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.

Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -1

Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy: Missing the woods of democracy for the trees of expediency

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”  Abraham Lincoln

Most folks, who voted for Brexit, worried about the costs of globalization, feared open borders bringing mass migration into Britain and agonized about ‘faceless’ bureaucrats in Brussels threatening their national sovereignty. Those who voted to remain in the EU, and others who were appalled at the eventual outcome, reacted predictably. Most blamed manipulative politicians, Britain’s infamous tabloid press, xenophobic Little Englanders or even the ill informed rubes who didn’t know any better. Pundits bemoaned the end of post WW2 internationalism; the downing of protectionist shutters; the resumption of nationalistic passions or even the return to the bad old days of European wars and collective bloodletting. Some political scientists questioned the use of a single referendum and said Cameron should have asked for three, spaced, so people would have time to consider the ramifications. Presumably having faith that after casting one (trial balloon of a) vote, we would reflect and make the second (slightly more deliberate one) after which, we would be in a better position to make the third (and finally intelligent) vote. Phew, third time lucky. Playing rock, paper, scissors for as long as it takes to get the right result. Does the democratic process have to look like a visit to one of Trump’s casinos to make it work for us?

Democracies are condemned to eternally balance the tension between popular sentiment, intelligent thought and deliberate action. Intelligence and deliberation are rarely as attractive as heightened emotion and sentimentality. Given a choice, emotion will almost always reign and in its’ wake, populism will win. Populism, usually innocent of reason or complex facts, can be both seductive as well as emotionally satisfying. Emotions generated by thousands marching for a just cause (or against an unjust war) are not wholly dissimilar to that of rioting football fans who believe their team was cheated by a biased referee or a murderous mob angered by a book that ‘insults’ their faith or leader. The presence of hundreds or thousands of others is an elixir that not merely motivates but also validates our choices. Nothing brings reflection and introspection to a halt quite as easily as the certainty that we are right and that multitudes of others believe us to be so. When citizens are unskilled in critical thinking and constructive dialogue, they easily fall prey to propaganda and mass hysteria. It is easy enough to blame Britain’s tabloids, Nigel Farage’s scare mongering or Boris Johnson’s machinations. The real tragedy is that we have partaken of the benefits of democracy without much awareness of how a democratic society functions or indeed our own individual and collective responsibilities in sustaining it.

Here is a critical difference between democracies and all other forms of government: A despotic state treats its citizens as uneducated children who cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions. A democratic state, on the other hand, trusts its citizens to take difficult decisions for the common good. However, here is the rub: A democratic citizenry that is ill informed cannot make educated decisions. A citizenry unwilling to stand up for democratic values leaves the public space open to despots and anarchists.

While not a political scientist, I can count at least five critical elements that are required to ensure a functioning and humane democracy.

  1. Representation: Citizens are able to freely elect their representatives in fair and open elections.
  2. Rule of law: The country is ruled by laws and not by the diktats and wishes of Gods, individuals or groups.
  3. Accountability: Effective checks and balances are built in to ensure that the government is held to the highest standards of probity and is accountable to the people.
  4. Political action: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions through political engagement in the form of advocacy, lobbying and protest.
  5. Dialogic thinking: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions and have them challenged through discussion and dialogue- not merely through representatives who debate or deliberate on their behalf.

Without all these five elements, if democracy were to be reduced to the circus of campaigning, electioneering and sporadic or endemic protest, H.L. Mencken’s belief that “Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance” would be proven beyond dispute.

Six conversations that should have preceded the Brexit referendum

Had Britain been a robust democracy and the British suffused with the spirit and skills of democratic citizenship, the legitimate question of whether they needed to remain in the EU could have been handled differently. The time between the announcement of a referendum and the eventual holding of it could have been used to inform and educate the UK citizens to vote intelligently. The national and local governments could have organized community level conversations about the issue- to learn about the ins and outs, the complexities and the nuances. These conversations would not be, initially, spaces for advocacy and campaigning, but for learning, seeking clarity and building understanding. Here are the six conversations that could have taken place:

  1. The first conversation could have been about the distinctions between nationalism and internationalism, the historical roots of and the political and philosophical basis of the European Project (that took the shape of the European Union).
  2. The second conversation could have explored the relationship between Britain, EU, US and other countries in matters of security, trade, immigration, culture, etc.
  3. The third conversation could have explored the advantages and disadvantages of staying within the EU and leaving it.
  4. The fourth conversation could have created a space for serious advocacy where citizens could listen to (yes, even impassioned) pleas from all sides of the spectrum.
  5. The fifth conversation could frame the issue not as a binary choice- leave or stay, but as a discussion about how best to address concerns about being in the EU. This could include the following questions- what kind of a EU could we, the British people, envision as worthy of being a part of; how could we help inform or change the EU to meet our distinct interests; and most importantly, what kind of a nation and society do we wish to be?
  6. The sixth conversation could have helped people make deliberate and intelligent choices.

But alas, even in the nation that gave us the Magna Carta and Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, democracy has been reduced to the mechanical action of casting one’s vote. Democratic discourse has now been replaced by screeching, emotional campaigning that reduces all complex ideas to simple, idiotic sound bites and bumper stickers. Voila Brexit!


The Exquisite and Unusual Beauty of a Liberal Democracy- 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This is the Second in a two part piece. Please read the previous post: Democrazy-1 before you read this. 

Unhappy with the pain and suffering that many of these practices entailed, and viewing the unfairness and injustice that it caused as avoidable; a few people, statesmen, philosophers and thinkers grappled with the problem of creating societies that were not just conventionally moral (in that it controlled or limited the more primitive, sexual and violent tendencies of its citizens) but even fair and just. Most notable amongst these were the Greeks who had the weird idea that a state could be governed by the citizens themselves. Despite the right to citizenship being limited to free men and men of property, or dare we imagine, even because of it, this system survived for almost two centuries.

Historically speaking, democracy was an extraordinary experiment in that it gave a voice, for the first time ever, to people regardless of tribal affiliations, family ties, brute wealth or brute muscle. This experiment in democracy, however limited, lasted only until a powerful despot, first King Phillip II and then his son, Alexander of Macedonia conquered the greater Greek regions. Goodbye to justice, equality or the demos itself!

For the next couple of thousand years, few people anywhere imagined that there could be stable societies that didn’t, also, treat people like recalcitrant children. Most agreed that since people were evidently unable to manage their uncontrollable passions and baser instincts, they needed to be kept under close watch under the mostly benign gaze of their elders, betters or the divinely favored. People, for their own good and that of the larger community, had to be kept in line and out of trouble. This was best achieved through exhortations to lead the moral life; promised inducements in the hereafter, rewards given in this life; threats of eternal damnation; public humiliations; torture, or at worst (and here human creativity and imagination knew no bounds), through death by lynching, burning, or stoning. Sometimes, just sometimes, to help you see the error of your ways, your whole family or village was burned down- an early and effective demonstration of the power of learning through modeling or, even, experiential learning!

After a millennium and half of this, democratic stirrings were again experienced, albeit amongst the elite and sporadically. It took shape first in England as a revolt by the aristocracy against the monarchy. Then in France the revolution was prompted against the excesses of the aristocracy. Finally, property owners and traders in the American colonies rose up against the English monarchy for taxing them without allowing them representation in the (English) Parliament. Through many fits and false starts, in some of these countries, the dangerous and radical idea of a self governing citizenry took hold. It didn’t happen everywhere in a similar fashion and it was almost always prompted by the self interests of groups that were able to challenge the powerful. Most importantly, even when the seeds of self-governance were sown, all the values and principles of what we, now, consider a democratic society, were not always evident.

For the longest time, given that these countries were mostly illiterate and emerging from feudalism and tyranny, and recognizing that most people had little appetite or skill to engage in rational discussion or debate, the idea and practice of democracy itself was reduced down to its simplest form; where citizens would have the right to elect, through the mechanism of one man, one vote, leaders who would be best equipped to represent them. Initially, much like the Greeks, it was first only men of property or landholders who could vote. Then this right was given to free men but not slaves; and then men of education but not the unlettered, and finally in the 20 th century after much heart ache, protests and misgivings from fathers, husbands and patriarchs in general, women were also granted this right. It was now only a matter of time before, in many of these predominately European and North American countries, every adult citizen (adulthood being defined as over the age of 21 or 18) was given the right to vote. Universal suffrage was a radical idea that enfranchised every adult regardless of station, gender or wealth; or, for that matter, education. This looked like an idea that had finally come of age, a victory for equal representation and through it fair treatment and justice.

Even as we celebrate this historically extraordinary notion that all men and women (and tomorrow those who self-identify themselves as being neither or both) are able to vote, we must ask whether the right to vote, and thereby elect our representatives who can make decisions on our behalf, is what being democratic is all about. Furthermore, we should ask ourselves if universal suffrage alone is a sign that the values of a democratic society exist in a country.

Some of the questions that we could ask are:

  1. What does the vote confer on the ordinary person who is not part of the ruling elite?
  2. What value does the individual vote have when some groups have extraordinary access to resources that allows them to unduly influence or even manipulate the electoral process?
  3. What does the vote mean to individuals or minorities whose views might, seemingly, never become popular enough to be accepted or accommodated by the majority?
  4. What protection is available for those who might be in the minority, particularly when it is in conflict with the majority?
  5. What is the social and political contract that must be entered into by individual citizens and competing groups in a democracy?
  6. What are humane and just ways of enforcing this contract when those in power (or even at the margins) subvert or pervert this contract?
  7. Is it possible to have a functional democracy when some stakeholders do not share core democratic values?
  8. Is it possible to have a functional democracy when groups, in trying to capture electoral power, do so by compromising and subverting democratic values?
  9. How do you ensure that citizens in a society share or develop the core values that are necessary to sustain a democracy?
  10. What, apart from voting, should be seen as a basic requirement and responsibility of a citizen?

The last question that I have today is this: Does democracy expect too much from us, humans, or too little?

Democrazy – 1

Democracy is, amongst other things, an experiment in trusting people to make decisions that are good for themselves, their group and the larger collective.  How’s that going for us?

Democracy is either an extremely optimistic notion or one helluva crazy idea, or possibly both. Whoever dreamed it up either had to be stoned or completely oblivious of the tawdry material he was working with.  The idea that human beings would use reason to debate constructively with one another to make decisions that would be for the common good, is one that would have failed the most preliminary of tests, had it been tested, that is. Even in the most educated, sophisticated and well meaning of communities this would be a very tall order.

Here are some reasons why Democracy is an optimistic and crazy idea:

  1. Human beings are prisoners of their brain. The brain, as it has evolved through millennia is equipped to perform basic involuntary functions so we can breathe, pump blood, periodically cleanse the body of toxins and perform the other physiological functions to keep the body chugging along.
  2. The brain’s primary function is not analytical thinking, its’ main task was to keep us alive.
  3. Thinking conceptually and objectively does not come naturally to us and requires much training, something that most of us do not have the time or energy for.
  4. The chemistry and biology of our brain make us primarily emotional and reactive creatures that are particularly impervious to reason.
  5. We are inherently egocentric creatures that tend to, despite some capacity for altruism, be trapped in our subjective universes, mostly motivated by our own perceived needs, fears and anxieties.
  6. We are also sociocentric creatures that have been conditioned since childhood to privilege those who we know (our own kith and kin) over those that we don’t; and to view anything that is different from what we have grown up with as alien, dangerous and threatening. Bigotry, racism and sexism are, with rare exceptions, par for the course for social creatures.
  7. Democracy challenges us to transcend much of this and inspires us to listen to those who might disagree with us; negotiate with those who might have ‘harmed’ us in the past; collaborate with those whose needs might be different; and coexist with those we might find abominable.
  8. It might be easier to get all of human kind to climb mountain Everest without training or oxygen.Getting this biological, chemical, egocentric and sociocentric species to desist from killing each other and to “play nice” has been one of the problems that has occupied tribal chieftains, feudal lords, prophets, god men, monarchs, mafia dons, school teachers, parents, kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers; since we first stopped communicating primarily in grunts and realized that there might be some value in hunting in packs.

    Sure Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi, Confucius, Martin Luther King, Marx or Mandela, like reformers down the ages, demanded that humans challenge themselves to be better than who they are. Not all of them, incidentally, were democrats or even thought democracy was a good idea. They knew that the human material was mostly brittle, and, at best, unreliable. They didn’t wish to tax the meager capabilities of their human material beyond what could be fairly easily monitored and controlled. To that end they, or their followers (along with their propaganda departments, apostles, evangelists and enforcers), found creative ways to control the behaviors of the masses. To this end they distilled the leaders aspirations, dreams and wisdom to some basic tenets and commandments that they hoped would, if followed, create a less cruel and rapacious society. Sure, as incentives they sometimes promised paradise after life (Christ, Mohammad) and sometimes a kind of paradise even here on earth (Marx, Confucius). Knowing that rewards in the afterlife would have limited cache when faced with the immediate gratification that would accrue from indulging the dictates of the flesh and emotions, they also tried to control such transgressions through threats of hellfire, brimstone and eternal damnation. These terrible visitations in the hereafter were augmented by punishments that would have painful consequences in the present life ranging all the way from simple cold shouldering to excommunication, exile, and even torture, stoning or death.

    Essentially, the template for stability and order in the old world was pretty simple: if you did what we told you to, everything would work out just fine.  All that was required from you was one simple thing, call it what you will, Belief, Faith, Obedience, Acceptance or complete and total Submission, whatever- as long as it was given not partly or in half measure, but wholly and completely.

    The secret to a good life, in terms of safety, orderliness and predictability was in following this template diligently. To do this you needed to have faith that the plan had been well designed, the tenets were sacred and what was needed from you was to follow the rules that would eventually help achieve your family’s prosperity, your personal salvation and world peace, preferably in that order. Most importantly, you needn’t worry your pretty head about the details or even the larger picture. Better people, more knowledgeable, capable and wiser than you, in the form of gods, prophets, monarchs, mullahs and patriarchs of all stripes had already put in the hard work. Your salvation was in dedicating your life to The Plan.

    In the next post I will examine ways in which human beings, starting with the ancient Greeks, challenged the historic assumption that those in power, the strongest, the richest, the most brutal or even the wisest had the right to determine how the rest of us lived.

    Meanwhile here’s a question for you:
    What are your thoughts on the balance between carrots and sticks to maintain order and harmony in society?


Desgined by Shivani SureshEven as a ten or eleven year old from a wholly apolitical family, living on the outskirts of Cochin without television (or much radio) and with access only to one English newspaper, I remember being as perturbed by Richard Nixon’s defeat of Hubert Humphery in ’68 as by Mrs. Gandhi’s splitting of the Congress party in ’69. For some strange reason, these events rendered me completely apoplectic. Ever since then, I have been personally and deeply affected by all politics and political processes- local, regional and international.

Looking back over these years, I am struck by the way my childhood excitement around elections and electioneering morphed into an interest about the relative merits of political systems and ideologies in my late teens and twenties. Out of that, grew a deep fascination with democracy itself. Today, I am both, in awe of and wholly frustrated by what I see as the beleaguered but extraordinary experiment of democracy. Like our species itself, it is mightily flawed, with all its complexity, irrational optimism, potential for corruption and even absurdities; and yet, it is infused with the promise of extraordinary humaneness and the potential for genius.

Much of my professional work in the past three decades has been centered around Higher Order Thinking, which essentially refers to critical and creative thinking; and Higher Order Relationship Building, which includes all types of human engagement from intimate relationships to group and civic engagement.

While I have not been active in electoral politics or campaigning, my work has mostly centered around civic engagement and participative democracy. I have been teaching the skills and tools that help citizens develop critical thinking capabilities; manage differences and disputes; engage in candid and constructive dialogue; and advocate effectively and constructively for their interests and rights. In other words, in creating a culture of democracy!

After surviving the dark ages, the middle ages, inquisitions, genocides, plundering by barbarians, colonizers and two destructive world wars, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; we humans did something that was an act of optimism as much as it may have been prompted by political and economic considerations. We established the United Nations and inspired a burst of global idealism that had never been seen before in human history. This gave birth to the radical notion that all human beings, regardless of race, class, gender, caste or culture, had the right to freedom, autonomy and a life of dignity. These ideas, in turn, spawned independence-movements across many parts of the world, and the rise of a powerful and influential civil society that could hold governments and regimes accountable for their actions. For a brief moment in history, it did look like we humans were genuinely capable of evolution.

However, just when it looked like we had finally learned how to be truly human, we now seem to have regressed again. Today, we have gone back to silencing those who are different and those we do not agree with. We kill cartoonists, bloggers and rationalists; terrorize those who aren’t sufficiently nationalistic, religious or culturally pure; and humiliate and ban, even from the most liberal campuses those whose opinions offend us.

If these only happened in the most repressive regimes on the planet, it would be one thing. Let us leave aside for now the barbarism of those beyond the pale, like the Taliban or ISIS, and not expect maturity or humane behavior from autocracies, monarchies, sultanates, dictatorships or theocracies. Most of these are contemptuous of human rights, popular rule or are democracies in name only. That still leaves us with the dilemma of what to do about our own once staunchly liberal, secular and democratic societies.

First here are some of my own assumptions and biases:

  1. I recognize that human beings are emotional and most often irrational creatures.
  2. I privilege critical thinking over manipulative or sloppy thinking that are riddled with fallacies.
  3. I am skeptical of easy solutions or answers to complex problems.
  4. I am suspicious of identity politics, claims of cultural and ethnic purity, and the treating of traditional ideas or practices as sacrosanct and beyond questioning or criticism.
  5. I see much value in individual autonomy and freedom, and particularly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not that these are complete or the last word on the subject.

Rights, Slights and Free Lunches is a blog where I will:

  1. draw upon my stories and experiences around developing the values, skills and dispositions that are essential to functioning in a democratic society.
  2. share my analysis and ideas about the state of democracy, and democratic societies and cultures the world over
  3. try to start constructive dialogue around complex and contentious issues.

In do not presume to have answers. Even where I might privilege some explanations over others or proffer a few solutions, I am happy to be proved wrong through constructive dialogue (and clear reason). In any case, I have little confidence that I will be able to persuade those who are determined to feel differently. At best, this blog can play a very modest role in asking some key questions and highlighting ideas that might bear thinking about. I do hope that some of what I write about can serve to remind those of us who care about the planet; the human condition; the extraordinary potential of the human mind; and the health of pluralistic societies; that we are at a critical juncture in human and possibly, even planetary history. Unless we are able to summon the courage and wisdom to step up and create the kind of world we believe in, we might well end up living in a world that is foisted upon us by those whose agendas will be as cruel as their vision is limited.

Caveat Emptor: My first blog, Meta-Conversations that started in 2011, was rather short lived because I struggled to make time to write. Much of my energy was spent on my professional practice at Meta-Culture where we tried to build constructive relationships between polarized groups, both, in India and elsewhere, all the while scrambling to sustain my wholly unsustainable center.