Difficulties and Dissension

There are two elements were are often – explicitly or implicitly – discouraged in public life. They are separate, but deeply inter-related and their absence or existence really get to the heart of what “good deliberation” should be.

The first issue I’m thinking of is problematizing: raising challenges and concerns that you don’t have solutions for, put time towards issues that seem insurmountably difficult (though worthwhile) to tackle.

The second issue is dissension – disagreement or conflict within a deliberation.

From what I can tell, there has been more thought put towards this second issue, with many notable theorists arguing that debate is in fact critical to the deliberative process.

In Bernard Manin’s Democratic Deliberation, he argues that diversity of perspectives – a common requirement of good deliberation is not enough. “If we wished to keep in check the force of the confirmatory bias, to which groups are particularly susceptible, we should take deliberate and affirmative measures, not just let diverse voices be heard. Conflicting arguments do not automatically get a fair hearing,” he writes.

In this way, the presence of conflict might mitigate Lynn Sanders’ concerns about power inequities going unchecked. In her article, Against Deliberation, Sanders’ eloquently outlines the core problem of assuming respect among diverse views as a core element of deliberation:  “If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved.”

This danger is particularly present in contexts where there is no spoken conflict – that is, as Manin argues, if there no opposing views are voiced it’s not intrinsically because no opposing views are held.

If conflicting views are brought to the fore – encouraged and regularly voiced by all present – then this could dissipate concerns about unequal power leading to the exclusion of certain voices.

On its face, resistance to raising problems that are to solve may seem like a wholly different phenomenon. But I’ve been struck by Nina Eliasoph’s observations in this regard. In her sociological work with community volunteer groups, she notes how volunteers constantly silenced discussion of big problems – with good intentions, but ultimately to the detriment of the community.

Furthermore, she connects this aversion to seemingly unsolvable problems to the tendency to avoid conflict in discussion:

“To show each other and their neighbors that regular citizens really can be effective, really can make a difference, volunteers tried to avoid issues that they considered “political.” In their effort to be open and inclusive, to appeal to regular, unpretentious fellow citizens without discouraging them, they silenced public-spirited deliberation…Community-spirited citizens judged that by avoiding “big” problems, they could better buoy their optimism. But by excluding politics from their group concerns, they kept their enormous, overflowing reservoir of concern and empathy, compassion and altruism, out of circulation, limiting its contribution to the common good.”



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