By Andrew Gardner, DCI Fellow
Last week, Davidson and the DCI had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Martín Carcasson of Colorado State University to share his expertise on a variety of topics. There are few people in the country more qualified to speak on issues of deliberation and discourse than Dr. Carcasson. His work with Colorado State’s Center for Public Deliberation (CPD) has been foundational for programs like the DCI which seek to organize facilitated deliberation in both community and educational settings. Dr. Carcasson’s keynote address centered on the issue of wicked problems, a crucial term in the study of modern discourse and one which has made me reconsider the way I approach many of the contentious issues today.
Dr. Carcasson outlined the definition of a wicked problem as a contentious issue that pits competing values against one another. These problems force a difficult choice between values, each of which may be independently desirable, meaning that any position requires compromising on one or more value. Resolving wicked problems is one of the biggest challenges facing facilitators of good deliberation because both sides can make bad faith attacks against the other, claiming that they are apathetic towards whichever value they are under-emphasizing in their position.
Take, for example, the natural conflict between economic and environmental concerns when discussing regulatory policies. Each is intrinsically desirable, yet any realistic policy must make sacrifices on one, the other, or both. It is easy to see how discussions on environmental regulation can devolve into each side accusing the other of indifference towards the environment or American workers. The same tension exists in many of the most contentious issues facing us today: privacy vs. security, freedom vs. equality, and many more.
Dr. Carcasson also offers a path forward, both for facilitators and citizens. While wicked problems may be inevitable, our negative response to them is not. The key, Dr. Carcasson argues, is to recognize that the wickedness exists in the problem and not in the people. Doing so is difficult; it contradicts our natural inclination to seek out a simple “right vs. wrong” understanding of the world. However, if we can move past these easy interpretations of complex issues and genuinely attempt to understand the merits of positions different than our own, discussions would inevitably be more productive.
As a facilitator, I look forward to putting Dr. Carcasson’s ideas into practice. A few days after his address, I was able to facilitate a discussion on healthcare, a topic rife with wicked problems. I deliberately attempted to highlight these challenges to the members of my D-team and was pleased to see their thoughtful reactions. I also recognize that I have a great deal to personally work on regarding this issue, as I am guilty of oversimplifying the various perspectives on complex issues. However, Dr. Carcasson helped open my eyes on this topic and I am excited to further implement his advice in all facets of my life.
Click here to watch Dr. Carcasson’s keynote address from October 14, 2020.