Is Dialogue Enough?

There’s a certain narrative about deliberative democrats which paints them as hopeless idealists.

John Dewey is perhaps the quintessential example of this – he writes passionately about the “great community,” and was steadfast in his belief that humanity could and would achieve this sublime state. While broadly agreeing with critics such as Lippmann as to the modern problems of civil society, the optimism of Dewey’s solutions is notably divergent.

The problem, he argued, was not that average people did not have the capacity to properly govern themselves, but rather that civic infrastructure did not fully allow them to exercise this capacity. Given robust civic education and institutions which genuinely encourage and incorporate citizen participation, humanity could achieve great things. In short, we have the capacity to self govern, we simply need to trust ourselves.

This optimism is echoed in the works of Habermas, who writes prolifically about the power of ideal dialogue to build ideal societies. He envisions salons and coffeehouses where citizens engage in passionate debates about what is right and just. “Moral argumentation,” he writes in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, “serves to settle conflicts of action by consensual means.”

In short, citizens engaging in meaningful debate about moral issues will eventually come to agree on what is right. The solution which emerges from such a process is intrinsically moral thanks to the collaborative filtering of discussants and it is bolstered by the rich process of debate which led to the consensus.

The enthusiastic visions of Dewey, Habermas, and other pragmatists may be inspiring, but they rightfully earn a lot of skepticism. Is such ideal dialogue even possible? Perhaps our moral divisions are ultimately intractable.

Most troubling to me are the concerns raised by Sanders, Frasier, and others. These visions of the Great Society, and the roadmap for how we get there do not give proper care to the role of power.

In an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy – to borrow a phrase from bell hooks – it is not enough to encourage people to enter deliberation with an open mind. It is not enough to teach core civic values. The structural inequality of society will pervert deliberation amongst even well-meaning participants.

I am particularly fond of this critique from Sanders: “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 by deliberators.”

Such false deliberation – which leaves those in power with a claim to moral consensus when none was achieved – is arguably even worse than a state with no deliberation and no appearance of legitimacy.

Fraser builds off Habermas, arguing that these rich conversations don’t happen merely in a single, mainstream public sphere. Rather, the public sphere as we encounter it is deeply restrictive – despite claims to the contrary, not everyone gets a voice. Thus, we also have counter-publics – smaller communities where those who are blocked from the mainstream can engage safely and fully in the sort of discussions Habermas envisions. The counter-publics can and do influence the mainstream, but they are constantly pushed to the fringes by a society which doesn’t want them.

These critiques of deliberation also point to a deeper challenge: dialogue only works when all parties are willing to enter and participate in good faith.

You can’t engage in dialogue with someone who wants to destroy you.

This concern is never satisfactorily addressed by Dewey or by Habermas. They both engage deeply with questions of manipulation, force, and instrumental action, but they seem content to believe that such problems can be dealt with effectively and are not too deeply interwoven into our social fabric.

A skeptic would argue that these concerns point to a sizable gap in their philosophy – if dialogue only works in ideal conditions, then dialogue necessarily cannot be enough.

In the face of racist, anti-semitic, and other harshly vitriolic rhetoric, other tactics are necessary. Dialogue could never be enough.

I imagine Dewey wouldn’t give up on his Great Community so easily, though. Perhaps he under appreciated the danger of hate groups, but he would have believed in humanity’s ability to navigate these waters. He would have believed that even the worst among us could learn to participate thoughtfully in productive dialogue.

Dewey’s vision seems impossibly far off these days. Few, if any of use, seem prepared to be citizens capable of constructing the Great Community. There are good reasons by skeptical of his claims.

But I’m not ready to give up on dialogue just yet, and here I think is where a network perspective can be valuable. As long as we have connections between all elements of our communities, dialogue may be possible. Perhaps every person cannot – and should not, for their own self-care – engage in dialogue with every other person. But if allies serve as the bridges, if those positioned to do have the difficult conversations with the hate-filled fringe, if we truly believe that no one is born to hate, perhaps then we could build the Great Community and, inch by inch, bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.


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