What should we do when confronted with people whose views we find bizarre and who express their opinions in ways we find wrong? The more polarized our societies become, the more urgent this question appears. While people have always confronted different opinions at workplaces and family dinners, more and more people now find it difficult or intolerable to listen to them. The question is not only how individuals should handle these situations, but how society can uphold the democratic value of inclusion without letting just anything pass.
One solution is to say “enough! I don’t want to hear it anymore!” There are two reasons why this is not the best solution, however. First, it is like putting your head in the sand – just because you will not see what’s bothering you anymore doesn’t mean the issue has disappeared. Second, to choose not to listen is the privilege of the powerful, those who do not depend on others and do not need to hear their views. Perhaps you are one of those, but the problem is: just because you can do something does not mean it’s right.
In a recent article in Politics, I defend a different solution: the principle of responding reflectively. This principle means asking ourselves if another person’s violation of basic norms of respect, sincerity, and public mindedness could have been justified under present circumstances, even if we would normally say it was wrong.
This principle is intuitive: when someone says or does something hurtful or wrong, reflective persons ask themselves: why did this person act this way? Was there something I had done? Had I failed to listen? Many times, there might not have been anything we did that made us deserve being treated disrespectfully. But the rule of thumb is: it takes two to tango.
Now, the question is what it would mean to apply the same principle to a whole society. In what sense can a society be reflective? When some person or group violates basic norms, a reflective society does not immediately condemn the action, even if the action appears wrong. Instead, the violation initiates a process of collective reflection. Perhaps there was no other way to make oneself heard than to break norms one would otherwise respect?
As individuals, we can imagine various situations where it seems appropriate to break basic social norms: when a person is in danger, when someone is harming another person, or when people refuse to listen to anyone outside their group. In such cases, it seems justified to act in ways that might normally seem impolite.
For society, the reflective principle demands asking whether the way things work – who gets to speak and how, who gets to decide, and who are systematically excluded from important discussions – may justify breaking the norms that they would otherwise respect. A classic example is civil disobedience. While it seems extreme under normal circumstances, it appears less so when used to protest against wars and the killing of innocent people. It is by breaking norms that civil disobedience forces society to reflect on its failure to live up to democratic and humanitarian values.
The reflective principle does not mean that all violations of basic norms are justified. Not all cases are like the civil disobedience of peace activists. Sometimes people get aggressive or refuse to listen just because others disagree. While we may have a moral obligation to listen to other members of society, we have the right, of course, to find their views wrong and shameful.
The reflective principle makes it possible to get closer to an ideal society where no one would be justified to be disrespectful, insincere, or selfish. To get closer to that ideal, we may need to change how the media works, the education system, or how political parties operate. The reflective principle helps pointing us to various societal and systemic problems and allows us to correct them. And in some cases, it gives us a more well-founded reason to say that this person here was neither right nor justified to be disrespectful.
If you’ve ever tried to interrupt or pause an ongoing conversation to make a comment about the way people discuss an issue – how they miss important aspects, ignore valid points of view, or exclude people who might have something to contribute – you have been part of what theorists of democracy call “meta-deliberation.” Simply put, the term refers to the act of addressing problems with how discussions proceed.
Meta-deliberation concerns a critical aspect of democracy – how to make room in our conversations for all citizens affected by the issues and all the perspectives relevant to make well-informed decisions. For instance, have debates about climate change failed to involve young people, who will be most affected by its consequences? Such discussions concern our rights and responsibilities as citizens. While political equality may be most concretely expressed through the equal right to vote, citizens exercise power also by debating and reasoning together. Thus, when people cannot be part of discussions that affect them, or when discussions are shaped by preconceptions that make it hard to consider all relevant perspectives, we have a democratic problem.
Until now, theorists of democracy have seen this as their problem to solve. They have asked themselves: how can we create better forums for public discussion so that everyone can participate on fair terms? It now appears, however, that the question itself might be misguided.
Whatever solutions theorists come up with, they will never be able to guarantee that people have equal chances to speak and be heard. After all, societies are not theirs to shape and manipulate as they wish. Real-world citizens need to know, instead, how to deal with the problems they will face. This includes how to bring attention to failures to include all relevant aspects or views.
In a recent article in Politics, I describe this democratic challenge and highlight three issues that we need to keep in mind when discussing meta-deliberation.
First, meta-deliberation often occurs in the most everyday situations. Whenever a person says “I think we have not considered all relevant aspects of this issue,” or asks “should we not also ask other people what they think about this?” they are contributing to meta-deliberation. Thus, while we usually associate democracy with specific political institutions (the parliament, public referenda, and so on), meta-deliberation takes place as ordinary citizens engage in ordinary discussions.
Second, meta-deliberation often has the same problems as other kinds of conversation. When people talk about how we talk, they are not necessarily any more open to considering all relevant aspects and views than people are in other types of discussion. This makes things more complicated, because not only do we need to talk about the way we talk, we also need to examine, and talk about, the way people talk about how they talk. We could go on, in an endless regression, to examine issues that are even more “meta” (talk about talk about talk about talk, and so on). The point is, to be reflective of how we interact does not stop at any particular level – it’s reflection all the way down!
Third, these issues may seem very philosophical, or even silly. Why do we need meta-deliberation in the first place? Can’t we just go on like we do? After all, isn’t it working pretty well anyways? We could perhaps do so, and maybe just deal with specific problems as they arise instead of thinking that people should be constantly engaged in discussions about democracy. But the thing is, how do we know a problem when we see one, and how do I know that what seems like a small problem to me isn’t a big problem for you? Without an ambition to make public conversations open to all citizens and open to all relevant points of view, we might miss issues that need to be addressed, or we might address them when it’s already too late. A well-functioning democracy must give citizens possibilities to address a wide range of problems, not just the ones that seem most urgent at the moment, and to consider various perspectives and forms of knowledge, not just the familiar ones. That’s why we need to talk not just about the problems we see at the moment but also about the way we discuss them.