Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -2

This is the Second in a three part piece. Please read the previous post: Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy – 1 before you read this. 

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

In the first part of this post, I suggested that democracy required more effort than periodic visits to the election booth. I also imagined, with the advantage of hindsight, what the Brexit vote might have looked like if the British government had the wisdom to engage its citizens in a genuine democratic process. In this post, revisiting the raison d’etre for democracy, I will seek to establish what I believe are the cornerstones of Democracy- Diversity, Dialogue, Freedom of Expression and Critical Thinking.

Let us, for a moment, leave aside the hapless citizen of Britain, India, France or the USA who, burdened by lowered wages, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of ‘foreigners’ and the breakdown of old traditions and virtues, panics into doing stupid things at the ballot box. What about us Conflict Resolution professionals? What was our initial reaction or even considered response to Brexit? Most of my peers sympathized with Remain voters because, like me, they are inclined to back the idea of open borders and internationalism worried as they are about nationalism and xenophobia.

Here are my second thoughts. But some context first: For years, I have struggled with the tension between building my professional practice and holding on to the reason and idealism that brought me into this work. During the first eight years, as I struggled to make Meta-Culture sustainable, I told myself that the best way to advocate for the field and the wonderful values that brought me to it, was to model an alternative way of addressing differences and conflicts. Once people experienced the magic of mediation, the power of dialogue, or the collaborative intelligence of consensus building, they would be transformed forever. The word would be out- no more adversarial litigation and unthinking competitiveness; no more ethnic and religious feuds; most importantly, no more war! I was never so stoned as to believe that the future would be one of eternal sunshine (with nice shade bearing trees for those wary of skin cancer). However I confess that, I did briefly entertain the not uncommon notion that, while planetary change was a long process, as long as enough good people did good work in their own or other people’s backyards eventually, one day, reason (or failing that, compassion and empathy) would prevail. I was unable to remain in this sanguine state for long, given my unfortunate interest in human history and my pre-occupation with individual autonomy and human rights.

I did not train as a mediator or facilitator solely to practice a trade, though I am relieved to say that over the past two decades there have been many years when I was able to do so gainfully. I also didn’t stick with this work for more than two decades because I thought it would create world peace (which, incidentally, is a smashing idea, not entirely unlike perpetual good health, eternal happiness or a never ending bar of Belgian dark chocolate). I came into this work for two reasons, one fairly modest and another rather ambitious:

  1. I found this to be an intelligent and humane way by which I could help people manage disputes and understand each other better.
  2. I realized that these non-adversarial and dialogic processes were pretty much the only ways in which pluralistic societies would be able to create order and manage themselves without endangering human dignity, particularly in an age marked by increasing complexity and discontinuity.

To many of us who do this work, the connection between conflict resolution and managing pluralistic societies may seem self evident, but please bear with me. Allow me to flesh out the ways in which this connection plays out and why, if we accept this as reasonable, we also have to question how we frame our careers and what we aspire for the field itself.

My mini-thesis goes thus:

  1. Democracy is uniquely equipped to address complex issues with regard to the challenges of pluralism and the management of diversity. While universal suffrage is one way to give people a voice, when used solely or as the primary way in which people exercise their right to self-government, it has serious limitations.
  • Elections, even with proportional representation, tend to give mandates to majoritarian sentiments and agendas.
  • Elections rarely allow the surfacing of substantive matters, complexity or nuance.
    • Mass electoral campaigns tend to be catered to the broadest and lowest common denominator and hence encourage populism and its’ older evil sibling, demagoguery.
    • Politicians almost always benefit from polarizing issues on ideological lines, which is easier to do than the hard work that it takes to distinguish themselves from their counterparts intellectually and substantively.
    • The media benefits from dumbing complex matters down to sound bites that serves their business need to appeal to the largest consumer base.
    • The mass of citizens, struggling as they are to survive, tend to be too tired, self absorbed, ignorant or apathetic to invest the time necessary to grapple with complex issues.
  • What is true of elections is equally true for referendums, which are often touted as a form of ‘direct democracy’.
  1. Diversity is the primary problem that every democracy seeks to address. This is certainly true of complex heterogeneous nations like the US, UK or India. It is also true of relatively homogeneous countries like Sweden or Norway where, even with relatively limited racial and ethnic diversity, there almost always are competing ideologies and interests. Other systems of government such as autocracy, theocracy or oligarchy resort to maintaining order and harmony by privileging one world view and marginalizing minority groups, views and rights.
  2. Dialogue is one of the most egalitarian ways in which democratic societies can manage Diversity without coercion or repression. As the Brexit vote demonstrated, when complex issues are addressed through emotionally charged rhetoric, manipulated information, fallacious logic, tribalism and xenophobia, the results are almost entirely predictable. I say predictable not because I was prescient enough to predict the outcome, I wasn’t, but when the democratic process is reduced to periodic elections and its’ accompanying overheated rhetoric, it almost always creates simplistic and faulty decision-making. This brings me to the vital next link in creating successful democracies – the ability of the population (or at the very least a sizeable section of the population) to think
  3. Critical Thinking, not merely easy access to information, is what helps a citizenry weigh each issue on its’ merits and make effective decisions. Unfortunately, critical thinking is not intuitive and neither is it automatically bestowed on us when we arrive at puberty, acquire a college education or achieve a prized position (even that of CEO or Prime Minister). It cannot be accessed through an Internet search, reading a book or attending a 2-day workshop. It is a combination of knowledge, skills and most importantly, dispositions that have to be cultivated over many years. It requires that all branches of a society- the family, community, schools, work places- become places where the spirit of questioning, curiosity, intellectual exploration, individual autonomy, dialogic thinking and deliberate and conscious cooperation are prized. In other words critical thinking, like scientific temperament, has to be infused within the culture. While autocracies are threatened by a critically thinking populace, democracies can scarcely function without one.
  4. Freedom of Expression is what gives wing to Critical Thinking, which is why societies that rank at the bottom for freedom of expression, press, or human rights, also rank highest for killing journalists, cartoonists, bloggers or atheists. Freedom of expression has become a hot button issue around which sane and deliberate conversation is rarely possible. Many ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’, concerned as they are about discrimination and prejudice, tend to be wary of free expression. This can be seen in the grudging and less than effusive support given to authors, cartoonists or filmmakers who are threatened, jailed or killed for the ‘sin’ of blasphemy. This is also evident when speakers at universities are banned for holding ideas inimical to the larger student population or professors are fired for challenging prevailing conceptions around politics, race, gender, religion or sexuality. The Free Speech doubters see lurking behind the right to free speech a license for ‘hate speech’ and the marginalization of the voices of the disadvantaged. Well intentioned as this impulse is to protect the marginalized, democracy pays a high cost for this squeamishness. Honest dialogue, which requires the ability to say things that might be offensive to some, is almost always repressed. When speech is clamped down upon, ideas are driven underground where they fester without recourse to the disinfecting qualities of sunlight and fresh air.

Without freedom of expression, there can be little or no critical thinking. Without critical thinking, there can be no useful dialogue. Without dialogue, diversity can only be managed through coercion, repression and the silencing of dissent. And if not to manage diversity, who needs democracy? Its only purpose, then, becomes to rubber-stamp and provide legitimacy to despots.

As a dialogue practitioner who has worked with highly polarized groups for the better part of three decades, it is my experience that with rare exceptions, Minority Rights are best protected through minimum restrictions on expression. As someone who has found himself in a minority most everyplace and has been an immigrant three times in as many decades, the only thing that has ever protected me has been my right to express myself unhampered by fear or threat. Where either I, or people around me have been silenced it has not helped me feel welcomed or safe. Instead, the silence of the majority has almost always ended up disadvantaging me, causing me harm. I have rarely ever been protected by others holding their tongues.

Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy -1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six conversations that should have preceded the Brexit referendum

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

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

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