The Scale of Society

Deliberative processes work best at the local level. Modern tools make “local” less physically place-bound than it was in the past, but “local” is still a factor in the sense of small groups with some shared…culture – for lack of a better word

Deliberative processes aren’t impossible beyond this scope, but the locality of a discussion is important.

The extent to which a culture is shared by a group, for example, shapes the starting point of discussion. If participants speak different languages, a deliberation needs interpreters and participants need to get used to the cadence of an interpreted discussion. Perhaps this effect vanishes with high-end UN interpreters, but in my experience even simultaneous interpretation requires a little more thought and attention than a conversation in which everyone shares a native language.

Even if people share a language, deliberators may need to understand each other’s metaphors or specific terminology. This, in fact, is one of the things which makes interdisciplinary work so hard.

Finally, the extent to which people share values guides how much deliberation can accomplish. In particularly contentious communities, it is often enough for deliberation to get people to acknowledge each other’s shared humanity. Perhaps we will never agree, but we can still coexist in civil society together. In less contentious settings, deliberators may be able to design policy initiatives or determine budgetary expenditures. More cohesive groups are able to have more tangible outcomes.

 

Of course, you don’t want people in a deliberative group to have too much in common – deliberation among clones would be a particularly pointless exercise. But diversity of thought, experience, and language comes with real challenges which influence just how much deliberation can and should accomplish.

Locality also effects deliberation in terms of the size of a discussion. I cannot possibly deliberate simultaneously with everyone in my city. A deliberation needs to be “small” in some sense of the word. That smallness can come in the form of a face-to-face interaction, or a long-distance internet-mediated discussion. In larger settings, the intimacy of deliberation can also be accomplished by having a large room full of numerous small-group discussions. But each individual deliberation must be small.

“Good” deliberation, then, is by necessity a very local thing – undertaken by a small group of people and designed for the specific context and needs of that group.

This presents a challenge.

Philosopher Peter Singer urges us to abandon the false image of ourselves as members of a national community, in favor of conceptualizing ourselves as members of a global community. But such a thing is easier said than done.

Singer argues that “though citizens never encounter most of the other members of the nation, they think of themselves as sharing an allegiance to common institutions and values.” Since this is a symbolic association rather than a ‘real’ one driven by personal relationships, it should be simply a matter of mindset to change our symbolic associations to broader ones.

 

This is an appealing idea, but seems less and less feasible. At a time when national cohesiveness seems to be breaking down – even as nationalist sentiments rise – the vision of a unified world seems further than ever. As my own country becomes more polarized, I’m more inclined to share allegiance with my liberal peers around the world than with the more conservative citizens of my own country. This is not, I believe, the sort of global citizen Singer had in mind. It would be too generous to claim that my allegiance – as Singer calls it – has shifted not because I’ve virtuously come to see myself as part of a global human community. Rather, in an increasingly globalized world, my understanding of who is “like me” is simply different from previous conceptions. It is factions at a global scale.

This ties to the locality of deliberation because, in theory, you could have a small town run entirely deliberatively. I could envision a small community of people – from different backgrounds and even from different languages – effectively self-governing and learning to  thrive with disagreement and civil conflict. Deliberation offers that kind of vision: the opportunity to bring people together, to build something greater than its parts.

But I’m not sure such deliberation could work on a global or even national scale. The scope is just too big.

There’s an increasing need for us to all conceive of ourselves as global citizens, to come together in the joint task of co-creating our world, but perhaps the task is just too great, the scale just too large.

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