collaborate constructively and make wise decisions.

As I said in the last post, the core disposition that we as a species require to be fully conscious and responsive human beings is that of Selflessness. Here are a host of other positive dispositions that develop when Selflessness is present.

Attentiveness                                                                                                                                   The disposition that inspires us to listen to what’s outside as well as inside us.

Everybody knows that listening is important. And yet, even sensitive, ‘good’ and skilled people struggle to listen when distracted or confronted with unpleasantness or discomfort. Listening requires focus. Most of us are able to focus only when we are interested, when the benefits of doing so are easily evident and when we don’t feel threatened. The best argument for being attentive is because we really know very little and what we know can itself be very erroneous. This makes the disposition of humility a strategically necessary stance if we are to learn anything really new.     

Learning is an act of paying attention. To learn anything, we need to focus on what is before us. To do so we need to get past our distractions, fears, insecurities and yes, our self-absorption (there is a common theme here). We pay attention because some people, tasks and activities are deemed to be of value and hence worthy of consideration. It can be as simple as washing dishes, writing an email, crossing the road or as complex as studying about quantum mechanics, the mating practices of the spotted hyena or trying to comprehend your lover’s mood swings. In all these cases we pay attention because we recognize that there is complexity (quantum mechanics), curiosity (hyena mating) or we are conscious that, even if it feels familiar, what is before us might be both complex and unpredictable (sulking lover).

Paying attention comes from an appreciation that nothing we know to be true is fixed or unchanging and that we can always learn something new or finesse what we already know. We pay attention because we respect the activity and believe that it can teach us something.

Listening is an act of paying attention. Everybody knows that empathy is a good thing. It is so popular today that in some professions like mediation, psychotherapy, counseling and social work you cannot go to a conference or have a drink with a practitioner without having it thrown at your face as either a cure all or being accused of being deficient in it. It is one thing to feel empathetic to someone we care about or who means well and yet most of us struggle to feel empathetic towards people who we deem to be irrelevant, unimportant, different, obnoxious, terrible or just ‘evil’. An abstract empathy towards all and sundry is a waste of emotional energy and even a travesty. True empathy towards another person, requires that we pay attention (uniquely) to them and the context and moment that they inhabit. To do so we need to recognize a connection between our (no longer) atomized self and this person, a kinship that allows us to see them as human and makes them worthy of our time and energy. Empathy itself comes from paying extraordinary attention.

Courage                                                                                                                                             The disposition that manifests ‘grace under pressure’ and exercises power even when we feel vulnerable.

Our own personal histories are rife with instances when, even with the best of intentions and despite our holding the most mature and humane values, we have failed to do what we have known to be the right thing. Needless to say most of us may have been able to, in many of those occasions, excuse and explain away our actions.

“I would have upset my parents”. “She would not have liked it”. “I had to think of my family and their well being”. “My kids were in college”. “I will do this after I get my promotion or pay off my house”. In many cases we have sought to rationalize the abdication of our own personal moral and ethical values in the name of ‘pragmatism’, ‘choosing the battles we fight’ or just plain expediency. Behind this is often an unwillingness to pay the price of courage.

This is what makes courage a disposition that is key to action. Even with all the other dispositions in place and firing on all cylinders, without Courage it may not be possible to manifest them. The absence of Courage makes redundant pretty much any other disposition. Courage to engage with what we are unfamiliar with, listen to experiences, views and opinions that might challenge our beliefs and values. Courage to do what one is disposed to even when the costs are high and people and circumstances are against you. Citizens in a democracy require the disposition of courage more than subjects of despotic or autocratic systems because every time they make excuses for not speaking out and constructively engaging with those that they disagree with, whether it be within their group or outside of it, they weaken the culture and fabric of democracy.

Every time we develop one core disposition, there are other associated dispositions that are also triggered and hence can be developed. When we develop our ability to pay attention and be courageous, it simultaneously helps us develop Openness, Respect, Courage, Clarity, Trust, Inquiry and Curiosity. It is a gift that keeps giving! Below are a few dispositions that come from developing the dispositions of Attention and Courage.

Curiosity                                                                                                                                           The disposition that wants to know, learn and understand rather than presume clarity and judge instinctively

Curiosity is a disposition that allows us to engage with the world as a child would. It is the disposition that is most central to learning. Before even trying to be curious, we have to have the courage to accept that our knowledge and experiences are limited. Curiosity can only exist in a person who knows that he does not know everything. This is why many of those in power, Presidents, Popes, Priests and even Parents are crippled from learning anything new because they choose to be comfortable with their own existing knowledge and its infallibility.

Not just people in power, but most adolescents and adults struggle to remain curious given that what we know and how we understand the world contributes to our sense of self and our identity. The idea that we might be ignorant about certain things and may not have complete information, knowledge or understanding can be very destabilizing. Without the disposition of Humility we will be unable to accept our own limitations in knowledge or understanding. To be curious we have to see our own, carefully and painfully crafted identities as tentative, incomplete and a work in progress. In other words we have to become Selfless (again).

Democracies that do not instill curiosity as one of the core dispositions within its educational system run the risk of breeding generations that are incapable of creativity and learning.

Openness                                                                                                                                           The disposition that greets the world with enthusiasm for what we may find upon inquiry and exploration.

Openness as a disposition is the tendency to be receptive to what is new or unfamiliar. What is unfamiliar is disconcerting because it can turn out to be uncomfortable, threatening or even destructive, hence resistance is not necessarily futile and is wholly understandable. The down side to being ‘safe’, though, is that one can be stuck in what, while familiar, may also be less than optimal, inefficient and perhaps even destructive in the long run.

This disposition is dependent upon an essential fearlessness that allows one to move out of the comfortably familiar into the uncomfortable unfamiliar. Usually Openness is, both, preceded and accompanied by a sense of self that is flexible and confident; has minimal prejudice and bias; and has ample capacity to take risks. Openness requires other dispositions to support it, such as Humility, which itself comes from the recognition that what we know can be, and is often, erroneous. 

Democracy is unique in that it is the most equitable and humane system for managing diversity. It is when competing ideas, values and practices jostle against one another and compete in the public arena that democracy can be said to be most vibrant and alive. This cannot happen in a despotic system where values, ideas and language itself that is abhorrent to the prevailing dispensation or the mainstream are proscribed and effectively silenced. Without genuine openness to ideas that may be deemed inappropriate, offensive and even blasphemous, democracies will become deeply polarized and eventually regress into a despotic state.

Clarity                                                                                                                                               The disposition that inclines us to be impatient with obfuscation while motivating us to seek greater definition and truth!

When we develop attention as a disposition, we also simultaneously develop a predisposition to clarity. This is not to be confused with the type of premature and unearned clarity, that is borne out of socialization, conditioning, acquisition of specialized knowledge, confirmation bias, intellectual lethargy and a lack of curiosity. This disposition helps us approach the world and ourselves with a propensity for wanting to know how things work, why they are the way they are and where we stand.

Genuine clarity is hard earned and dynamic, open to being questioned, challenged,and changed based on new evidence, deeper understanding and new realizations. There are many obstacles that come in the way of our developing genuine clarity. It can be as basic as not having enough information; an inability to understand the problem at hand; the fear of discomfiting information or realization; our inability to handle the consequences of achieving clarity; lack of courage; an inability to frame the issue well; mental paralysis arising out of fatigue or, as is very often the case, our own intellectual lethargy.

Paying attention (again) is critical to developing this disposition. This requires some systematic and disciplined effort.

  1. We collect information agnostically and being wary of confirmation bias, in order that we have as much information about the situation as possible.
  2. We find the courage needed to overcome any kind of insecurity and fear that we may encounter.
  3. We rigorously question and inquire into the issue to learn more and clarify any doubts and uncertainties.
  4. Finally, we distance ourselves from the information and take time to reflect before drawing inferences and conclusions.

Unlike theocracies or autocracies, where truth is said to reside within the covers of a sacred book or between the ears of the despot, democracies are premised on the idea that the truth can be found through exploration, reason and debate or dialogue. This requires us to constantly strive for clarity and definition, even as we know that it is a constantly shifting goal post. Like science itself, today’s clarity may be found to be erroneous tomorrow, but unlike most religions, democracies are not condemned to live on with erroneous or faulty assumptions, hypothesis or ‘facts’ merely because they are deemed to be ‘sacred’, ‘sacrosanct’ and hence inviolable.

Respect                                                                                                                                             The disposition that believes that others are worthy of our time and energy.

Respect is a sign that that we believe that the other person or experience is worthy of our engagement, time and energy. This may seem, like many other dispositions, self-evident, but it is extremely difficult to actualize or manifest. Genuine respect for the ‘other’ requires us to see value in them even as:

  1. their qualities are not self-evident to us
  2. their accomplishments are, by our standards, scant
  3. their values, beliefs and behaviors are offensive to us
  4. their words or actions cause us hurt
  5. their words or actions actively disadvantage us or harm us

Under these conditions it is easy enough to hold back our respect even if we do not actively and explicitly ‘disrespect’ them.

Every citizen and each group deserves respect, no matter how offensive or unworthy they might seem to us. Our ability to accord this respect, even as we disagree and advocate against their views will affect the robustness of the democratic system. Finding genuine, if scarce or hidden, reasons to accord respect to those we disagree with or even deem wrong requires that we be profoundly Selfless, Open and Attentive. Democracy is strongest when we accord respect to those we are engaged in competition with.

Collaboration                                                                                                                               The disposition that sees the world as a partner and all problems as worthy of cooperation.

Collaboration requires us to include others in our engagement, project and vision. Unlike oligarchies which pit individual against individuals or tribal and collectivist societies that enforce cooperation based on traditionally defined roles, duties and strictures, democracies require their citizens to freely participate in the affairs of their communities. This puts a premium on autonomous individuals being able to come together and collaborate for the common good.

Collaboration is neither instinctive nor easy. To collaborate one needs to recognize the limitations of trying to do everything oneself and trusting one’s own instincts to the exclusion of other’s instincts or knowledge. It requires that we be able to value another’s contribution and have the ability to engage with another in a complex cooperative exercise that requires relational and conflict skills. These skills are unlikely to help when the collaboration runs aground unless one has developed the dispositions of Selflessness, Openness, Respect and Attentiveness.

Trust                                                                                                                                                 The disposition that engages with the world as though it were a safe place.

Trust is a disposition that allows us to engage with the world without suspicion and defensiveness. Trust in the other is important in order to engage effectively or collaborate. However, trusting oneself is just as important- trust in the knowledge, skills and abilities that we bring to the situation allows us to be more confident in our vision, particularly when we feel threatened.

A democracy becomes most vulnerable when citizens lose trust in each other or in groups whose values or behaviors are seen as inimical to their own group. Trust takes time to develop and can easily be broken and lost. Trust requires the dispositions of Courage, Openness and Collaboration to grow and sustain, especially when circumstances become contentious and conflict arises.

We live in an age where rampant and unthinking technological development has disengaged us from our own quieter selves and prevented us from appreciating deep relational intimacy. Globalization and free market capitalism have commoditized skills and knowledge and destroyed communities. Mass consumerism has perverted our sense of what is valuable and what is ephemeral. Democracy is not something that can flourish or sustain online or on the Net, no matter what the purveyors of gadgets and gizmos will have us believe. A click is as much of an act of courageous protest as a tweet is a reasoned thesis. In a world where technical education and the ability to be mobile, fast and shallow are prized, we have little of substance to hold on to and are hence even more vulnerable to the next economic crash, political debacle or personal tragedy. This is where our dispositions, difficult to ‘monetize’ or ‘quantify’ as they are, hold the key. If we cared about our children and our future as a species we would rethink our education system and find creative ways of helping our young develop powerful and humane dispositions.


Democratic dispositions- 2

Democratic dispositions- 2                                         Dispositions vital for a culture of democracy

Despite the howls of protests from Ayn Rand’s acolytes who will stand firm on the unbridled virtues of the market, we must, if we are to understand liberal democracy as a system of political order, make a distinction between democracy itself and its materialistic cousin, capitalism, both of which have been, in the popular imagination, conflated. There is no reason to presume that the kind of global free market capitalism we see today is either entirely compatible with or even necessary for a democratic society. This, needless to say, requires greater exploration and more space and is hence grist for another essay. Suffice to say that one can have free market capitalist nations that are not democratic, like Singapore, China or even the UAE.

In this post I will examine what I believe is the core disposition that makes it possible for a host of other positive dispositions to develop.

Given the fact that much of our conscious, subconscious and even unconscious selves are a product of the goings on within the squishy mass of roughly 3 lbs of water, fat and neurons that we call our brain, it can safely be said that we mostly exist in our heads. This biological fact pretty much condemns us to think of ourselves as the nodal point around which everything else revolves. In other words other people, the waiter who brings you Caramel Frappuccino instead of the Java Chip Frappuccino you know you asked for, the President who thinks Transgender people should be allowed to use any bathroom consistent with their gender identity, the math teacher who flunked you in high school, your favorite aunt, friends, lovers, even the furniture, the trees, clouds, the Milky Way, microbes and the weather are relevant only in so far as they affect us negatively or positively. Come to think about it, this is not very different from the way absolute monarchs, megalomaniacal CEOs and totally, off the charts, tyrannical dictators think.

Democracy itself is more than the institutions, the laws and the rights that are bequeathed to the citizenry. If we are to not merely be passive consumers of democracy (parasites would probably be a harsh word), it is important that we also recognize that this unique system of government, more than any other, requires us to contribute actively in its creation, growth and sustenance. We do so by consciously taking on responsibility for educating ourselves about key issues of societal concern, voting, participating in our community and local decision making, engaging in community activities and doing what is necessary to protect and nurture the political system. This requires more than knowledge, skills and good intentions, it requires certain dispositions that, while not unique to democratic citizenship, are fundamental to its long term well being and survival.

The first and most vital disposition of all, without which democracy its elf would be meaningless or doomed to fail is:

Selflessness                                                                                                                                             The disposition that acknowledges that we are neither everything nor alone!                                                

The virtues of the ‘unnatural’:

To live in our heads is ‘natural’- since it is our brains that give rise to what we call our minds, which in turn helps conceptualize and define who we are and how we respond to the world around us. For those who might, at this point, interject to talk about how society socializes us I would say, yes, indeed it does. Society is merely the many other people around us (each trapped in their own skulls and similarly self absorbed) all trying to get everyone else to behave in ways that would work positively for them.

Even as we recognize any genetic basis that allows humans to manifest altruism or empathy it is vitally important that we recognize that despite it, biologically speaking, we are mostly self-centered. All education, indeed civilization itself is an attempt to help us think beyond our limited personal selves. Hence all real education is ‘unnatural’ in that it requires us to transcend the ways in which we come genetically and biologically pre-wired and the ways in which society, itself, very successfully re-wires us from a very early age. Everything else is merely propaganda masquerading as education, designed to ensure the continuity of society. This is equally true whether it be collectivist societies such as the Babylonian, ancient Roman, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, medieval Italian, 18th century Brahminical, colonial Britain, Saudi Arabian, the Taliban or the atomized consumer societies of the 21st century that churn out worker bees for the military-industrial (and post-industrial) complex.

The need for deliberate cultivation:

Any education that aspires to bring out the intellectual, emotional and creative best in the child must start with helping it learn how to think in ways that are not wholly self-referential. In other words our young and by extension, all of us can, through education and modeling by our elders and peers, develop appreciation for the world outside our own heads. In doing so we learn to recognize and accept the fact that, strange as it may seem, everything is not about us. There are few things as radical as this discovery for a child- or a society.

Education in our confoundingly complex and confusing age requires that we learn how to think holistically and not merely in terms of isolated data, factoids, technicalities or dualities. The human brain is uniquely disposed to react to emotionally stimulating and provocative stimuli. These stimuli, triggering our basic emotions such as fear, anxiety, hope and love, offer us limited and even skewed perceptions of reality.

Most people can detect elementary patterns, few of us are able to comprehend the ways in which complex systems work. Understanding complex patterns and systems requires us to, at least temporarily, put aside what we already know about how the world works and unlearn. This process is potentially transformative. However, it is seriously hampered by our natural enough affinity and attachment to what we already know or believe. The key is to recognize that our ability to understand the world or our own selves is limited by the very narrow bandwidth within which our senses allow us to perceive the world. Amongst the many surprising realizations that real education can deliver is the ability to recognize that our identities, be they around gender, race, nationality, culture or political ideology, are very tenuous constructs and it would behoove us to not take them too seriously or get too attached to them! Needless to say this would be deemed wholly subversive if not ‘treasonous’ in many cultures and societies.

Beyond materialism and without surrendering:

Selflessness, much advocated by religion, is often viewed in terms of our ability to be materially generous with others. However, the disposition of selflessness is more complex and deeper than the ability to share our worldly possessions. Some religions also link selflessness to the ideal of submission and surrender. These ideas are intriguing and even profound when viewed in the context of immersing oneself in work and learning; developing intimate relationships; and in seeing oneself as a part of the immense complexity of life itself. However in the political and intellectual sphere they usually breed tribal loyalties, unquestioning belief and contribute to the oppression of those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling to go along with the prevailing doctrine. Above all these are not traits that are useful to citizens of a liberal democracy who require robust critical thinking, an ability to collaborate with diverse stakeholders and the creativity to engage in an extraordinarily complex world.

When uncomfortable or threatened our survivalist and baser emotions, fear, jealousy, envy and hatred tend to overwhelm us and the self-centric dispositions such as defensiveness, impatience, insecurity and aggressiveness surface. Subtler dispositions such as curiosity, humor, receptiveness, openness and compassion recede into the background and over time we can even lose our capacity for them. This is because, when threatened we tend to view things in the most binary, simplistic and dualistic terms. We also lose our objectivity and any wisdom that we might have been capable of, retreating, instead, into our most subjective, tribal and egotistical selves.

Cultivating Selflessness:

Spiritual leaders, philosophers, poets and even neuroscientists will tell us that to avoid regression into our worst selves it is necessary to deliberately cultivate the disposition of Selflessness. In my experience selflessness is a state where we transcend the notion of being atomized (i.e., possessing a well defined, isolated and separate self), recognizing instead our complete and total connectedness with others. In other words that, as physical and biological creatures, we are neither alone nor everything! Science tells us that every cell and atom in our body is made up of materials that were generated by the explosions of stars. In the language of poets, songwriters and astronomers we may indeed be- stardust. Seeing ourselves as connected not just to the stars but also to all other beings on the planet and every other human being, including the people we are not fond of or even those we see as our mortal enemies, is the best antidote to our simultaneously overfed and yet severely under nourished Egos.

The disposition of Selflessness helps us to:

  • embrace skepticism about the infallibility of our own minds and become conscious of our narrowly subjective and reactive selves
  • embrace objectivity and develop the instincts necessary to engage the world with thoughtful and deliberate reasoning without being unconsciously subjective and self-referential
  • appreciate that there is much that we do not know and that even what we know is probably faulty because our sensory equipment, compared to even many other living creatures, is so basic.
  • recognize that our cognitive tools are primitive, we constantly make errors in determining what is factual and what is not (fake news anyone?); deriving inferences from an incident; or coming to conclusions when presented with faulty or even accurate information. While our senses can be somewhat augmented, at least through the use of technology, our ability to make accurate inferences, conclusions and decisions can only be improved through critical thinking education.
  • embrace humility, given that we humans are so enormously handicapped by our limited range of perceptions and understanding.

This is not to be mistaken for merely controlling our emotions and activating our neo-cortex or rational mind. Real Selflessness is not suppressive, coercive or passive, rather it brings to the fore, as a default instinct, the objective and rational mind as well as our subtler sensibilities and our more generous emotions. Ironically, it is when we are most selfless that we bring our most complete and richest selves to the situation.

We manage the Self by recognizing its pervasive existence and erasing or obliterating its boundaries so that its definition is more fluid than rocklike. At the very least, putting the self on the back burner is critical to being a good learner since being in a fluid state not only allows us to learn and grow, it also allows us to integrate what is different (the ‘other’) into our selves. In a selfless state our mind is able to respond to the world around us- uncorrupted by narrow self-interest, identity or even memory. Most of all, our self-referential, biased, lazy and convenient constructs limit our ability to learn and respond to complexity.

Being selfless also has a singular effect on other dispositions. In the next post I will talk of the ways in which this overarching disposition supports other dispositions such as attentiveness, empathy, humor, self-deprecation, openness and generosity.

Democratic dispositions- 1

Democratic Dispositions- 1                                                     Dispositions vital for a culture of democracy

After Brexit and the recent US presidential elections, many have finally come to suspect, if not realize that, beyond the trauma of an upsetting electoral result or two, democracy itself is in crisis today. For years, we watched the steady degradation of our political institutions, the shrinking of the space for civic participation, the coarsening of public discourse and the erosion of democratic values.

We have become consumers rather than citizens. Strangely oblivious of the corrosion in our social and political order, we trudged along with our own occupations (those who could hold on to them), our preoccupations and amusements. We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the lobbyists, spinmeisters and demagogues who knew how to make us weep, laugh and most importantly, turn blindingly indignant. While they went about their work cynically and methodically, most of us were emasculated by endless cheap credit; distracted by the constant and tantalizing upgrades of clothes, shoes, cell phones; and benumbed by the non-stop, mindless entertainment churned out by mega corporations for our amusement.

We have become beneficiaries rather than stakeholders. Safer than those in illiberal societies, those amongst us who were more ‘active’ had our own political and cultural battles that we waged righteously- taking few prisoners and mostly adopting a scorched earth policy. In the process, we forgot that the primary difference between a democracy and an autocracy is that democracies have free, independent and responsible citizens who negotiate and cooperate creatively with each other (and their institutions) while monarchies have dependent subjects kept in check by tradition, scripture or draconian rules who can cooperate only in proscribed ways. Even those of us who were aware of this distinction and fought for our own and others’ rights often behaved as though all that was required was to force governments, institutions or society itself to deliver us our rights or privileges. At best some of us may have also tried to persuade those who disagreed with us through debate and argument. Mostly, though, we were unmindful of their sentiments, opinions, concerns or even logic, dismissing them as conservatives, racists, sexists, Islamophobes, homophobes or liberals, hippies, left-wing loons, radical idiots or feminazis.

In the next three posts, I would like to explore one key factor that goes a long way in creating a culture of democracy- dispositions. Dispositions are a peculiar phenomenon. Desmond Tutu could be said to be a man of character, Margaret Thatcher a woman with a larger than life and strong personality and Donald Trump a man with a particular disposition towards intemperate and provocative behavior. Character refers to the moral or ethical aspect of a person; personality is the visible aspect of one’s character; and disposition, which we will examine in some detail here, is the predominant inclination that a person has.

All learning (as opposed to memorizing, technical study or the mechanical acquisition of information) changes the ways in which we think about and engage with the world. Increasingly, given the reality of life in the market driven economies of the 21st century, much of what transpires as education is the acquisition of utilitarian, vocational and marketable knowledge or skills. This leaves much of humanity, at best, trained to be economically productive members of society and, at worst, ill equipped at navigating the complex social and psychological demands of being parents, friends, spouses, neighbors, employees or citizens- all of which require, beyond technical knowledge and skills, the cultivation of specific traits and dispositions.

The pedagogic demands of being a good human being, as opposed to being just an economically productive member of society, requires the nurturing of dispositions that conventional education is wholly unable to undertake. Historically, educators have called this type of education value, character or moral education. In traditional societies this was accomplished almost completely through religious or ideological instruction, which relied on rote learning, propaganda, fear and coercion to create members whose thinking and behaviors are consonant with the larger society’s.

Teaching for and the cultivation of dispositions requires what I call Deep Learning. This requires an investment in the holistic development of individuals primarily focused around a few core areas- Knowledge (application of information), Skills (ability to do something well), Meta-Skills (knowing how and when to apply your skills) and Dispositions (tendencies that affect what we do). This is what people like Neil Postman might call subversive education. Such an education attempts to educate through exploration, discovery and inquiry rather than the mere transmission of existing culture with all its biases, prejudices, assumptions and parochialism. Such an education calls into question the prevailing assumptions of a society and helps create critically thinking, genuinely conscious and sensitive human beings and citizens. Were we to develop young people of such consciousness and maturity, they, and our societies themselves, would be changed at the core and we might be better situated to address the complex problems that beset the planet and us. Needless to say, few, if any, monarchies, autocracies or theocracies would be interested in cultivating these in their citizenry. The surprising and disappointing fact is that very few democracies do so either.

Today, with democracy itself in crisis, many are questioning whether an electoral democracy can address pressing concerns like economic inequality, discrimination and even climate change. While there is enough blame to go around, even as we, with justification, beat up on politicians, financiers and their lobbyists, we now have to ask ourselves if it is just our institutions that have failed us or whether we too, as citizens, have also failed our institutions. Have we invested even a fraction of the energy, time or money that we put into our own children becoming mature democratic citizens as we have in their becoming investment bankers, MBAs and computer programmers?

The covert phenomenon of dispositions

There can be no real democracy without an informed citizenry. Autocracies can have very competent astronauts, computer engineers and surgeons. They can probably even have highly trained musicians, dramatists, writers and inventors (as long as their creativity and expression doesn’t question or challenge the dominant and ruling paradigm). However, a democratic citizenry requires a liberal, humanistic education that, above all else, teaches us:

  1. How to think- as opposed to what to think
  2. How to engage constructively- as opposed to dominating or defeating others

There are multiple obstacles that come in the way of our learning how to think well and engage constructively. Learning how to do either requires not just knowledge and skills but an orientation and set of attitudes that come only with a broad and fairly rigorous upbringing and training. It requires deep learning. The obstacles that need to be overcome include, but are not restricted to, our own brain structure and chemistry, previous experiences, knowledge, skills and the many belief systems that we hold on to because they satisfy various egotistical, emotional, material or social needs. These beliefs, about ourselves and the world (or the afterlife), create in us tendencies and attitudes that incline us to respond in certain pre-disposed ways to situations. Today with the proliferation of competing and erroneous information, the ability to think critically and engage with those who experience the world differently is more vital than ever. And yet, in the age of Google, Twitter and Facebook, with their hidden and manipulative algorithms, the chances of it happening is even less.

Dispositions are distinct from knowledge, which is what we know about the world. Dispositions are also different from our opinions, perceptions or even the skills that we possess. Put simply, a person’s disposition is their general inclination, propensity or attitude to life and the positive or negative ways in which they are likely to react in different situations. It is important to clarify that while a person may have a particular disposition, it is not a given that their actions are predictable. How someone may behave or react will also depend on the specificities of the situation and the context. Dispositions are the essential qualities that make us who we are as people and yet they remain, for many, amorphous and obscure, something that scientists and empiricists have difficulty pinning down.

Shari Tishman and Jessica Ross at Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education have identified 6 dispositions that are key to thinking well: Reasoning, Questioning and Investigating, Exploring Viewpoints, Finding Complexity, Comparing and Connecting and Observing and Describing. In other words, in order to engage in clear and good thinking we need to engage in some very definite and discrete behaviors.

At first glance these may seem self-evident practices, however in order to manifest these behaviors it is necessary to also develop the skills that will allow us to do it well. This is counter-intuitive to many who either believe that good thinking is automatic, natural, linear or simple and something that anyone with a university education and without specialized training can engage in.

Over the years in teaching communication, the creative arts, critical thinking, conflict resolution, cross-cultural engagement and decision making I have realized that knowledge and skills are useless unless people are inclined to apply them. Dispositions help or prevent learning, thinking and behavior.

Our dispositions (tendencies, attitudes and inclinations) help us respond in certain instinctive ways to things that happen around us. These tendencies are fundamentally influenced by the ways in which our brains work as well as our socialization. In other words, our biology and chemistry as much as our education, culture and experiences play important roles in developing them.

Dispositions can be negative or positive. I will explore a few ‘enabling’ and ‘constructive’ dispositions that I think are vital in creating liberal democratic societies because these societies, more than any other, as I have written in earlier posts, mark an extraordinary and brave attempt to recognize the dignity, autonomy and potential of the human being. Also without these dispositions democratic societies easily regress into populism and demagoguery, becoming mere vehicles for mass consumerism and corporatism.

In the next post I will examine one such disposition, the presence of which arguably contributes to the development of most of the other constructive and enabling dispositions and the absence of which almost certainly contributes to much of the misery and unhappiness on this planet.

Democracy vs Epistocracy

I would like to share an article by Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University that was published in the Washington Post. It is a review of a book by Jason Brennan, Against Democracy. As he says  the book “challenges a basic precept that most people take for granted: the morality of democracy. Dominant conventional wisdom on both right and left holds that, all adults should have a right to vote, and that the electorate has a right to rule. Brennan contends otherwise.”

I share this not because I am in complete agreement with Brennan, but he raises very important issues that require serious deliberation.

A Cabinet Minister for Democracy and Civic Engagement

At least theoretically, in a democracy, newly elected Presidents and Prime Ministers are able to hand pick Cabinet Ministers and Secretaries to lead key departments. There is usually a scramble for prized portfolios such as Finance (Treasury), Defense, Foreign Affairs (State) or Home (Interiors). As a response to changing times, once lightweight portfolios like Education, Health, Science and Technology, Commerce, Energy and Environment, have acquired respectability. Some countries have Cabinet Ministers for specific industries like Textiles and Power, services like Information Technologies and Airlines and even popular causes like Peacebuilding, Islam and Animal Welfare. One can imagine soon enough an Indian Prime Minister creating a Cabinet level post in charge of Bovine Welfare, Pakistan creating a Secretary of State for Islamic Meteorology or Sweden creating a Minister for LGBTIQ Affairs.

The departments funded and Cabinet posts created give an indication of the priorities of a society or nation. At the very least they tell us what the elected government must be seen as supporting in order to stay in power. In this context, it is telling that no government has ever seen it necessary to nominate a Minister or Secretary for Civic Engagement and Democracy. The closest that governments come to paying attention to the democratic process is entrusting an official body (in India this being the Election Commission, in the US the Secretaries of State) to organize and monitor the electoral process. Quite apart from the mechanics and logistics of conducting elections no one of any heft or significance in government concerns themselves with taking care of the state of democracy in the nation.

So here is a thought. Given what could be called a crisis of faith in liberal, secular values as well as democracy itself, perhaps more attention could be paid by governments (political parties, CSOs, businesses and ordinary citizens) to strengthening democratic societies. Many states have well developed electoral processes and are able to hold regular elections and effect peaceful transfer of power with predictable regularity. This is no mean feat and is, indeed, the first level of democratic functioning. When a state is able to put the basic mechanics of an electoral democracy in place this allows citizens to select their representatives without fear or favor. Unfortunately, as in most things, it is human nature to pay attention to what is in front of us, easy to accomplish, measureable and quantifiable. Effective electoral mechanisms are now well within the grasp of technocrats and bureaucrats, notwithstanding the odd problem with gerrymandering, stealing ballot boxes, illicit funding of elections and hanging chads, all of which, while problematic, can be ‘fixed’ with robust technocratic and legislative action. What democracies don’t do as well is something so simple that it goes under the radar of most governments today. Governments have not seen it fit to pay attention to developing the requisite democratic values, skills and dispositions that are necessary for citizens to participate as full members of a democratic state. In other words we are all dressed up for the party except we don’t know how to dance and as a matter o fact many of us think dancing is for wimps. Some good ol’ boys even think parties are opportunities to get drunk and create a bit of good-natured mayhem.

There are simple reasons why technocrats and managers cannot solve this problem- what I will call Democracy’s Cultural Problem. They cannot solve this because their normal styles of thinking and problem solving don’t work as well here. There are no technological or managerial solutions to this problem, much as there are no technological solutions to helping people become better teachers, parents, friends or spouses. A good citizen is in some ways just an extension of an intelligent, humane and sensitive human being. No software or App will transform an uneducated, callous and insensitive person into a good citizen. The qualities that go into making a good citizen are not technical and cannot be replicated or scaled (the holy grail of technocrats). Just as a reality check, it is worth considering that religion has consistently tried to do just that- scale moral behavior through codifying best practices and behaviors, creating rules, strictures, taboos and punishments. We know how that has worked out for us!

Developing democratic citizenship is not a technical, managerial or religious problem. It is a psychological, philosophic and cultural problem requiring very different kinds of capabilities. It is not about knowing the right thing to do or having the right answers as much as it is about developing a radical sensibility that allows one to transcend the biological limitations with which all mammals, and our species itself, is burdened. Becoming a democratic citizen is to learn to override the threat perceptions of the reptilian brain or amygdala when it goes into overdrive or the limbic brain is stuck in tribalism, selfishness, easy gratification and narrow righteousness. It requires that we humans finally grow to be worthy of our chosen name, Homo sapiens (the wise man) and deliberately develop our sensitive, rational and generous natures. It requires that we develop an appreciation of complexity and cosmopolitanism, develop the skills of dialogue and negotiation (as opposed to deal making), and grow up to be generous and collaborative adults. Our business leaders, billionaires, bureaucrats, politicians, tech wizards and special interest advocates have no idea how to solve this problem so they seek answers in places where they know to look- technology and legislation- much like Mullah Nasruddin looking for his lost keys under the street lamp because it is easier to search where there is light.

What if democratic states invested in fostering a culture of democracy? Imagine a Minister of Civic Engagement and Democracy mandated with the task of ensuring that platforms for engagement and dialogue are built into all institutions in the country. Imagine that the Minister and his department foster the values of democracy- which are, reasoning and critical thinking; appreciation of pluralism, dialogue and most of all the ability to understand and collaborate with those with whom we disagree. Most of all, imagine that they do so without propaganda or preaching and instead commit to reforming our current inhuman, insensitive and anti-democratic educational system. Imagine that they model these values themselves in the public discourse; and collaborate with their counterparts in other political parties instead of demeaning themselves the way they do now with their bickering and politicking. Imagine, too, that the Department of Civic Engagement and Democracy would not work in silos but would collaborate with other departments Education, Social Welfare and Culture to drive each other’s goals and mission. For the moment, imagine that the Department of Democracy and their collaborative activities could get funded- it would take a fraction of what is today spent on circuses such as the Olympics or in building concrete white elephants to a nation’s ego. Imagine the cultural, moral, economic and developmental gains that would permeate every corner of such a hypothetical nation! Imagine the model for the rest of the fledging and dispirited democracies if just one country, like the USA, UK, Germany, France or India were to put this in place!

However, there are many reasons why, as long as our leaders are unimaginative technocrats, politicians and bureaucrats, this scenario will not come to pass:

  1. The long term is not sexy and will not test well in polls
  2. Complex, slow maturing ideas will not attract eyeballs, foot falls or trend on Facebook or Twitter
  3. Neither the glitterati nor the plebeians will be pleased by having to exert any real effort to develop their human skills and dispositions
  4. The long term will not generate immediate results that can be quantified or empirically verified. This will, in turn, make it difficult to find funding or sustain it
  5. Those enamored of AI, robotics and trans humanism, who would like to transcend humanity itself, will find developing the higher human qualities to be an irrelevant exercise- so 19th century!
  6. The realpolitik mavens who focus on balance of power, security and unfettered markets are unlikely to see investment in democracy itself as a priority
  7. Creating a culture through human development is too amorphous for engineers and accountants who will have a hard time handling anything intellectually complicated
  8. Hence techies, politicians and managers will stick to what they can understand, subtlety and nuance be damned
  9. Most damning of all, the qualities that make one a successful business person, a brilliant technologist and an electable politician are not the ones that also make one a good listener, a holistic and critical thinker and an empathic human being. All of which are key to good citizenship.

Even so, despite how counter-intuitive this might seem and the enormous challenges that lie in the path of creating a genuine and deep democratic culture, just imagine if a government, just one government, funded a department of Civic Engagement and Democracy. Finally, imagine that this government chose, not a popular politician or a digitally enamored technocrat but a gentle and wise Homo sapiens and democrat to be in charge of it.

Actually, don’t just imagine, go out there and live your life like you are the Cabinet Minister in charge of Democratic values!

How we Liberals diminished Truth

How we Liberals diminished Truth:
Demonizing Science, Evidence and Reason is a dangerous game.

First we, the cognitively overwhelmed, despaired of ever figuring out the Truth.
Then our therapists reassured us that truth was personal. If we believe that it happened, then it was true for us.
Then the postmodernists spun complicated narratives about the subjectivity of truth, the impossibility of a single reality.
Then the feminists insisted that women’s lived and experienced truth was different from that of men.
Then the multiculturists argued that the idea of one truth was a white colonial lie.
Then the nativists said that their time tested and ancient ways of seeking truth was as good as any anyone else’s.
Then the activists protested that truth was always political, a tool to oppress the marginalized.
Finally the peace builders, wary of conflicting truths, just settled for feeling each other’s pain.  

We were the good people. We, the liberals, the progressives, the ones who cared about equality, justice, empathy, compassion, brotherhood and sisterhood- we worried so much about discrimination and oppression that, quite unwittingly, we became the Anti-Truth Movement.

Of late though, our movement has acquired a few new, unwelcome fans. The Bible thumpers, the neo-Nazis, the Islamists, the Hindu fanatics, and the climate deniers are all now climbing onto the bandwagon. After a century of being told that the world is not flat, women’s rights are human rights, racial discrimination is unjustifiable and that critical reasoning and verifiable evidence must prevail over emotion, it is now, finally, acceptable, once again, just like our pre-Enlightenment ancestors, to be driven primarily by feelings.

The Anti-Truth brigade have received it on good authority, from the good liberals, ourselves, that’Truth’ doesn’t need to be fact checked, empirically verified or argued using rigorous standards of reason and logic. Their ‘Truth’ is now as good as any other and is unassailable- particularly if they have the crowds and the muscle to protest vehemently. It is no longer embarrassing to be openly uninformed, ignorant, unreasonable, lethargic, or even stupid.

The retreat of Truth

Just to be clear, I don’t yearn for an Eden where there was a single dominant narrative, The One Truth. I do think that Truth is complex and can be approached from many directions. However the being aware of the complexities of reality and the corrupting influences of ‘dominance’ and ‘power’ do not lead me to the (cynical) conclusion that Truth is either wholly subjective or unachievable. As much as I worry about being naïve I do worry even more about becoming cynical. The only intelligent attitude, if we are to take on the magnificent quest to understand the world around us is to maintain a healthy skepticism, leavened by an openness to extraordinary possibilities.

For most of human existence, arguments were won and conflicts resolved through the exercise of brute power. Muscle ruled. As societies became more sophisticated muscle alone was no longer enough; many arguments needed to be resolved with evidence and logic. Reason, while it never really ruled, certainly became more credible.

After barely a couple of centuries during which we privileged evidence, reason and scientific thinking, something has changed dramatically. Where once we aimed to understand reality and truth through rigorous study and disciplined inquiry, now that truth itself has been derided as a subjective illusion or worse, a figment of our biased and manipulative minds, rigor and discipline have been replaced by righteousness and expediency.

There are of course, many reasons why this has happened. Philosophers of Science, Sociologists and other scholars will be better equipped to study and report on why many in the twenty first century have this ambivalent relationship with science and critical thinking. Here are a few key factors that have contributed to this change:

  1. The environment we inhabit has become far more complex. This has made it difficult for the ‘average’ educated, layperson to really know what is going on.
  2. The disastrous privatizing of Russia, engineered by Harvard economists, and the economic crisis of 2007/2008 that caught our best institutions by surprise has brought specialized expertise itself into disrepute.
  3. The unedifying spectacle of ideologically blinkered or partisan experts, duking it out during every political, economic or cultural crisis, unwilling or unable to demonstrate reasonableness or even critical intelligence, has contributed to this distrust of experts.
  4. The money that corporations and lobbies funnel into political parties as well as research in universities and think tanks has brought the objectivity and neutrality of people in authority into question.
  5. In addition, the following factors have not helped:
    • The media replacing journalistic rigor and discipline with sensationalism and scandal, has made it difficult to ferret out the truth.
    • Politicians and leaders dumbing down complex ideas and appealing to the emotions rather than our discerning rational selves has prevented citizens from educating ourselves on the nuances and complexities of current issues.
    • Technologies like television, the internet, the smart phone and the hyper link culture have whittled away at our patience and attention spans with the result that few now have the energy or discipline to read deep and well crafted books which address complex ideas that cannot be reduced to sound bites.
    • The internet and our increasing dependence on social media have helped keep us in algorithmically filtered bubbles where the world is tailored to conform to our tastes, ideas and comfort levels.
  6. After WW2, as much because it was advocated by the victors as from any genuine conviction, much of the world embraced democracy. Three of the most critical ideas of that democratic resurgence were:
    • infinite economic progress through scientific industrialization
    • universal human rights and equality; and
    • the possibility of these two being brought about through the establishment of secular, liberal democracies.

However, as many now realize, the results, after a few decades of stunning economic and social development, have been disappointing:

  1. The beginning years of the new millennium have shown that the expectation that democracy would deliver justice, peace and progress instantly is unrealistic.
  2. Industrialization, with its promise of a better quality of life and comfort, has come with significant costs in terms of polluted air, water and land and the exploitation of the economically weaker sections of society.
  3. Globalization, after the initial promises, has created greater inequalities as jobs migrate to low wage countries and unemployment increases.
  4. Urbanization, even as it brought with it increased diversity, has not always created a genuine and benign cosmopolitanism. In fact, many cities today are marked by ghettoization based on race, culture, ethnicity and religion.
  5. Liberalism, which prizes individual autonomy, once helped people overcome the oppressions of group think and tribalism but is increasingly unfashionable in an age of group loyalties and identity politics.
  6. The scientific method, based on skepticism, critical inquiry, reason, rigor and discipline in thinking, is today seen as only one of the many ways of finding the truth or understanding the world. To think otherwise is, in many sections of society, tantamount to being bigoted, narrow minded and favoring the oppression of marginalized people and ideas.

When the intellectuals give up on Truth

All through history the elite of every society have monopolized the idea of truth. Whether it be Brahmins, the Ulema or the clergy who interpreted the scriptures and the word of God; the infallible Monarchs and aristocrats who laid down the temporal law; or the sages who had access to wisdom; all of them were thought to have access to genuine knowledge and, yes, truth itself.

Sure, most of them were, by our standards, intellectual primitives- prejudiced, parochial and considerably less informed than any third grader today. But all of them were presumed to have the truth and many of them were, like religious scholars, teachers or sages, even rigorous seekers of it. You became a respected elite because you either knew the Truth or had access to it. Despite all the inequalities, injustices, bigotry and ignorance, few, except the most barbaric bullies, diminished or negated the idea of truth itself. They just didn’t have particularly good tools to ascertain or determine it.

With increasing democratization of knowledge in the last century, the elite and the experts no longer have a monopoly on the Truth. This is radical and a force for the good; the vested interests that twisted and manipulated truth now have to answer to ordinary folk who,if given a chance, can wield reason and information just as well. But instead of making truth seeking more robust and building a culture of critical thinking, something else has happened. Many sections of the elite, liberal arts scholars and intellectuals among them, instead of being skeptical of received truth, have abjured the idea that Truth could ever be acquired.

In college campuses today the most commonly found wisdom is the notion that ‘Truth” is subjective, relative and a figment of our own biases. Quite like Alan Bloom in the seventies, I still encounter young adults who will, in mid argument, announce, with triumphant smugness, that there are “multiple” truths or that science itself is an oppressive, patriarchal or even imperialistic affront to human dignity and justice. Entire fields of study have developed over the past few decades that see truth or truth seeking as unjust, oppressive or, at the very least, not pragmatically useful in meeting desired political or ‘humanitarian’ goals.

The enlightenment and the scientific revolution were historic attempts to separate the world of myths and mythologies from the world of reality. The values that came out of the Enlightenment, autonomy, equality, and human rights, will not survive if we forsake the culture of reason and critical thinking which gave rise to them. How can any society that does not value science, reason and the power of imagination protect women’s rights, racial equality or minority rights in general? Unlike disciplined critical thinking, emotion, righteousness and even group solidarity are capricious allies.

Scientists know that knowledge is tentative and our understanding of truth will change as we learn more and more about how the universe works. However, knowing that our understanding of the truth will change does not allow us to mistake or mischaracterize myths and prejudices for truth. If anything it should inspire us to develop rational, and even stricter, standards for determining what truth is.

Brexit, the ascendency of Trump, and the rise of nationalism and xenophobia are not only the consequences of economic globalization and Western geopolitical overreach. Nor are they, solely, the doings of right wing crazies. We, liberals and progressives, have played a unwitting role in creating the intellectual and emotional conditions where the crazies can thrive. Expediency and sophistry, while sometimes useful in meeting immediate political goals or scoring debating points, extract a costly price. Being economic with the truth, or scorning the idea of truth itself, even if motivated by compassion for those less fortunate than us, leaves us with nothing stronger than straws to grasp on to in times of crisis. The lies that we tell ourselves will almost always diminish us if they don’t also destroy us.




Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -3

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?


Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -2

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:

  1. I found this to be an intelligent and humane way by which I could help people manage disputes and understand each other better.
  2. 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:

  1. 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’.
  1. 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.
  2. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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.