Category Archives: Deliberative Processes

Trump and Netanyahu Make Decisions the Same Way – Incompletely


There is a term in political and communication theory known as “democratic reason.” Generally, democratic reason is the collective intelligence of a group of people. It is the notion that democratic communicative processes – that is, things like inclusion, balance, equality, resources, speaking rights, participation – result in higher quality decisions. Or, we could express it in the everyday phrase “two heads are better than one.”

Netanyahu and Trump both fail to meet some basic communication quality standards. Both face electoral problems and controversies because they refuse to recognize attitude trends in the citizenry that call for inclusive and democratic input. Polls in Israel show that about 60% of the population wants peace and is willing to make some sacrifices. It is the leadership that is stubborn and not serious about real progress. Real progress, without being naïve, can be made if a representative group of people spent their time in serious deliberation with the goal of using the communication process to create new ideas solutions.

This notion that two heads are better than one is actually pretty powerful. Even in simple aggregation such as voting more participants improves the likelihood of decisions being improved or not random. In the well-known “jar of beans” example, we could ask individuals with no previous exposure to the jar about how many beans are in the jar. We then get a group average on the basis of the entire group (the group produces a simple average) and the group average will be better than the average of the individuals. Finally, we can organize a group and give them time to talk to each other, deliberate, and share ideas. In other words we could make the communication system available to them. This third group, which allows for as rich and controlled democratic communication process as possible, will most consistently produce better answers.

The reason for this is the epistemic nature of communication but we will talk about that some other time. For now, I want to make the observation that the full Republican control of the senate and congress along with Trump is a dangerous situation. Key decision-making issues will escape the scrutiny of diverse voices and fail to let each side fully participate in the intelligence of the other side. This is why the Congress is polarized rather than democratized.

Trump already has authoritative tendencies. He has no patience for other people and little history having to answer to anybody. Much of leadership in his business world is based on clear lines of command with few or no constituencies to please other than investors. Moreover, Trump holds to the belief that the best and the brightest are going to beat and know more than the average citizen. Whether or not Trump has actually identified the best and the brightest we will leave for others just to say, but his aristocracy theory that the elite will always know more and therefore make better decisions than the average citizen does not always hold sway.

The reason that elites do not always make better decision is because they lack diversity; they may hold expertise even deep expertise in a particular subject but they lack diverse points of view and variety. In an interesting book by Scott Page (The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Society: Princeton University Press), he demonstrates the power of inclusiveness and diverse voices in decisions.

True enough that collective reason can go awry but that is usually managed by the communication process and the conditions of contact. Communication is only smart when it is allowed to work properly. When communication is restrained or distorted or the victim of a host of other maladies it then becomes a mechanism for collective unreason preventing itself from finding real solutions.


The Death of the Worthy Adversary


Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.

Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.

The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.

Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.

There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category

Enemies versus Adversaries

To be destroyed. To be defeated.
Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust. The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.
No trust. Trust is possible.
Zero-sum game. Non-zero-sum game.
Warfare metaphors. Possibilities for cooperation.
Differences between the two sides are maximized. Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.
Unwavering commitment to a perspective. Opportunity for change and altering perspectives
The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it. Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces and can be addressed.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.


Future Work in Deliberation Will Tackle the Problem of Religiously and Ethnically Divided Societies

The essence of deliberative communication One of the biggest tensions in both politics and culture is the balance between membership in an ethnic community and the sense of belonging it provides versus a more capacious mentality with respect to respecting democratic ideals of inclusiveness and fairness. Many current cultural and political problems trace their roots to multicultural situations and settings where social cohesion is lost as settings become more diverse. Consequently, politics is essentially about the management of differences. And one of the most difficult differences to manage is ethnic identity which offers a strong sense of belonging but is quite dumbfounded when it comes to developing intergroup cooperation and an identity sufficiently broad enough to include both sides of a conflict.

The “received” deliberative democracy literature is mostly broad and normative focusing on abstractions about how to reconcile differences in a democratic manner. But one of the underappreciated difficulties of the more theoretical approach to deliberation is that it fails to sufficiently embrace the matter of power asymmetries. These are when values and interests are deeply entrenched and inequality is part of the natural state of affairs between two groups such that one side is economically and militarily superior.

The first and most important question is how one imagines deeply divided societies or groups coming together. Ethnopolitically divided societies might live near each other and tolerate a side-by-side existence, but they can’t share trust and a sense of community. The two sides must ultimately work to transform the context, the individuals, and their cultural differences in order to create a relationship rooted more in mutuality than rank group identification. On one level, this involves transforming identities – which is theoretically possible because identities are described as social constructions which means they can be constructed, deconstructed, and reorganized. This is the transformative and epistemic sense of deliberation which believes in the gradual process of creating new relationships and shared communities. Again, the question remains as to how this transformation happens. Or, what is the mechanism or interaction pattern responsible for achieving this new state of affairs.

Rigorous and serious deliberation is an antidote to communication based on bargaining, trading off interests, and manipulations designed to achieve private goals. Deliberation is about interest and preference formation. But in the case of deliberation for divided societies power asymmetries must be accounted for. In fact, it makes little sense to ignore just the defining issue that is the root of the conflict. Differences between divided societies are usually moral and cultural in nature but it is close to impossible to arrive at moral consensus between ethnopolitically separated groups. This is where what I call “Reasonable Disagreement” (Chapter 3 in my most recent book Fierce Entanglements: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict) can be helpful. Reasonable disagreement – the details of which are beyond the concerns of this posting – begins by treating the other not as an enemy but as an adversary as Iris Young argues. Reasonable disagreement is simply the assumption that there is more than one defensible way to make an argument or hold a belief. It recognizes that one group’s worldview is not necessarily or clearly superior or correct. There is simply no way to manage differences and develop cultural sensitivity between groups without their remaining gaps of meaning and understanding that simply must be tolerated.

Viewing the other side of a divided society as an “enemy” requires vanquishing him or her because the other side is typically considered wrong and worthy of annihilation (either literally or symbolically). “Adversaries”, on the other hand, are respected worthy opponents that cannot be thoroughly vanquished. Reasonable disagreement has two senses: the first is as a political value to be nurtured and developed in a democratic society. It is a foundational plank of the requirements for tolerance and diversity in liberal democratic societies. The second sense is as an epistemic value responsible for new and creative decision-making.

I think the challenges of ethnopolitically divided societies are going to be the subject of increasing research and theoretical attention in the future – and rightfully so.




Evidence-Based Thinking is Necessary for Proper Deliberation

Three Levels of Evidence

I have a sinking sense that schools don’t teach much “evidence-based thinking” anymore. They do teach critical thinking which is related but students are remarkably poor at defending propositions and recognizing thoughts and beliefs worth having. Although here is a blog site devoted to evidence-based thinking by two energetic young fellows. This spills over into the deliberative process because many citizens and political activists suffer from some of the same deficiencies. For some time now we have seen the diminution of the effects of Enlightenment thinking and science. From religious extremists to Tea Party members there’s plenty of anti-rationalist thinking and pseudo-intellectual discourse.

But things get worse. There is a clear disdain for logic and reasoning in some circles with many holding a toxic dependency on popular culture. This is not a particularly new phenomenon because Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1963 began to note the decline of the principled and evidentiary intellectual society and its replacement – the persuasion of single-minded people tenaciously holding onto a belief, opinion, or feeling and doing nothing but looking for support for that belief rather than its improvements, or accuracy, or truth value. I term this, the backside of evidence based thinking, confirmatory thinking in honor of the confirmation bias which is that people favor information that confirms what they already believe. But it gets worse. I count four ways that thinking is deficient because it is not evidence-based.

The difference between coincidence and causality is sometimes not completely clear but important to understand. Those who oppose vaccinations believe that all drugs have negative effects and any new vaccination would be the same thereby confirming their depreciated knowledge about medicine. They hold a mistrust of government and consequently any government program – even a highly evidence-based program that saves children’s lives – is rejected. A consistency of their own belief is more important than the evidence that supports the value of vaccinations.

A second sign of diminished capacity for evidence is simply how science and methods for making decisions work. The past and knowledge is strewn with failures and disappointments. Even when studies are unsuccessful and wrongheaded they make for a certain amount of information that is still of scientific value. It is comparable to the quip attributed to Edison that after he failed 200 times to make a light bulb he was not frustrated because he learned 200 ways not to make a light bulb. Evidence-based thinking requires developmental and evolutionary attitudes towards the unfolding of better and more precise information. Even though information can be wrong and lead you down wasteful paths, these paths are part of the process.

Basic misunderstanding of the logic of research is also a third issue. I’m not talking about standard logic or sophisticated mathematics but about basic principles of research and conclusions based on quantitative data. What it means for something to have a mean (average) and variation around the mean. Or, to have a sense of why and how numbers are influenced and change over time. This would include the logic of the experiment and the quality of conclusions when conditions are controlled and only a single experimental factor could have caused variation.

Lastly, one of the easiest ways to never get out of your own head and to hold fast to wrongheaded beliefs is to dispute, challenge, and dismiss those who are credible; in other words, to care more about maintaining your own consistency by rejecting experts and those more knowledgeable. We cannot all be experts on scientific and political matters so we must often rely on the expertise of others. And even though challenging and checking on the credentials of others to ensure source reliability is an important critical stance, this is not the same as knee-jerk rejection of experts. It seems as if those on the conservative end of the spectrum are quick to label all sorts of science as biased against the environment, or the climate, or finance because they inherently mistrust the source of any information and easily gravitate toward rejecting inconsistency with their own ideas then truly exploring and integrating new information.

There are all sorts of ways to distort information or disengage from it. And even the most conscientious thinker allows biases to creep in. But the attitude and willingness to engage, integrate new information on the basis of sound evidentiary principles, and change as a result of this evidence is what makes for more rigorous thinking.





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