Is Diversity Enough?

I’ve been reading Manin’s critical Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion.

At the core of his argument, Manin complains that liberal theorists traditionally conflate “diversity of views” with “conflicting views.” Holding that a necessary and sufficient condition for good deliberation is “that participants in discussion hold diverse views and articulate a variety of perspectives, reflecting the heterogeneity of their experiences and backgrounds.”

To be clear, Manin isn’t suggesting that diversity of thought isn’t critical to deliberation – rather, he argues, it is not sufficient.

“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views,” he writes. “It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”

There are many ways in which the mere presence of diversity may not result in the articulation of divergent views. Social psychology research has well documented the challenges of confirmation bias, where people “systematically misperceive and misinterpret evidence that is counter to their preexisting belief.” Or even avoid conflicting evidence all together.

To make matters worse, Manin points to research which further finds that “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do, preferring information that supports their prior dominant belief to an even greater extent than individual people.”

More broadly, diverse experiences and views may not always translate directly into divergent opinions or perspectives on a given topic. Manin asks us to imagine a community facing a very reasonable and rational fear: say, a serial killer is on the loose. Discussing a proposal to expand police powers at this time of crisis, “the variety of perspectives and dispersion of social knowledge among them will ensure that many arguments, each deriving from the particular perspective, experience, or background of the speaker, are heard in support of expanding the prerogatives to the police.”

That is, the diverse reasons may all support the same view.

And finally, in a large heterogenous society, diverse opinions and experience may become polarized as fragmented, separate communities. That is, “a variety of internally homogeneous communities will coexist, each ignoring the views of the others.”

And, of course, there is the deep problem of power. Divergent perspectives will often go unspoken in situations where one group or groups have been systematically oppressed and silenced. Where even explicit invitations to freely share their views are rightly perceived as hollow or out-right disingenuous. This is a dynamic which John Gaventa documents powerfully in his study of poor, white, coal miners in the Appalachian Valley.

The damaging impact of this dynamic cannot be understated, as Gaventa argues, “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

Finally, there is the simple social challenge that “encountering disagreement”, as Manin writes, “generates psychic discomfort.” People don’t really like to argue.

(Of note here, there is little cross-cultural consideration in Manin, so while mainstream America’s distaste for argumentative discourse is well documented in numerous places, I’m not sure how broad a claim this properly ought to be.)

The solution to this seems simple: argue more. Take “deliberate and affirmative measures” to ensure lively debate and critical discussion. Don’t just assume that if diverse people are present, diverse voices will be heard. Seek out divergent views and conflicting arguments. If no one else says them – argue for them yourself.

This last point, I think, is particularly critical in looking at deliberation through a power-lens. If you are a position of power you are responsible for ensuring that diverse view be heard. This can mean working to create a safe space where people genuinely feel welcomed to share their views – or it can mean saying the unpopular thing yourself, putting it out there as a valid idea, worthy of further consideration.

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