Doesn't this fall into the trap of those who are happy just to talk about change without actually doing anything?
The public sphere is filled with talk, but lots of it qualifies not as reasoned thinking together, but as blather, bluster, cross-talk, and grandstanding. Rarely these days do persons who are neither family members not intimate friends gather to take account of their differences and mutual interests--necessary first steps toward collective action. Deliberation, therefore, isn't simply "talk about change," but a central step in the process of advocating for and enacting change. Without the agreements, negotiation, and new alliances that deliberation can yield, change is difficult or even impossible.
Deliberation does not occur in a vacuum, but can lead to greater collective action and can take place simultaneously with other forms of civic engagement and citizenship. Deliberation is a necessary but insufficient component of citizenship, and should be connected to and may co-exist with other citizen actions, from voting and organizing to protesting and advocating.
Doesn't this exclude non-citizens?
We use the term citizenship not as a marker of legal status or political eligibility, but rather as a broad category of actions, dispositions, and sensibilities associated with active public life. As we use the term, citizenship extends beyond voting to include awareness, maintenance of a public persona, and an interest in the well-being of others who are strangers to one another.
Why should I listen to speech that offends and may traumatize me?
Deliberation invites participants to engage in a wide variety of communicative behaviors, including not just persuasive speech based on logical evidence or quantitative data, but also emotional responses, feelings about an issue, story-telling (both hypothetical and experience-based), artistic productions, and other forms of expression.
Yet that is not to say that anything goes. In most contexts, deliberation is governed by shared ground rules, ranging from the rules of evidence used in a courtroom or the procedural rules of a parliamentary debate, to more informal agreements about what constitutes acceptable speech within various discourse communities. Whatever the context, deliberation proceeds most effectively when participants are committed to interacting with one another in friendly, charitable, and respectful ways that exclude hateful or trauma-inducing discourse.
It also proceeds effectively if participants are encouraged first to listen and to understand their fellow participants' points of view before taking offense. Such listening does not imply agreement, but suggests a respect for the equal status of our fellow citizens/humans -- the same respect we expect to be shown to us. We should also not view listening as giving them a platform to express views we disagree with; instead, it means we are giving them a seat at the table where they also commit to listening to views they disagree with.
To the extent a participant's speech is deeply offensive or traumatizing to other participants, the deliberative setting allows for those participants to communicate their point of view as well. Such direct communication is ultimately the best mechanism for citizens to understand and respond to each other as humans capable of feeling emotions and pain -- and to work together towards reducing that pain.
Shouldn't I be working for my party and affinity groups to advance my priorities in the next election?
Though "reaching across the aisle" historically was common, it is often invoked but rarely achieved in this age of polarization. The very possibility of productive disagreement has become increasingly elusive, and regardless of which party or political faction wins an election, political gridlock often results. Given this context, just winning some elections will therefore not likely advance one's political priorities in the long term.
In order to recover a measure of democratic legitimacy and break that gridlock, we must empower all voices and seek a better understanding of positions not our own. A climate of tribalism is undemocratic and dysfunctional. If we hope to heal our civic malaise, we must learn to listen and respond constructively to those outside our own cultural groups. Deliberation allows us to do so.
At the same time, engaging deliberately with those with whom you disagree does not preclude working for your party or your affinity groups. Everyone must decide for themselves what proportion of their time they want to dedicate to deliberation or advocacy. At any point in time, we may feel more or less inclined to do the hard but deeply rewarding work of deliberative citizenship. But upon reflection and with reasonable opportunities, we believe that most people will conclude that they should spend at least some of their time deliberating (and some of their time advocating).
Shouldn't others have to take on the burden to learn for themselves rather than me having to participate with or facilitate a dialogue for them?
As citizens of a global society and in a democratic country, we all have the responsibility to learn for ourselves and help others learn as well. In the long run, democracy simply cannot work if we retreat from learning from one another about our common and different backgrounds, experiences, beliefs, fears, hopes, and dreams. While reading books and articles can certainly contribute to our education as citizens, such learning often happens best in face-to-face discussions.
No one should have to disproportionately take on this responsibility, and no one should disproportionately retreat from it either. This responsibility should not take over our lives – as we have other responsibilities as well, including the responsibility to take care of ourselves and our personal health and well-being.
But it should also not be totally absent from our lives either. Each of us must decide at any particular moment what they can and cannot take on, but the foundation of democratic life is the optimistic hope that a large proportion of us will commit to engaging with one another, despite and indeed because of our differences. Democracy affords us many incredible rights, but with those rights also come important responsibilities, which can ultimately be very rewarding and satisfying in and of themselves.
If I am a student, shouldn’t I be focusing on my academic work and my future career? If I am a professor, shouldn’t I be focused on my research and teaching and my particular field of expertise?
Davidson College’s mission is to prepare students for “lives of leadership and service.” To do so, it calls on the College to “provide a range of opportunities for...civil debate...that enrich mind and spirit” and “teach all students to communicate freely with others in the realm of ideas.” The College thus promises to assist students in becoming leaders not only in the arenas and fields of their prospective expertise, but in the larger public sphere.
In order to do that, the College must supply students with tools for inventing and distributing new ideas that further progress in a wide variety of arenas, whether humanistic, political, social, scientific, or artistic. One cannot lead effectively nor serve others in any of these fields without the skills needed to listen deeply and deliberate with others. Furthermore, these skills and dispositions will be useful not only in public settings with your fellow citizens, but also in professional and private ones as well. Whether you find yourself in a classroom, boardroom, operating room, or living room, you’ll find the ability to facilitate and participate in difficult conversations to be relevant and practical – and worth learning.
Is it against forms of political activism that do not involve deliberation?
Emphatically, NO. There are many forms of democratic action, and protest is a critical and essential one of them. The DCI has no interest whatsoever in “repressing” protest on any issue, but instead sees protest and deliberation as often complementary and both necessary in the political life of a society. Protests can help illuminate and bring attention to issues that the broader public has ignored, while opportunities for dialogue and deliberation can enable citizens to engage with one another about those issues and explore potential resolutions to them once and as they are being brought to light. There is a time for protest, and there is a time for deliberation, and there are times for other forms of citizen action (volunteering, donating, voting, etc.) as well. They are all essential components of a healthy democracy.
Is it trying to take over and control other efforts to promote dialogue?
No, the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative is not intended to serve as an umbrella organization nor is it trying to control all deliberation-related activities. Instead, it is designed as an effort to support both new and existing efforts to facilitate discussion of difficult and contentious issues. The DCI hopes and plans to partner with a wide array of student organizations, academic departments, campus offices, and community groups in order to support and build on the important work they are already doing. The goal is to help provide the tools, resources, and spaces that will enable productive and respectful deliberations across a broad range of topics and issues, regardless of whom is sponsoring or organizing them. There are obvious benefits to some coordination that helps pool resources and avoid duplication, but there are also important benefits to decentralized experimentation and innovation. Promoting productive deliberation is an enormous challenge, and it will take many different efforts and actors to make it happen, sometimes working together and sometimes working independently.
Or are they just for people who are passionate about politics and have leadership roles in existing organizations?
Everyone is welcome to participate in DCI-hosted events! Both those who hold strong views and those who are less certain of their opinions (or passionate about them) are encouraged to attend activities sponsored by the DCI and its partners. Additionally, both those who are involved in campus organizations and those who are not involved at all are welcome, and facilitators at DCI forums will enable everyone to participate. More generally, all students, faculty, staff, and community members of different races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, gender identities, ages, socio-economic backgrounds, political perspectives, abilities, cultures, and national origins are encouraged to attend events that the DCI organizes. The only request is that all participants commit to the deliberative dispositions that the initiative has identified as conducive to productive public discourse.
How can deliberation help us deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the deep tensions over race and the police, and concerns about the upcoming US election?
While we are faced with difficult social and political challenges at any particular moment in time, the current moment does feel different. With sky-high levels of unemployment, over 114,000 people dead from COVID-19, and protests happening around the world, the confluence of different sources of both chronic and acute pain and frustration that many people are feeling right now in America and elsewhere is truly unprecedented.
The levels and varieties of emotion that we are currently feeling -- from anger and fear to sadness and despair -- are very real and for some, very longstanding. The idea of sitting down to talk with those you disagree with and may even be contributing to your pain and the pain of others may seem preposterous and impossible right now. And for some, as noted above, it may indeed not be the right time for deliberation.
But we continue to strongly believe that protest and deliberation are complementary sides of democratic citizenship. And that both emotion and reason, and both personal narratives and well-fashioned arguments, are critical components of productive deliberation. Short of using power and force -- whether it is through police batons, boycotts, or social media shaming -- to enact change, the only long-term, sustainable, and ethically robust means to make progress on our current challenges is through persuasion. Such persuasion -- convincing someone to voluntarily agree with you -- can occur through different mechanisms, but sincerely talking with and listening to one another is certainly a critical one. The process can be long and difficult, but the payoff can be enormous -- deep understanding, shared commitments, and united action.
And the alternatives -- either continued pitched verbal battles that risk descending into harmful violence or fearful retreat behind a status quo that is perceived by many as deeply unfair and unjustifiable -- seems worth avoiding as much as possible. We can, should, and must do better, and one way to do so -- among many -- is to become more deliberate "deliberative citizens."
Is it a compass, and if so, why?
The DCI logo is indeed based on the idea of a compass. It represents our hope that the DCI can serve as a wayfinder for individuals trying to find their way through the complex terrain of today’s social and political challenges. We assume that any disagreement about these challenges has its origins in a wide, virtual territory of claims, assertions, and underlying assumptions, each of them standing in relation to one another. One can imagine a participant in a deliberation as an explorer facing a wilderness of arguments, some of them interconnected or entangled, others standing apart and alone.
We use the compass as a metaphor for the deliberative methods and dispositions that can help us navigate this territory. By helping participants learn and apply these approaches, the DCI, like a compass, can assist us in taking account of the lay of the land, triangulating our own positions within a controversy, and forging a pathway through the thicket of a disagreement, potentially towards a place of shared understanding, agreement and action.
Don’t experts crowd out citizen voices, and aren’t citizens entitled to their own set of facts?
Certainly both implicit and explicit conflicts between experts and citizens can emerge in democratic discourse. Citizens can feel their experiences and knowledge are devalued by an emphasis on the “elite” perspectives of researchers, government officials, corporate executives, and non-profit leaders. Conversely, those who have dedicated their careers to examining a topic – one important type of expertise -- can feel their work is underappreciated by an “anything goes” approach to facts and an atmosphere that seems to dismiss science and scholarship. These tensions can emerge in direct confrontations between experts and the public or more implicitly through the types of materials and speakers that are spotlighted at deliberative forums.
Such tensions, however, can be managed and mitigated by the designers and facilitators of these forums. The first step is to determine the need for facts and expertise in the planned event. Then available expertise should be framed and contextualized, and the value of different forms of expertise, including those based in scientific and humanistic study, institutional experience, and local, context-based knowledge, should be emphasized. Finally, it is important to strike a balance between making these various types of expertise accessible and allowing them to dominate any particular deliberative setting.
So, yes, there is a risk of these different forms of expertise unproductively conflicting with one another, but effective facilitation (and the openmindedness of participants) can enable productive engagement and exchange between these different perspectives as well.
As to whether citizens are entitled to their own set of facts, questions of fact are often key areas of disagreement in democratic discourse, as are questions of meaning, values, and policy. It is the work of participants, with the help of facilitators, to disentangle and explore the origins of those disagreements, to offer reasons and evidence to support their arguments, and to update their understandings as they engage and learn from one another. While not all factual disagreements will likely be resolved, some consensus may be possible as the participants listen to all of the forms of expertise available to them.
Aren’t the requirements of civility a means to silence the angry and the downtrodden?
Calls to “be civil” can and have been used as a tool to silence voices that challenge the status quo. Such injunctions may be directed towards individuals and groups from across the political spectrum, from revolutionary progressives to reactionary populists. Such use of civility, either intentionally or not, is deeply problematic, as it can exclude important perspectives in ways that violate the inclusivity requirement of robust deliberative democracy.
At the same time, some agreement on a set of norms for discourse seems necessary to enable deliberative participants to actually engage with one another. Otherwise, we risk just yelling at each other without listening, understanding, or working together towards some common goal. These norms should be based on a fundamental recognition of the equality and dignity of all human beings, and are the basis of what we might call an egalitarian sense of civility. They go beyond just being polite and courteous, which may lead us to avoid difficult but important topics, and encompass what Krista Tippett has called a “muscular civility,” which is genuinely respectful of other perspectives but does not shy away from tough issues and deep disagreements.
Following the work of Étienne Balibar and Carlos Forment, we can also differentiate between two other types of civility; one top-down and vertical and the other bottom-up and horizontal. The former represents the efforts of elites and the state to orient the public towards a particular way of interacting. The latter represents a more democratic and organic approach to discourse in which participants recognize on their own the value of being respectful towards one another, despite their differences. It enables them to co-create a space, sometimes with the assistance of a facilitator, in which they can express themselves honestly, listen empathetically, and engage with one another authentically. It may involve coming up with their own guidelines that help them reaffirm their commitments to one another and navigate the difficult terrain of their deliberations.
Whether we call this “civility” or not, it is this sense of mutual recognition and engagement that the DCI is committed to supporting. While we can hope that it emerges spontaneously, existing political structures, cultures, and path dependencies make it very difficult to do so. By helping create opportunities for citizens, in the most global and inclusive sense of the term, to deliberate with one another, the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative aims not to silence but to create space for the voices of the disadvantaged and marginalized to be heard and recognized.
For more on the many different meanings and interpretations of civility, we recommend “Introduction: Whose Civility?,” which introduces a special issue of Anthropological Theory on civility.
To learn more about the different ways you can get involved in the initiative, click here.
If you’d like to learn more about the variety of programs and activities that the DCI is planning, click here.