Citizen Archetypes

No matter how many people we encounter, the human mind is capable of finding neat categories that they can be organized into. It is so common as to seem like human nature. For example, surveys routinely divide people into sex, race, class, profession and by our shopping, ideological and sexual preferences. Like with many whose minds compulsively create patterns, mine, too, tends to fit people, phenomena, and experiences into quasi-logical clusters. I confess that I find much pleasure in identifying patterns and categories that help me make sense of our complex world. I then inhabit this world with people who play the roles that, in turn, help to create and maintain those patterns and categories. These roles become my archetypes. At best, this propensity helps me make sense of the infinite complexity around me and, at worst, I am guilty of over simplification.

Now that I have confessed to this unfortunate tendency to generalize about complex people and their many layered motivations, I will now explain my altogether simple system to make sense of the ecosystem within which democratic societies exist. Most citizens in democratic countries can be said to either exist, or in time fall into, reasonably distinct (but sometimes overlapping) roles or archetypes. I present them here not to condemn by labelling, but because it is important to recognize the various roles people play in keeping the system together. Also, if we are to create strong and healthy democracies, we need to appreciate the value of positive behaviors and be wary of the dangers of some collective behaviors. Needless to say, one can inhabit, fully or partially, more than one of these categories at a given time.

The role of the citizen in a democracy has been much neglected. Much of the attention devoted to democracy has been focused on its institutions and leaders. Considerably less attention has been invested in studying the nature and character of a citizenry, except in terms of their voting habits and practices. Viewing citizens primarily as voters (or protesters) diminishes their role from key stakeholder to campaign cheerleader.

Moreover, in viewing democracy primarily as a system of laws, institutions and governing mechanisms, we neglect the role played by society and culture – both are products of a people, their history, values, aspirations, fears, inadequacies and capriciousness.

Democracy is a system of government that is as dependent upon the quality of the citizenry as much as its institutions and leaders. The relative education, commitment and values of the citizens determines the robustness of the government as well as the sustainability of the system. So much depends upon the people behind the institutions.

My rough system of archetypes seeks to identify the quality and nature of the citizens in a democracy by examining their explicit and implicit beliefs, behaviors and emotional propensities. By examining closely the people in a democratic society, we are better able to understand the nature and the challenges that they pose to the system of government. This is particularly important because, unlike in autocratic systems, in a democracy it is the people and not just leaders or institutions that determine the effectiveness and viability of the system and the state.

The Believer

Belief: The most amazing, magnificent and astounding invention since sliced bread! Democracy is the perfect system of political order and the arc of history will always bend towards justice and progress.

Behavior: Tends to promote democracy as universally applicable. Tends to attribute problems in a democracy to ineffective implementation, corruption and conspiracies rather than acknowledging incompatibility with a people’s values, culture or the behavior of citizens.

Primary Emotions: Swinging between HOPE and DESPAIR.

Challenge: Their unflagging belief that democracy is the universally best system leads them to disregard serious cultural differences around ideas such as individual freedom, collectivism, equality, fairness, duty and obedience that often prevents democracy from taking root in some societies. It also makes it more likely that the Believer will see value in bringing democracy to society regardless of its maturity or development.

The Realist

Belief:  If I cannot see it, touch it or spend it- it it ain’t there!

Tends to believe that idealism is a luxury afforded only to those touched by good fortune, untouched by harsh experience or, even worse, unhampered by reality.  Believes that reality is what they can see and touch- their health, children, education, careers and retirement accounts.

Behavior: Tends to judge success of a democracy mostly through the lens of economics and law and order, not as much in terms of liberty, rights or freedom (except for freedom of the market). Democracy and values tend to be seen as nebulous and large issues that one has no control over. Willing to help saving the world- if there is business or career advantage to doing so!

Primary Emotions: CONTENTMENT (in good times) turning easily to DISTRUST and ANGER when their world falls apart. Their Competitiveness is accompanied by AGGRESSION, which is accompanied by DEFENSIVENESS when questioned of their choices or priorities.

Challenge: It is difficult to get them to care much about anything that might threaten their career prospects or personal resources- without a clear ROI (Return On Investment). They can also have trouble standing up for abstract ideas such as human rights and mistake their own personal comfort for universal wellbeing.

The Cynic

Belief: Yeah right, be my guest, waste your time!

The system is so corrupt and beyond repair that nothing anyone does will make a difference.

Behavior:  Tends to refrain from action unless guaranteed of results. They also tend to be deeply stuck in their own beliefs and unwilling to accept any new information or ideas that might force them to change their minds.

Primary Emotion: HOPELESSNESS masked as SMUGNESS.

Challenge: Their contempt for incremental change can infect those who are interested in action and their presence in teams can hold up decision making even at early stages.

The Anarchist

Belief: Bring down that dirty rotten system, comrades!

Even more than the Cynic, the Anarchist sees the entire existing political, economic and social edifice as unjust, unequal and undemocratic. Persuaded that rules are inherently oppressive they believe that only total revolution that destroys everything (except, presumably, their own selves, friends and family) can give birth to a truly just society.

Behavior: Tends to selectively marshal ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ that can justify total and complete revolution. Particularly fascinated by the redemptive power of violence as ‘propaganda by deed’.

Primary Emotions: HOPELESSNESS masked as SNEERING (sometimes paraded as ANGER).

Challenge: Holding out for radical change they reject negotiation as compromise, play spoiler and almost always risk escalating the conflict. The Anarchist is also unlikely to be a constructive partner to those seriously engaged in political or societal reform.

The Social Justice Warriors

Belief: If even one suffers, the whole world is guilty- and must pay!

Believes in the possibility of creating a perfectly ordered world where complete equality and justice can and should prevail. They are persuaded that the world is divided into two groups: the victims and the oppressors. Their favorite whipping boys are white men and the evil patriarchy.

Behavior: Tends to be aggressive in advocacy of their own group’s (gender, racial minority, or sexual orientation) rights and not as concerned or committed to the health of the larger political system. Tends to judge the success of a democracy mostly in terms of its success in ensuring that all ‘victim’ groups have the same privileges and resources that the ‘oppressor’ has. Tends to be stubborn about their own beliefs and unwilling to accept new information or ideas that might force them to change their minds. Given how righteous their cause is, they find it easy to silence or condemn anyone who might disagree with them.

Primary Emotion: ANGER and RIGHTEOUSNESS (usually conjoined through fire and brimstone).

Challenge: Their single focus makes them excellent partners for other angry activists seeking passionate and tactical support. Their inability to compromise makes it difficult for them to make allies with those who create significant but incremental change. Their righteous anger makes it difficult to communicate or engage with them unless you are willing to agree with them completely.

The Culturally Threatened

Belief: Our victimhood is superior to your oppression Their own traditional ‘way of life’ is under threat and they are being oppressed in their own homeland. All who are unlike them, who look, behave and think differently are aliens, enemies and an existential threat’.

Behavior: Tends to be most protective about their culture and way of life. They are resistant to change and see negotiation (let alone accommodation) on vital issues as cultural and civilizational suicide. Tends to marginalize themselves even further but can often create allies with other similarly vulnerable and angry groups.

Primary Emotion: FEAR, HURT and HUMILIATION finally contributing to ANGER.

Challenge: Their memory of real or imagined betrayal creates so much anger and distrust of others that it makes it harder to bring them to the table.

The Free Marketers

Belief: God is in the Market and all is well with the Consumers

Democratic freedom equals market freedom. Governments are the enemy of freedom and, in any case, are inherently inefficient.

Behavior: Tends to view government services and regulation as being at the expense of the free market and the entrepreneur, vehemently opposed to regulating businesses and tends to see those who fail to thrive within the system as objects of charity or, even, lazy and morally deficient.

Primary Emotion: SATISFACTION and COMPLACENCY in economic good times. IMPATIENCE about speed of deregulation and tendency to move to ANGER when things don’t work the way they want it to.

Challenge: They tend to discount the democratic process as slow, messy, and inefficient. They can also be easily swayed by autocrats who promise deregulation, higher stock prices, profitability, and efficient government.

The Complacent

Belief: No need to overreact- all will be well, once again

Democracy is good but everything is cyclical. We have seen this disruption before. What goes up will come down….. and in time will go up again.

Behavior: Focuses on self, career, and family. Can pursue esoteric and eclectic interests even as the political structure is crumbling. Rejects calls to contribute at a public or civic level as unnecessary, reactive, immature or unevolved.

Primary Emotion: CONFIDENCE- tending to be relaxed and seeing no reason to get all worked up. Until their own thriving and security are threatened. Then it becomes INSECURITY and FEAR.

Challenge: Sees enthusiasm that leads to action as a sign of reactivity, immaturity and hence is unlikely to act even to preempt possible danger. Their coolness, easily viewed as ‘maturity’, can sway many and prevent vital planning and action.

The Time Constrained

Belief:  Make time for a political meeting- are you kidding me????

Democracy is a good thing, but personal and professional survival takes up all my time. Serious activism is for professionals and politicians. In any case, things can’t be too bad, we still have elections, don’t we?

Behavior: Will be intellectually supportive of other folks acting. Can at best have time only for Facebook or Twitter activism. Can also be superficially savvy and deeply ignorant of issues because they have not kept up with their learning.

Primary Emotion: STRESS, ANXIETY and DEFENSIVENESS when called on to participate.

Challenge: Being genuinely strapped for time, the biggest challenge is motivating them to carve out time to save their freedoms and rights.  The bigger problem is that they may not understand the issue of citizen participation in democracy as well as they might imagine.

The Worriers

Belief: Things are terrible and getting worse

Democracy is always at risk and things will, very soon, get very worse,

Behavior: Tends to be, always, looking for signs that democracy is breaking down. Sees dark clouds framing silver linings and warns everyone about them.

Primary Emotion: VULNERABILITY, INSECURITY and finally FEAR about losing freedom and rights.

Challenge: Being able to feel HOPE as an emotion. Finding it difficult to accept the complacency (and ignorance) of those who do not share their concerns.

The ‘Empowered’ Consumer

Belief: If the price is right, I’ll take two!

Democracy is a political system designed to deliver services. If it fails to do so we should seek other forms of government that can better deliver – or privatize it.

Behavior: Tends to be not just empowered but also feels entitled to ‘contracted’ or even ‘deserved’ services. Tends to be very critical about less than perfect results and aggressive about inefficiencies and corruption. Also, tends to be not as concerned about the health of the larger political system as they are about specific services.

Primary Emotions: ENTHUSIASM for quality services and ANGER at not being adequately served and the system having failed ‘good’ consumers.

Challenge: Helping them recognize that sustainability of results and outcomes depends on the health of the system or the process. That efficient delivery can come with huge social and personal costs.

 

Again, these archetypes are broad and general. You may encounter some of these and not others. Regardless, most discussions around the state of our democracy will surface many of these beliefs and behaviors. This should, at the very least, raise a few questions:

 

  • Would you, for a well-paying job, move your family to the UAE or China for ten years?
  • For the sake of financial wellbeing would you give up your democratic citizenship?
  • If you once moved to a non-democratic country, what did you miss about your democratic country of origin?
  • Is there any freedoms or right that you missed most?
  • What do you most dislike about living in a democracy?
  • Would you prefer to live in a poor democracy or a wealthy non-democratic society?
  • What would you be willing to invest to protect your freedom and rights in a democracy? Higher taxes, time or energy?
  • At what point would it no longer be worthwhile to invest any further in your own democracy?
  • Does being a citizen or resident of a democracy come with specific expectations?

 

How we, the citizens of democratic societies, respond to these questions will determine what we invest in our democracy, what shape it takes, and how long it survives.  Many tend to see citizenship as a transactional relationship, similar to the relationship between the consumer and the business where the citizen pays taxes in return for a functioning domestic infrastructure, a strong economy and the maintenance of law and order. Externally they receive guarantee of strong borders, favorable trade terms, security from foreign aggression and a sense of national pride. This consumer- business provider system is only marginally more empowering than the historically common place autocratic systems where the relationship is paternalistic, between unequals.

My worry is that in most democracies today, including the USA, UK, India and Turkey, a significant majority seems unaware that they are required to invest in a democratic political system that treats them as responsible adults. Instead they delegate to professional politicians, bureaucrats, activists and business folk the arduous task of keeping their political system afloat.

This has huge implications for all of our freedoms and rights. If we are ignorant about the nature of democracy, the higher responsibilities of citizenship and the vast knowledge and maturity required from citizens, we can be unwittingly complicit in allowing our unique experiment in responsible self-government (in other words, adult living) to wither away.

Whether it be in individuals, groups or nations, freedom and liberty are meaningless if there are no boundaries. It is only when they are combined with creativity, intelligence and hard work that they result in works of genius (worthy of Homo Sapiens).

DemoSapiens – Saving Democracy from Ourselves

We were delighted to host our first learning and discussion event in collaboration with the peace-building organization, HasNa, on authoritarianism and strongman leaders. Thanks to HasNa’s kind hospitality, we began the evening with light refreshments and casual discussion in Nevzer’s beautiful home.

Citizen Demos (an initiative of Meta-culture) believes that without good citizens, liberal democracy is bound to fail. Rather than focusing on institutions, electoral systems, leaders, diversity, campaign finance, and their improvement, Citizen Demos focuses on the individual citizen. Without specific investment in the development of mature and well-informed citizens, liberal democracy cannot be sustained. As a result, we focus on the learning and developing of the individual citizen.

DemoSapiens is our community project started with the aim to: develop robust understanding around liberal democracy, increase political and cultural dialogue, build negotiation skills, and cultivate vital democratic dispositions that we believe are necessary for citizens of a liberal democracy.

The presentations explored:

  • Why moving from authoritarian to democratic regimes is difficult – though it is very easy to go from democracy to authoritarianism
  • The cultural values necessary for liberal democracy to take hold
  • Why authoritarianism is increasingly popular the world over
  • Why liberal democracy is unique, and what we can do to support it

The post-presentation facilitated learning conversation raised a few key issues:

  • There was a concern that in discussing the state of democracy we can easily fall into stereotyping when looking at different groups’ voting behaviors.

We agree that stereotypes are not helpful. To understand social, cultural, economic and political behaviors it is important to pay attention to how different groups respond to similar phenomena. For instance, data that millennials seem not to value democracy as much as other generations raises important questions such as: Why this generation? What has changed for them compared to earlier generations?

  • Let’s put things in perspective: we are in a far better position, materially (life expectation, immunization levels, levels of violence etc.) than at any other time in our history. Thanks to liberalism and democracy, things have gotten better; what we’re witnessing right now won’t stop this progress.

It is important to recognize that there are many in the world who have been left out of the economic growth of the past few decades. Many for whom the reality is economic stagnation and social vulnerability.

However, it is undeniably true that by any metric the standards of living for most people in the world have improved and continue to improve. Why then are people cynical about liberal democracy and why are autocrats gaining ground? Is there something other than basic needs that liberal democracies fail to provide? This leads us to the age-old question of what the good life is. Maybe liberal democracy, without any reference to the Ancients’ idea of human flourishing or shared cohesive meaning, is to blame.

  • When we think about democracy, we think about rights but also responsibilities. How much can we, realistically, ask of citizens?

We have certain obligations as citizens – to obey the law, uphold the rights of others for example. But how far do these obligations go? In liberal democracies, are we obliged to provide universal healthcare, housing or a living wage for example?

  • It seems that millennials have little cohesion or sense of community. Maybe this is contributing to their disillusion with democracy?

This is a very good point. We can point to the breakdown in families and communities (e.g. due to fragmentation of families, increased mobility, loss of industry and meaningful work) as a cause of democratic disillusionment in millennials and more generally.

  • The idea that there have never been completely successful democracies is like the Scotsman fallacy – proposed counter-examples to a theory are dismissed as irrelevant solely because they are counter-examples, but purportedly because they are not what the theory is about.

Being always a work in progress and having to include dissent, conflicting and competing perspectives and the eventual decisions, almost always, being some form of negotiated compromise, democracies, by design, cannot be perfect systems. Therefore, they cannot also be consistently ‘successful’.

Historically, usually in times of economic despair or social or cultural threat, dominant as well as minority groups, whose interests are unmet, have shown a tendency to get impatient with the slow and messy process of consensual decision making that are typical of democracies. At such moments they have often been tempted to gravitate to authoritarian rulers or even tyrants who promise decisive action, and view compromise as a dirty word, synonymous with weakness or selling out.

Also, because democracies empower citizens it also raises expectations of what is possible. When, as is likely, results fail to match these expectations democracy is seen as failing. This why we believe that there have been no and cannot be consistently successful democracies. Having said that, we believe that it is the only political system that does justice to the dignity of all individuals (especially minorities) and treats its citizens as adults who can be relied upon to understand complex issues and can be trusted with knowing what is best for the common good.

We were very grateful for participants’ feedback. It allowed us to reflect on our ideas from new perspectives and continue learning.

 

 

A Crisis of Citizenship

A democratic society, like a family, a church or a football club, needs regular upkeep. Democracies cannot survive for long if the responsibility for repairing, strengthening, and preserving it is left entirely to its institutions and the people who run it. The energy that leaders, be they bureaucrats, elected representatives, captains of industry or clergy, have to expend to retain their positions leaves many with little energy for anything except performing the most basic tasks. This is not unlike a harried car owner who is so focused on surviving her daily commute and keeping her life together that she neglects the maintenance needs of the car engine and the tires. Maintenance, be it of machines, the human body or democracy itself, requires additional effort. It is now apparent that over the decades, while elections have been organized, budgets passed, and the basic functions of governments conducted, few leaders found the time to invest in the long-term health of their democratic systems. Maintenance is not intuitive: it is a chore, and an investment with deferred benefits and hence, except in a crisis, maintenance is rarely seen as urgent. To put it another way, young children will always find time to eat cookies but will, at the same time, be too busy to brush their teeth.

Unlike a dictatorship or an oligarchy, where the quality of the leadership reflects the quality of its ruling elite, in a democracy the leaders are selected by the people and their quality is a reflection of the culture of the larger society. We may not always get the leaders we deserve, but we can’t complain that we didn’t pick them! In a democracy, the efforts of even the most visionary and courageous leaders will be rendered moot if the citizens are emotionally reactive, are unable to discern fact from fiction, and cannot deal with differences among them without demonizing each other. A tribalistic, unthinking, and egocentric citizenry is an invitation to the worst of demagogues, flatterers, and tyrants.

Think of this as an existential challenge. Throughout human history philosophers, enlightened rulers, and wise priests have struggled to develop generous, compassionate, and sensitive societies. Most of them, conscious of how difficult such an endeavor was (and recognizing our all too human frailties), instead, settled for the modest task of keeping us from destroying ourselves and each other. This, they discovered, was best accomplished by religion, with the good word coming down via the heavens, through divine commandments and expressed as social strictures and taboos. Transgressors could also be threatened with hell fire and damnation and the worst of them made examples of. Alas, democratic societies do not respond well to being governed by fear, threats or even promises of IOUs to be redeemed in the hereafter – without their starting to resemble pyramid schemes or police states.

Self-governing (democratic) societies demand of their citizens higher standards of thinking and behavior compared to autocratic societies. Citizens are expected to make well informed, intelligent choices, and conduct themselves as reasonable people in the public sphere. Because of the somewhat higher intellectual, behavioral and moral standards expected of us, developing a democratic citizenry has always been a task for the foolhardy, naïve or the incorrigibly foolish. Hence political scientists, theorists, reformers and activists have usually invested their efforts in improving what can be measured and controlled- such as the legal and democratic institutions. Others, have sought messiahs who can make their nation great again, scoured the land for a new FDR, Churchill, Nehru, Allende or, even better, a bona fide ‘minority’- a woman, a black or a gay person. While democratic institutions can benefit from improvement and exceptional leaders can always help, this all-consuming fascination with institutions and leaders has had some unfortunate consequences:

  1. Little, if any, attention has been focused on developing a conscious and mature citizenry and as a result even the few organizations that focus on citizens limit themselves to basic civics education, developing awareness of citizen rights, and increasing voter turnout.
  2. Generations of citizens have grown up believing that democracy is a license to personal freedom and guarantees prosperity, not to speak of endless amusement. Many now resent the suggestion that they, as citizens, are also required to take time out of their personal and professional commitments to invest in the political system.
  3. The genuinely marginalized and those who feel left out of the spoils system have, on the other hand, learned that in a democracy escalated protest and agitation can force the system to deliver the results that they crave.
  4. When those who have been waiting for the next super improved candidate turns out not to be the Messiah that they expected and is, instead, shown up to be all too slippery (or brittle), the citizenry become disgusted and cynical.
  5. The citizens then, feeling no compulsion to reflect about their own actions, rail against the system that has failed them. Or, giving consciousness and maturity a complete pass, become despairingly nihilistic.
  6. This causes them to give up on voting altogether or, worse still, squander their franchise on those who make them feel good about themselves or become unwitting targets to messages of fear, anger and hatred.
  7. This is when the good citizens become party to a crime of historic and evolutionary implications, demicide (democratic suicide) and put their faith in demagogues and tyrants who will take their society and our species back into a medieval age of unthinking definitiveness, crippling security and oppressive stability.

Traditional instruments of developing a committed citizenry (such as religious or moral instruction, compulsory public education and the mass media) have always been blunt and inefficient. When they have worked, they were usually tools of propaganda and mass manipulation, when they failed they made people even more cynical about the system. To add to the difficulty, the world that we inhabit today is a particularly complicated one and does not make the task of educating for values, behaviors and ethics, easy.  Instantaneous communication technology and social media driven by breaking news, hyperlinks and clicks, for example, appeal to the basest instincts, addicting users who are hungry for their next dopamine hit. They wean people away from the rigor and discipline required to stick with complex and messy ideas, not to mention reasoned and considered debate. Today, despite our unrivalled connectivity, we have never been as isolated and, despite the access to cheap credit and goods, we were never so insecure economically.

We have to ask ourselves whether it is even possible to develop a conscious, intelligent and generous citizenry under exacerbated conditions such as:

Fragmentation

  1. Urbanization and immigration contributing to the break-down of the extended family and traditional kinship groups.
  2. Nuclearization of the family and deterioration of the institution of marriage, giving rise to unstable single-parent families.

Distraction

  1. Media and breaking news culture trivializing knowledge and serving to replace complex understanding with information and factoids.
  2. The 24-hour diet of entertainment and amusement leaving little time or motivation to slowly build intimate relationships and strong communities.
  3. Smart phone, internet, and social media corrupting our ability to pay attention and addicting us to constant stimulation.

Egocentricity

  1. Cooperation, care-taking and healthy interdependence made difficult by isolated, self-centered, consumption driven, narcissistic individuals capable only of transactional relationships.
  2. The breakdown of meaningful individual and group identities and the corresponding rise of aggressive tribalism and violence.

Most of all, though, we are crippled by the biological limitations of our own brains and tribalism- our egocentricity and socio-centricity. The egocentricity makes it hard for us to perceive a complex world outside of our own limited minds and makes empathy and cooperation difficult. Socio-centricity creates a narrow loyalty towards our own kind, our tribes that makes us distrust and fear outsiders and prevents us from being generous towards them- an essential democratic virtue. Regardless of our biological limitations, evolutionary history and any domestic or foreign threats from enemies of democratic societies, there are ways in which citizens can strengthen our democracy. But before doing so we, the citizens, must recognize and appreciate what we have- the good fortune to live in a moment of history where our species is experimenting with the extraordinary concept of self-government. Once we have recognized that, we need to invest our scarce resources (like time, money and energy) in this experiment- because that is all it is, at this point in our human evolution. Finally, we need to be conscious of how easily we, the people, can destroy our own democracies.

Hitherto democratic societies have made few explicit demands on its citizens- except to vote regularly, pay taxes honestly and follow traffic rules.  However brilliant a constitution is, wise the laws are, or strong and popular the leader, an independent judiciary and effective separation of powers are not enough to sustain a democracy without a citizenry willing to consistently invest and, where necessary, even fight for it.

What makes an ideal citizen? A ‘good’ or ‘effective’ citizen of a democracy is one who is can be an active and responsible member of a self-governing society. This requires, at the very least:

  1. An ability to discern reality – minimally colored by myths, subjective or collective preferences.
  2. An ability to reason objectively – despite the triggering of our emotions, history or bias.
  3. A capacity to engage, negotiate – despite the tendency to silence or avoid offensive opinions.
  4. A willingness to be generous – despite the ‘natural’ temptation to monopolize resources for one’s self or one’s own group.

In this benighted new century, the conscious and responsible among us have much to think about and reconsider.  As we strive to hold on to our careers, our relationships and our health, we must ask ourselves how the public (civic) sphere can survive when the best of us corral ourselves in our work places, private spaces and amusement arcades.  As we rage and storm against the ongoing horrors of racism, sexism, and patriarchy we could take a moment to wonder how much anger and righteous indignation a finely balanced and vulnerable system like democracy can take- before our own passivity or wrath causes it to implode. Most of all, as we are amused and entertained by wicked take downs, clever memes or dazzling toys, we could ask ourselves who benefits from our being perpetually amused.

Citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility. Chaos and tyranny can come easily, by default. Democracy is hard work and needs to be earned afresh each day.

Brown Man in Search of Democracy

Who wants democracy anyway? And does anyone really care that they live in a democratic state?

A few weeks ago, I asked three friendly Filipino women on an elevator, what they thought of President Duterte. Beaming, they said he was the best thing to have happened to their country. They got off before I could ask about his threat to kill and dump all “drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings” into Manila Bay and “fatten all the fish there”. Their admiration reminded me of many Indians who, too, seem equally unperturbed by the current dispensation’s attacks on beef eaters, dissenters and its moral policing. This is much like Trump supporters’ blithe response to his claim that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and [not] lose voters”.

Growing up in the seventies in the world’s largest democracy, I too, like many millions of fellow Indians, decried its inefficiencies, cursed the corrupted political culture and yearned to get away. This might explain the hundreds of thousands of educated Indians who migrated to the Arab Gulf, where despite the tax-free salaries, clean streets and fast cars, as brown people and often non-Muslims they were treated as an inferior class of people without the basic rights they might have enjoyed back home.

As a teenager I remember asking many a contented émigré, “What about freedom of press, dissent and human rights? How can you leave a democratic society to live as a second-class citizen in a theocratic Monarchy?” The reactions were very sobering: “What democracy? Our politicians are corrupt and nothing ever gets done.” “What is the point of democracy when we have no jobs, power cuts and filthy streets?” “Enlightened monarchs like the Sheikhs of Dubai are far preferable to politicians obsessed with trying to get elected”. “What freedom?  Here I am really free – to make money and be happy”.   It was not only immigrants from Asian or African countries who made a beeline to the Arab Gulf – these city states were veritable Benneton advertisements where millions of Westerners, too, scrambled to make hay under an oppressive sun. The hierarchy in these countries placed the locals on top, other Arabs and Muslims under them, with the third rung made up of grateful Westerners who were happy to be placed above the Asians and Africans who were themselves segregated by economic class. It was the rare migrant who spoke of being humiliated by being treated as less than equal. Most just saw this ignominy as the price they had to pay for securing their family’s economic future.

Enthralled by ideas such as liberty, equality, and justice, I have long wondered if democracy was more of a utopian ‘ideal’ than any kind of pragmatic or sensible solution to governing nations. I know that I am, personally, terrified of ever having to live in countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Russia, let alone comfortable, uber-safe Singapore. But could it be that freedom, liberty, and equality are merely my own personal preferences? While people stuck in oppressive societies have often ‘yearned’ for freedom, it makes me wonder how important these celebrated ‘democratic’ freedoms and rights are to those who already live in a democracy. I am struck by the sacrilegious thought that, contrary to conventional wisdom, most people would happily trade their freedoms and rights away for physical and material wellbeing. Thankfully, almost as soon as I have that thought, I guiltily brush it aside. I then try and replace it with the idea that a free, humane, and healthy society could not only be deliberately ordered, but that most people, no matter where they are from, would, if given a chance, prefer to live in one. Sometimes it works.

I have spent much of my adult life tilting at my own personal windmills: tribalism, the cruelty of groups, various types of orthodoxies and the strange prejudice against reason and critical thinking. Having lived in both authoritarian and democratic societies, it became apparent to me that the only places that would tolerate and afford even minimal protection to those who were deemed to be outsiders were the democratic ones. Citizens also tend to be highly conscious of their rights and, having high expectations of their leaders, spend much time bemoaning the inefficiencies and corruption of the system and blaming those in ‘power’ – politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, media owners and the like – for the ills of their democratic society. Much of this criticism is wholly deserved. If anything, the elite in many countries has been exploitative, has dishonored the trust placed in them by citizens, and has failed as leaders.

The astonishing thing is that citizens have difficulty taking any responsibility for the state of their societies. It is almost as though once having voted (and only a few of those who can, bother to do so) they expect the leaders and the system to deliver outcomes that work for them. Few are willing to invest any personal time or energy to help things work better, let alone protect and strengthen their democracies.

However, leaders alone do not make the democracy. The strength and resilience of free and self-governing societies is ALSO dependent upon the quality of their citizenry and what they are able to bring to the civic space. To quote Mac Maharaj, Nelson Mandela’s prison mate in Robben Island, who sacrificed so much to bring freedom and democracy to his traumatized country, “democracy has not failed us, we the citizens have failed democracy”. If we, the citizens, were well-informed, vigilant and conscientious, our leaders would not be able to take us down with them when they fail, nor would we be so easily manipulated by wannabe autocrats lurking in the shadows.

All political order is a social contract between the rulers and the ruled. The rulers agree to provide security, order and economic opportunity in return for monopoly over the use of force, the authority to make laws, manage internal and external threats, and punish transgressors. Governments cannot be effective unless the ruled and the rulers adhere to the implicit and explicit norms and laws of the given society. Citizens can, importantly, hold the rulers accountable for their actions. This kind of accountability while empowering ordinary people, can also cramp the style of rulers. Most rulers, whether wise, stupid, well meaning or ill intentioned, tend to chafe at having to answer to anyone, least of all their own citizens.  Mechanisms of accountability also tend to slow down decision-making, and demand that rulers convince the ruled of their thinking, intentions, and actions.

Persuasion is time consuming. Hence through most of human history, rulers have found it useful to be authoritarian. Unilateral decision-making is both easier and quicker.  Sometimes, good ideas are scuttled by committees and sometimes the wise person’s counsel is disregarded by heightened emotions and group think. For their part, citizens are often asked to be content, if not happy, with what is done for them and on their behalf by their leaders.  All that is required of citizens is unwavering obedience, loyalty, and a heightened sense of duty.

What makes a good subject of a theocracy or a monarchy is very different from what is demanded of citizens in a democracy.  Rather than traditional values such as obedience, loyalty to group and duty they are required to think independently, follow their own conscience, and find ways to engage and negotiate with those outside their own group. None of this is intuitive and it is indeed hard work.

In fact, over the past seventy odd years this system of government has been sold to billions around the world as a panacea for poverty, human oppression, and the unimaginative boredom of state-controlled TV. Western politicians, media and activists conflated democracy and capitalism as they stirred up the masses in poor (and authoritarian) countries promising them freedom, rights, and the infinite blessings of airconditioned shopping malls.  What they neglected to say was that their own wealth was dependent upon a historically unique confluence of political, scientific, and economic conditions that could not be easily replicated. They also neglected to say to the millions yearning for freedom, designer jeans, and fast food that democracy is easier bequeathed than sustained. That if we wished to hold on to our republics (or our democracies), we would have to get up from our couches, turn off the TVs and internet and start doing some work. That being a citizen of a democracy means not delegating the hard work to our elected representatives but working side by side with them and, in the process, keeping them honest!

We were not told that Citizenship was hard work and needed to be earned.

 

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 (www.meta-culture.in) 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.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/09/03/democracy-vs-epistacracy/?utm_term=.624027d27d71&wpisrc=nl_volokh&wpmm=1