Category Archives: deliberation

the “America in One Room” experiment

On the New York Times op-ed page today, James Fishkin and Larry Diamond report the results of convening 523 randomly selected registered voters for several days of deliberation. These voters were surveyed before and after the discussions. Their appraisal of democracy rose markedly. They also shifted their views in specific ways:

The most polarizing proposals, whether from the left or the right, generally lost support, and a number of more centrist proposals moved to the foreground. Crucially, proposals further to the right typically lost support from Republicans and proposals further to the left typically lost support from Democrats.

I have known Jim Fishkin and his work for 20 years and admire it a lot. These experiments are illuminating, and they open possibilities for reform. They also remind us that the politics we see around is the outcome of specific institutional arrangements that could be changed. For instance, we are not hard-wired to fall into two partisan camps; that is a feature of our electoral system. If we were randomly recruited into deliberative bodies, we would see very different results. If we can change something, we should consider changing it.

But I do have some worries:

  • Does the shift to moderate opinions demonstrate that deliberation is desirable? It could also be interpreted as a bias: putting people together in heterogeneous groups disadvantages the radicals and their ideas. I try to challenge myself by seriously engaging several opposing political movements with which I disagree. That is my own approach to deliberation, and it could be considered a form of moderation. But I don’t find myself shifting to centrist positions, many of which I find thin gruel and incommensurate to our problems.
  • What is the overall theory of change? If we like this alternative form of politics–much more deliberative, and also more moderate, than the status quo–how should we institutionalize it? The easy part is to invent policies that would make democratic deliberation mandatory. The hard part is figuring out who would fight for those policies, and why. More people are motivated by political agendas and identities than by procedural ideals, and especially procedures that favor the center.
  • What about people who are not invited to deliberate, or who don’t like the results of the deliberation? Do we see them as worse qualified to express themselves?
  • Is this experiment a form of civic education that teaches people to value interactions that are civil, professionally organized, calm, and “invited”–thereby implicitly devaluing such forms of politics as social movements, strikes, competitive elections, and litigation? If that is the lesson, is it an acceptable one?

See also: John Gaventa on invited and claimed participation; civic engagement and the incarceration crisis; saving relational politics; why study real-life deliberation?

marginalizing views in a time of polarization

I recently posted “marginalizing odious views: a strategy,” which was about a powerful and sometimes valuable tool for self-governance. When communities define specific perspectives as beyond consideration, they uphold norms without needing formal censorship. This is good when it happens to Nazis (for instance), but problematic when it’s used to block serious consideration of minority views.

I assume that marginalization is a perennial strategy. Its advantages and risks–especially as compared to a strategy of engagement–are also perennial. But the context does make a difference.

When most Americans got their news from three rather similar TV networks plus a metropolitan daily newspaper that had from zero to three local competitors, marginalization depended on the mass media. You could try to marginalize a position that you considered odious, or create space for a currently marginalized view, but your success would depend on what Walter Cronkite and his ilk thought. If a position wasn’t marginalized on the network news, it wasn’t marginalized. And if a view never got aired in the mass media, then it was pretty marginal even if you and your friends believed in it.

At the same time, the two major parties had overlapping national elites with similar educational pedigrees who, while disagreeing about some important matters of policy, still tended to agree about what was marginal. Along with the mass media, they adjudicated what belonged on the national agenda. Thus the terms of the game were clearly defined, even if the rules were problematic because they gave too much power to homogeneous elites.

Now that the media landscape is highly fractured, we live in many separate epistemic communities. What is mainstream in one setting can be effectively marginalized in another. Just to name one example, the phrase “illegal immigrants” is pretty much marginalized in both my city and my university, but it is the standard phrase across large swaths of America.

The fact that our national discourse is polarized and balkanized has been widely noted, but I want to emphasize the consequences for a strategy of marginalization:

  1. It is now virtually impossible to marginalize across the society as a whole. Given any opinion, some people are comfortably expressing it right now in public (online) to their fellow believers.
  2. It is now much easier to marginalize within a community in which you in are the mainstream. The temptation to say, “We don’t say that here” is very high when that can be so successful.
  3. There is also a constant temptation to demonstrate that each community is biased by forcing it to confront views that it is trying to marginalize. That makes the community look intolerant to external audiences. For instance, if a university seems pervasively liberal, invite Milo, watch the reaction, and cry “Censorship!”
  4. Since being marginalized feels like being censored, more people have the experience of censorship in various specific settings where their own views are unpopular. In fact, almost everyone would be marginalized somewhere.
  5. The same statements often have a double effect. For their proponents, they reinforce shared norms. For their opponents, they serve as examples of what must be marginalized. For instance, Rush Limbaugh clearly has two audiences: conservatives who like what he says and liberals who are appalled by quotes that circulate in their networks. (Both reactions benefit Limbaugh by bolstering his prominence.)
  6. The strategy that is furthest from marginalization–trying to learn from other people while sharing your opinions with them–is harder than ever, because we all hide in homogeneous communities.

I continue to think that marginalization has a place in politics. Not every opinion deserves respectful consideration. Communities gain coherence and value by drawing limits around what they will consider. However, I suspect that a fractured media system makes marginalization too tempting and persuasion too difficult, with costs for democracy.

marginalizing odious views: a strategy

If you looked out at the National Mall on any Inauguration Day from 1944 to 2012, you might conclude that Nazism had been effectively marginalized in the USA. The president who was being sworn in might be leading a war against actual Nazis (Roosevelt) or might be a veteran of such a war. The growing array of monuments, memorials, and museums along the Mall included explicit repudiations of Nazism (the United States Holocaust Museum, the WWII Memorial), and lots of images and statements at odds with Nazi ideology. Even a white-supremacist like Jefferson was represented–selectively but not falsely–as a proponent of values antithetical to Nazism. And certainly no one would feel the need to explain why no Nazis were invited to this party.

As further evidence that Nazism was marginalized in the USA between 1941 and 2017, consider that:

  • No censorship was required to keep Nazi materials off respectable shelves, except sometimes as historical evidence of evil.
  • The word “Nazi” was an epithet, not requiring an explanation as to why it was bad.
  • People who shared a lot of beliefs with Nazis remained prevalent, but they denied that they were Nazis or resembled Nazis.
  • The word got misapplied as an insult to people who didn’t deserve it. The debate was not about whether it was OK to be a Nazi but whether it was OK to call someone that.
  • The word gained a penumbra of moral seriousness and shame. Joking about it was generally off-color, although it did produce some brilliant satire.
  • [We did still read Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, which shows either that the marginalization was incomplete or that it’s possible to make judicious exceptions.]

Marginalizing Nazism was an achievement. It was a form of self-governance, the imposition of values on a population by the population. Even if you’re not a purist about First Amendment principles, you might still agree that successful marginalization of an odious view is more effective than state censorship. It is also in some respects safer, because states that censor may easily abuse that power. (And censorship is ultimately backed by the gun.)

Although marginalization need not employ state censorship, it does make heavy use of authoritative rhetoric, rituals, social norms, selective invitations to speak, and refusals to listen. It is incompatible with engaging alternative views, listening to learn, being open to changing one’s mind, seeing the good in everyone, etc. It explicitly repudiates dialogue. We can either engage in dialogue or we can marginalize; we can’t do both to the same target.

As such, marginalization can be misused. For instance, socialism hasn’t been fully marginalized in the US since the Palmer Raids of ca. 1919–but close. Many people who share views with actual social democrats or democratic socialists deny that they do. In many circles, the term “socialist” suffices as a critique and doesn’t need an argument–it functions as an epithet.

Again, the marginalization of socialism has never been complete. There have always been socialists in the US with significant influence and secure positions. Just lately, we are seeing a real resurgence. Still, the degree of marginalization has been sufficient to distort the public debate. I happen to be mildly skeptical of socialism on several grounds, yet it seems obvious that the policies employed in thriving countries like Norway and Germany deserve consideration in the USA–and are, in fact, sometimes employed here. Marginalizing the word that best describes those policies prevents the public from considering them on their merits.

The temptation to marginalize is felt across the spectrum. For instance, neoliberalism is perhaps the reigning orthodoxy of our era. Yet no one calls himself a “neoliberal.” The word is almost always used in circles where people oppose market capitalism, as an epithet. It substitutes for an argument. It is hard to define “neoliberalism” in a way that (a) accurately describes the views of the alleged proponents, and (b) is actually bad. A commitment to personal freedom is something that alleged neoliberals would acknowledge but that also seems attractive. A preference for corporations over people is something that they would deny. Once you propose a precise and accurate definition of neoliberalism, you are engaged in an argument rather than marginalizing anyone–but you risk losing the argument. Now you are no longer just charging opponents with being neoliberals but considering whether choice and competition might be helpful under specific circumstances.

To the target, marginalization feels like censorship. When a university refuses to invite a certain kind of speaker to give a formal talk, or disinvites someone who was invited, that is not–in an important, technical sense–censorship. The university has a right and even a responsibility to invite selectively. However, when the university is part of a larger movement to marginalize a given view, then holders of that view face what feels like censorship when they are not invited. If those people are Nazis, then their marginalization is an achievement. But if they are merely out of step with dominant views on college campuses, then they may have a legitimate complaint.

In short: marginalization is a powerful and appropriate strategy when the target deserves it. The power to marginalize is a political resource. It is a form or aspect of governance. But its power is so tempting that we must be careful not to abuse it. One reason not to marginalize any given view is that we may then fail to learn from it.

See also responsiveness as a virtue; civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?; civility: not too much, not too little; and (from 2009) a theory of free speech on campus.

civility, humility, tolerance, empathy, or what?

It sounds like a parody of a professor’s life, but I have actually attended conferences since 2016 on the themes of: 1) empathy and compassion, 2) civility, 3) responsiveness, and 4) tolerance. I missed an excellent-looking meeting on 5) humility and conviction, but I teach those concepts in classes on Gandhi’s political thought. Nobody has invited me to a meeting about 6) openness or 7) fallibalism, but I would consider attending.

In case you’re wondering, the participants in these meetings have been delightfully humble, empathetic, civil, and so on. It doesn’t mean we were right.

The question is: which intellectual virtues should we develop in ourselves and in others in various settings? This is not a matter of rules or controls. In many settings, people have–and should have–rights to talk and respond to others as they wish. It’s more a matter of what we should strive for, ourselves, and sometimes how we should assess others. For example, if I’m a high school teacher who assigns students to discuss a contentious issue, on what basis should I assess their interactions?

The full list of criteria would also include 8) truth and 9) justice. For instance, you can make a claim that is admirably civil, empathetic, and responsive, yet demonstrably false. That is not generally desirable. Or perhaps you could engage in an admirable way with other people while making claims that are simply unjust. You could be an avuncular and gracious Nazi. Unless we adopt a completely procedural understanding of justice (it just is what people decide that it is, by discussing), there can be a gap between a good discussion and a just outcome.

But the first seven criteria seem important even if we leave truth and justice aside for the moment. First, it matters how our discussions go because it’s one way that we explore truth and justice. Second, we should simply relate to each other well. By conversing, we form or sustain a community and share a social space. So the quality of discourse affects the quality of the commons.

So which of the first seven are virtues, for whom, and in which combinations?

  1. Empathy is an affective reaction that can distort our judgment (for instance, by focusing us too much on a concrete case) and that can be unwelcome or unhelpful. If you’re a victim of racial injustice, you don’t want me, a white guy, to say that I feel your pain–or even to try to feel it. You want me to keep a clear head and do something about it.
  2. Civility is sometimes defined in terms of rules and norms of politeness. For instance, to use an offensive word or to yell at another person is uncivil. Politeness actually has value in many circumstances, but civility-as-politeness doesn’t seem to be the core issue. You can say horrible things with polite words, or valuable things laced with profanity. As Tony Laden notes in his contribution to A Crisis of Civility?: Political Discourse and Its Discontent, there is a different scholarly literature in which civility means not politeness but “a form of engagement in a shared political activity characterized by a certain kind of openness and a disposition to cooperate.” That seems the right direction but not easy to assess in practice. It takes us to …
  3. Responsiveness. We all have a valid interest in others’ being responsive to us. It seems to be a virtue. But … should you respond positively to a heinous new idea? Does being genuinely responsive entail shifting your views closer to the speaker’s? Or can you be responsive without changing your mind? If so, what does that entail?
  4. Tolerance is much better than intolerance, as a general rule. But it doesn’t seem sufficient. We don’t merely want to be tolerated, but also welcomed and listened to. At the same time, some ideas are intolerable. Tolerance doesn’t seem necessary or sufficient for good interactions.
  5. “Humility and conviction” is the name of a great program at UConn. This combination of words has the advantage of balance. We should be humble, because we can easily be wrong; but we should also take a stand. Humility alone is compatible with being wishy-washy. But conviction without humility is zealotry. This is (in the broadest sense) an Aristotelian way to think about virtues–as the mean between extremes. It raises the standard problem for Aristotelian accounts: What is the mean in each circumstance? Who should be more humble, and should should be less so?
  6. Openness is one of the Big Five personality traits. It seems desirable but needs some balance and moral direction. Otherwise, it shades into prurient curiosity or thrill-seeking. For example, openness correlates with use of illegal drugs. Although I am not an alarmist about drugs, a psychological trait that could either cause you to listen well to new ideas or experiment with ecstasy doesn’t seem to be reliably a virtue.
  7. Fallabilism means knowing that you could be wrong. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women” (Learned Hand). We should all be fallibalists, but again the question is what this means in practice. For example, I know colleagues involved in Science and Technology Studies who are primarily concerned about the excessive authority of science and want to preserve skepticism about climate change. My own view is that we should declare anthropogenic global warming a settled issue and decide what to do about it. But that would be less fallibalist.

See also: Empathy and Justice; civility: not too much, not too little; what sustains free speech?; responsiveness as a virtue.

a civic approach to free speech

I argued in a recent post that libertarians, social democrats, American liberals, and most US Constitutional scholars share a sharp distinction between the state and the private sector–but this distinction does not reflect our actual experience of the social world.

One result is a certain way of thinking about freedoms of speech, the press, assembly, religion, and petition (the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, which are also important rights in other democracies).

A typical first step is to identify which institutions are public or state bodies. They should be prevented from interfering with other people’s speech and assembly, and they should be constrained from expressing themselves in certain ways. For instance, the US government may not express support for any specific religion, although anyone else in the society may.

The next step is to safeguard the freedoms of non-public groups, including their freedom to discriminate and exclude. For instance, the Catholic Church is not required to ordain non-Catholics (or women) as priests. Such requirements would violate its freedom of assembly and religion.

Then we face two recurrent debates. One is whether various private associations (universities, web platforms) should act like states, even though perhaps they don’t have to under the Constitution. For instance, should a private university accord its students untrammeled freedom of speech? The other debate is whether hybrid institutions (state universities, political parties, public broadcasting services) are more state or private. Do they have First Amendment rights or must they safeguard others’ rights, or both?

The debate about the role of speech in our democracy thus centers on questions like comment-moderation, inviting or disinviting speakers, speech codes, hate speech–all of which have a legalistic flavor. The question is who has a right to say what, where.

If I actually had any influence, I would not seek to upset the apple cart of American constitutional thought. The categories that we have drawn (public/private, freedom/restriction) reflect some accumulated wisdom and offer some practical advantages. I would give a Burkean justification for how we employ the First Amendment: it is how we have learned to operate.

But the distinction between state and private sphere is at odds with the reality of how institutions work. They are almost all hybrids, partly public and partly private, exercising power but also allowing voice, including some and excluding others.

So what if we started instead with a population of people–individual human beings–who come together in a wide range of organizational forms to define, discuss, and address problems? I think these are the important points for them to consider in relation to freedom of speech:

  1. They need structured, reflective discussions that encompass a diversity of views and respond to good reasons or insights, not to power. They don’t need consensus, but they must continuously learn from others.
  2. Good discussions take institutional forms, from op-ed pages to seminars to town meetings. All institutions have rules, norms, resources, and incentives. Incentives are necessary because participation in a discussion has costs. It takes time and energy to discuss, and the conversation may cause discomfort. Individuals don’t have to participate. Successful institutions for communication or discussion find ways to lure people in. A classic example was the package of the local daily newspaper: comics and sports to encourage subscriptions, and a sober front page to direct your attention to serious matters. The demise of this business model is an important example of what we should worry about.
  3. Any good discussion is a common-pool resource. It requires voluntary contributions, it serves all who participate, but it is easy for individuals to ruin. There are principles for the management of fragile common-pool resources.
  4. On the list of principles you will not find a requirement to discuss all the rules and incentives all the time. On the contrary, groups must economize on disagreement. They can’t handle too much of it. And any discussion assumes a prior solution to a problem of collective action. People didn’t automatically want to show up and talk; they were drawn in. This means that discussions generally rely on founders, small groups of leaders, or past generations of participants. We don’t make our own discussions; we join them. The structure of the institution constrains the discussions that take place within it, but there is no such thing as an unstructured discussion.
  5. Given the fragility of institutions for discussion and the importance of building institutions that match various needs and interests, they must be plural. We need lots of overlapping but heterogeneous forums–face-to-face, online, big, intimate, ideologically coherent and ideologically diverse. Each one will set rules for what speech it allows, but the rules will also determine who participates, the costs and benefits of participation, the scale, and a range of other issues. No set of rules is ideal; it’s the whole ecosystem that matters.

None of this is original. It reflects well-developed lines of argument from the sociology of communication and other fields. But it is an alternative to the US discourse of free speech, which is all about rights and restrictions. It focuses instead on the design of multiple institutions for communication–their resources, boundaries, rules, and norms.