By Kevin Garcia-Galindo, DCI Fellow
British Philosopher Isaiah Berlin once stated that “equality does not need any justification but only inequality does.” I bring this up because it highlights the universality of the idea of egalitarianism as the view of equality being good on its own behalf or virtuous in comparison to the demerits of inequality. This idea is interesting because egalitarianism is rarely something we stress about in public life, let alone our private lives where we often make judgements about other people’s abilities and worth quotidian.
Training to become a DCI deliberation facilitator has taught me many things, including the worth and impact egalitarianism has on deliberation. Learning that egalitarianism is an essential part of deliberation really got me thinking about why exactly is it not used more often in other scenarios like national politics or workplace meetings where a more equal playing field of ideas could aid problem solving and creativity among teams? The simple answer is that egalitarianism is a difficult idea to implement, especially into historically hierarchical systems of work and problem solving.
The truth is that egalitarianism has its place and time, especially in those situations where speed of deliberation is not a priority. It is often disadvantageous in situations where rank, experience, and expertise clearly outrank everything else, e.g., you clearly would never deliberate in an egalitarian fashion with your plumber how to fix the sink if you have never even touched the tubing under your sink.
Egalitarianism is, however, despite its limitations, still considered an essential part of deliberation, mainly because if defined and implemented correctly it can make all the difference in not only coming to an adequate action plan after deliberation, but also making sure that participants feel as though their opinions matter in reaching that conclusion.
Egalitarianism is a complicated term because of the many different conceptions of equality one can have that are tied to justice, wealth, or capabilities, among other things. When I use the term egalitarianism, I use it in its most basic and commonly understood Western European and Anglo-American definition of the word signifying that all human beings are endowed with a specified number of natural rights and, especially in the Christian notion, a natural equal value and worth. One does not need to go this far in depth about the significant weight and meaning of the word egalitarianism, but I only do it as an attempt to dispel the word of any of the connotational deviations that it has gained over the years from being associated with different groups and ideologies.
In the divided deliberative landscape of today, egalitarianism has two distinct connotations, one associated with an extreme aversion to expert opinion and the other characterized by the raising of marginalized voices. This is partly the reason why trying to enforce egalitarianism in our own private and public lives is so hard to do and why most people simply ignore it.
A middle ground needs to be sought between valuing expert opinions and helping raise historically marginalized voices. This is an incredibly difficult task due to the very nature of human communication and interaction. Think of the Dunning-Kruger effect as described in psychology, which outlines the way many of us have distorted views of own capabilities and experiences, especially when we are just beginning to understand a concept. Often, those who know the least will rank themselves the most knowledgeable while those who know the most will underscore their capabilities. In other words, it’s very possible that if you don’t know a lot, you will know even less about all the things you don’t know. The inverse being that if you’re an expert, you will also be an expert at critiquing your own knowledge.
Furthermore, take for example social comparison theory, which suggests that the reason why we are constantly comparing ourselves to others is due to how our egos are always in search of our next boost and how as humans we are simply unable to live outside of hierarchical spaces.
Psychology has a lot to say about how we measure our capabilities and success against our peers, specifically how, under perfect conditions, social comparison can help us know the extent of our own abilities and how in imperfect conditions, it can serve as a vector for low self-esteem.
So, how does this relate to deliberation? It relates because very rarely will there be any discussion worth deliberating upon without the aid of expert thinkers who have studied a particular subject or stakeholders who have been affected by that same subject. Using an egalitarian outlook on deliberation means recognizing the different kinds of expertise that a multitude of people can offer, and maybe also how inexperience within a certain subject can also be a positive.
To set a picture in your mind, consider a deliberation on the future of public education with three main participants: an academic research fellow of a libertarian think tank who has studied public, charter, and private education differences for decades, a father who has recently transferred his son into homeschooling to exercise greater control over what he learns, and you. In this situation, you are most likely the deliberator with the least expertise, but why is that not a problem?
Because expertise in a certain subject is often tied to a certain bias or common expert opinion. These experts have clearly already landed on a side of the debate already and will most likely want to regurgitate many of the common talking points of their position pushing for greater school choice and competition within the educational system. This could be a valuable experience for someone like you, who might not be well versed in these sorts of arguments, but it might also push these experts to be a lot more conscientious about how their views and opinions are appraised by the common person. After all, are you not more representative of the average stakeholder view than anyone else on this board? Is the purpose of deliberation really a space we want dominated by a few elite experts? Is a government ruled by elites, or as Plato described in the Republic, “philosopher kings,” not called an “aristocracy”?
Another common response to this scenario might be to say, “why not have experts of varying opinions work together in deliberation?” My response is that if that were a solution, then simply having two “philosopher kings” could make an aristocracy work. Two experts of different opinions do not produce better discussion most of the time; rather, they simply may produce more discussion, often with less to show for it. Nowhere are fewer concessions given than during a deliberation between two strong willed experts who do not want to give any ground. Experts have more to lose than we normally recognize in these sorts of situations. Would not a more centered and openminded person be more able to offer more creative or distinct opinions than experts who already have their answer set in stone? Furthermore, somewhat counterintuitively, would a less knowledgeable person not be better equipped to be skeptical (as opposed to argumentative) or at least encourage the expert to elaborate on his ideas more precisely?
As I said earlier, under perfect conditions, egalitarianism can breed an aura where everyone feels like they are contributing to the deliberation. Sometimes it is essential to advocate for the importance of those who know less about the issue at hand because it can be so hard to make them feel adequate in such important discussions for the reasons I outlined earlier. Egalitarianism is something that needs to be built upon and refined over time by making sure that neither the experts nor the less knowledgeable deliberators gain too much control of the deliberation. After all, while we want to hear their perspectives, no one wants to be berated by biased experts or overwhelmed by unorganized opinions and ideas by people who don’t know much about the issue.
Part of my mission this year as a DCI Fellow will be to use egalitarianism within the deliberations I facilitate in the same way I have outlined across this paper. Part of that effort will be me emphasizing respect for different perspectives and levels of expertise. But other times it may be preventing the experts from taking too much control of the conversation or affirming those who feel that they have nothing to add that their opinion is valuable and imperative. Pointing out how valuable opinions from all levels of expertise are might just be what defines how people come and leave feeling about the deliberations I lead.
Deliberation should be democratic and egalitarian in nature because if it ever becomes a discussion of only the views of a special few, then it ceases to be a method for producing democratic and intersectional solutions and one simply for self-praise and banter.