Ground Zero

*X-posted from “Participatory Deliberation“*

There is no need, indeed it would be inappropriate, for me to present my thinking concerning “participatory deliberation” as though it is innovative or novel. It is neither. Though the pressing need is not often acknowledged and only seldom addressed, it has been addressed sufficiently well. Today in email conversation a friend pointed me to Dr. Patrick W. Hamlett’s “Enhancing Public Participation in Participatory Public Policy Analysis Concerning Technology: A Report of Two Danish-Style Consensus Conferences” and, typical of the small set of fine papers on the topic, this easily discovered document states things very well:

Deliberation and Policy
“Many commentators decry the paucity of public input in the making of public policy decisions in modern America (deLeon, 1997; Fischer, 1993; Gastil, 2000). The political process is marked by powerful interest groups, campaign finance irregularities, public apathy and cynicism, and declining public engagement with public policy making. A number of serious problems beset public policy making about science and technology in the U.S., including exaggerated deference to experts, public ignorance, and apathy. When we consider both the complexities and the importance of policies concerning science and technology, the absence of informed and thoughtful public input into decision making is all the more troublesome. Not only does such absence undermine the actual democratic character of many policy decisions, the numerous after-the-fact popular resistances to those policy choices only contributes to ineffective and inefficient government (Hamlett, 1992; Kraft, 1990; McAvoy, 1999; Morone & Woodhouse, 1989).” [emph added – bdt]

Let me propose as exemplary the book “Humane Governance: Toward a new global politics“. Richard Falk (Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice at Princeton University) acted as rapporteur on this work and his methodology gives the text a robust clarity. This artifact represents to me the clarity of thought that is achieved by means of rigorous practice; never polemical, it rather forthrightly and frankly presents the problematics of matters that affect us all. Its systematic presentation could, and should in my estimation, serve as the framework and under-pinning matrix for a thorough explication of our civics, our politics, and our society’s community dynamics.

That such texts exist I take as good news of the finest sort. That it remains yet another book on yet another shelf in yet another library galls me personally, as an engaged individual, as a citizen. Of what value are truths if they are not impressed onto our situation, when they do not light even slightly the often dark surrounds of our concerns and worries?

Computers exchange data; human beings communicate information. When we become wet-ware spreadsheets the word “humane” will lose the last of its traction. So long as that is not absolutely the case the moment requires of us the self-interest that fires the engine of democracy and the emancipation project itself. Whatever bliss can be derived from complacent ignorace seeds our doom, perhaps even as a species. Since we are more than thralls our society demands more than material sufficiency; because we are people we need more than mere survival. Our many cultures and many wisdom traditions call us to thrive. A computer’s data quite properly sits, static and still. Human knowledge still and static disappears like the imprint of a bird in the sky: we are called up to strive for wisdom because our personal situations require us to engage our surrounds and, as individuals with only slight base for confidence, to act.

Who of us has not experienced having an entirely logical conclusion with a feeling of indignity, as though machine-logic has diminished us? That something is factually so is of import only in that it has consequences; as a society the consequences that matter most are those that people care about. Because people care, it is important; that’s the minimal standard of democracy. Short of abuse by the majority, that most people say “Nae!” or “Aye!” carries the day: we have recourse to no higher power. Would we have it otherwise? Would we will ourselves into heartless servitude? Few would. The point is this: the community that disregards and devalues individuals’ subjectivity is a machine state. Truth matters because it matters. The democratic citizen is not required to justify and explain his or her opinion. We as a collective have chosen to be guided by the sum total of our best guesses, by our personal whims, by our individual preferences and predispositions. Far short of a perfect system, it is the best we have.

What matters matters because it matters. Is this foolish? It can be, but it is not wrong. It is elementally correct, necessarily, and it need not necessarily be foolish: even the humblest can entertain aspirations to freedom, and justice, and harmony. Even the greedy and ambition are not always and inevitably hostile and malevolent. The spirit of wisdom can arise in a moment of fatigue and frustration, or in a moment of heady exhilaration … our best angels work on a schedule of their own.

Say, then, that some individuals take up the challenge and set out to explore others’ feelings with regards to the day’s actualities … taxes, school funding, respect of non-traditional religious practices … would they do so in some science fiction fantasy world or would they engage the plumbing of our societal infrastructure? They might write pamphlets (a timeless technique), they might write a letter to the editor of their local papers (an option not universally available), they might campaign in the streets and coffee shops. Likely some would make use of the World Wibe Web, the most public aspect of the internet complex.

Individuals with a certain confidence and a certain aptitude and certain abilities blog. They might log the artifacts they discover (the historical root is, after all, “web logging”) or they might essay as though in a diary. What percentage of blogs receive comments on anything like a routine basis? 5%? 2%? At best it takes the humble steadiness and conviction that supports self-expression; at worst it’s solipsism and narcissism. But does it engage one’s peers the way expression would in the day where the camp-fire was the source of support and solice and learning? Not even slightly.

Commonly individuals find their way to one of the many online forums. Who, experienced, has come away with an optimistic take on those venues? Flames, arguments, insults, attacks, abuse, noise, clamour, confusion … not always, certainly, but often, if not typically. But let’s pretend the very best, something along the lines of or SlashDot or Daily Kos. Giving credit where credit is due, what comes of it? A few exchanges, perhaps an encounter with a kindred spirit … the transience of some chance meeting, along with the momentary satisfaction of having had one’s say.

As I have written elsewhere and frequently: hundreds of thousands of people spending millions of well-intentioned hours in tens of thousands of forums producing, usally, more heat than light. And the nuggets? The close arguments and the clear debates? Lost … “siloed” … no more than data in storage. Yes, slightly discoverable through search engines … inchoate and in excess. But static, still, and passive. What is the value of a book unread? What is the effect of a finely met argument stored and silent?

It is within our power to aggregate and integrate the systems that meet individual citizen’s mundane activity in a way that promotes the best and finest. Let the democratic debate establish which are “right”. Since we cannot even agree on material facts it isn’t likely that we will soon or quickly reach concensus on the truths that matter to us as individual persons. But it is the practice of that effort that makes us community, that validates and acknowledges our individual worth, that confirms us as thinking beings. In the fairness of social exchange we ratify our most basic democratic principles; in the valuation of the subjective we confirm our humane dispositions.

What do you think? What has been thought? How has that been expressed? What are the dominant views? How do they fail to accord with common sentiment? What matters?

Information is data that matters. “6” is just a number. “6 feet if water in the stream” is a statement of fact. “There’s 6 feet of water in the stream and it floods at 7” is a statement that cuts into the flesh of human concern.

Our minds are not spreadsheets; we are not computers. We matter because it matters to us. Just why someone persists in his abuse concerns me; just why a person self-destructs with drugs, perpetrating acts of petty theft daily, that also concerns me. Just why some distort the fabric of human society to maximize their power and control also concerns me. If I do not “jaw, jaw, jaw” I will “war, war, war”. And that’s necessarily the case unless I resign into apathy and cynicism.

I could buy my groceries from vending machines. I would rather buy them in a market, from people. It gives me the opportunity to manifest my humanity. And that matters to me. I can’t say with absolute confidence that it’s a good thing, but I think it is. And that matters to me too.

Pablo Neruda
Born to be Born
We believe in peace and will knock at every door to seek the kingdom of peace. We desire peace among men and will wait for it just as pilgrims wait to find water along their route to recover the strength they have lost. As far as I was concerned, whenever a door was opened to me I went in. I wanted to talk with everyone. I was not afraid of contamination by an adversary or an enemy. And I shall keep these dialogues going.They are inexhaustible; in all conflict there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the light of understanding can filter in from both ends.

Extract from a speech delivered on 8 April 1968 at the Municipal Theatre of Santiago on the occasion of the presentation of the FrCdkic Joliot-Curie medal to Pablo Neruda


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