To happen upon a discovery of importance has the effect of shaking up everything around it. It gets people to realign thoughts and look at their world a bit differently. Perhaps it even gets them to alter their conduct, especially if they find out that what has been discovered is harmful to them.
It doesn’t quite work that way with negative discovery. To find that something isn’t what people thought is a bit of a downer. A familiar cycle of denial kicks into gear – 1) refusal to accept; 2) anger that it won’t go away; 3) attempts to suppress; 4) stubborn silence; and finally; 5) grudging admission. Being a negative discoverer is often not nearly as fun.
In our last post we considered how political dialogue is not what it appears. Perhaps it’s time we admitted that public dialogue isn’t either. In fact, it’s been greatly overrated.
Around the world citizen engagement exercises are plenteous. In most cases, however, they have been poorly supported, despite significant resources. In the affluent West, numerous engagement organizers have expressed deep discouragement that the venues for conversation host the “usual suspects” – committed citizens, often issue driven, who are nevertheless the minority. All of this should be telling us something about citizen democracy that we seem reticent to admit.
So I’ll say it: “We don’t care.” There, it’s out – backed by lots of experience. This often upsets the few because they’ve worked hard to make a difference. They need to believe that it’s worth something. For them there must be another admission: “They can’t sell it.” Despite repeated efforts at waking citizens up from their slumber, the engagement process isn’t connecting.
Democracy is in deep trouble because of this. If neither politicians nor citizens are sincerely in dialogue, what’s to become of our nation? It was never designed to run on cruise control, but required robust debate, participation, and agreement. The only consensus required now is the admission that citizens are distracted, contemptuous of politics, and ornery at the moment, and that this leaves the field to a political order that says one thing and does another.
Tonight in London, our Citizen’s Panel will be holding a community engagement exercise at the Stoneybrook YMCA that is designed to ask citizens how they feel about politics and whether it really matters in their city. Our libraries have been hosting these events and have been remarkable in their proficiency. Citizens interested in certain issues will come, as they always do, because they feel their efforts are required for a better community – as indeed they are. The venue has been well publicized and the media has been notified. We’d be deliriously happy if 300 attended. In a city of 350,000, that’s .086% of the population. It’s tough to call that successful citizen engagement.
We’ve just never been trained for this. We had always contracted it out to the professionals, but now that they are stumbling and we have to pick up the slack, it’s just not in us. Worse still, it appears as though we’re not interested. Granted, if there was a great war, or an environmental global catastrophe, we would fill such venues because our survival would depend on it. And, sure, we have a lot of people out of meaningful work, an economy that’s moribund, seniors and children in poverty, a nation living in environmental penury, and can’t even offer equity to our aboriginal people. But that’s okay; it’s not the end of the world, right? Maybe, but it’s the end of democracy; the end of the ability of a citizenry to combine their best efforts to win the day and tilt the scales to the “good” before it becomes too much altogether.
So here is one huge negative discovery: we don’t care to govern ourselves. Yet we praise democracy, blame our politicians and corporations, and wish things were better. We elected these folks; we purchase their products. We actually hold the power of choice, and yet we refuse to leverage and improve the future for our kids. Public dialogue? Forget it. It’s merely a few people doing their best despite their loneliness; but there’s no one in the stands.
We live in a democracy where no one person or group is privileged, no particular issue advantaged, no authority other than the process itself acknowledged. At present it is the few in both politics and the economy that deal the cards. We, citizens, are responsible for letting it come to that.
It is time to acknowledge that what we suspect is wrong with politics is also abiding in us. It is a negative discovery and we are going to want to castigate the people who broadcast it. But at some point, after all the stages mentioned above exhaust themselves, we will find that one great discovery that we have neglected for so long – each other. The endless talk of “me and “you” will give way to a kind of conversation only possible for “us.” Citizen engagement is not an exercise where the winner gets a prize. The only thing that matters is that we – our communities – win, and if takes compromise and understanding, so be it. We’re not so much looking for unity, but a sense of commonality. We have an important part to play, but only if we fill the seats.
Note: Tonight’s Citizen Panel meeting will take place at the Stoneybrook YMCA meeting room, north London – 7-8:30 p.m. Please come out and prove this blog post wrong:)