By Hans Blokland


People hardly ever change their mind. The more they feel forced to justify themselves, the more they feel questioned, criticized, disrespected, and the smaller the chance that they will open their mind to other positions. This certainly is the case when values are involved: more than anything else, values – ideas on the good life and the good society – define someone’s identity, and therefore their self-respect. Open, direct queries on values are almost always taken personally.

In the autumn of 2016 we started series of deliberative workshops in Brandenburg with young male refugees between 17 and 24 years.[i] In the workshops we discussed, among others, ethical and political pluralism, democracy, civic society, freedom (of expression, association and religion), personal autonomy and emancipation, tolerance, human rights, identity, socialization, masculinity, femininity, sex equality, and homosexuality. Hence, values and perspectives were deliberated that are pivotal to the western cultural tradition and that a number of newcomers do not or do not entirely share. At least, that’s the impression held by many Germans, Europeans and Americans.

The project was made possible by the Integrationsbeauftragte des Landes Brandenburg (Ministerium für Arbeit, Soziales, Gesundheit, Frauen und Familie) and the Brandenburgischen Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung.

One group of participants consisted of refugees from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Another group came from several African countries, including Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana and Nigeria. The third group predominantly consisted of Syrian refugees. All participants volunteered.[ii] The majority arrived about a year back in Germany. We mostly spoke German and occasionally English, and for one series we made use of a translator. We met on several occasions, during the day, in the evening, during holidays or over weekends. On average we deliberated for about 15 hours in total. The number of participants ranged from 5 to 17 people per meeting.

We also organized two series of workshops with German citizens, volunteers assisting refugees to integrate in German society.[iii] This project was supported by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. These groups had each 15 participants, predominantly well educated women between 25 and 35 (in Germany mostly women volunteer in the civil sector). We met also for about 15 hours in total and discussed the same themes, as well as, how to deliberate these themes with other people.

In 2017, we will implement many more series of workshops with a variety of compositions: just female refugees (assuming that some topics are easier discussed when men are absent); only male refugees; both sexes together; participants with a wider range of ages; migrants from different cultures or countries together; just natives; and, most promising, migrants and natives together. In open pluralist societies where people with very different orientations have to live together, and often also want to live together, workshops where the participants reflect this diversity would be ideal.

Our aims are to further integration and civic participation, and to counter populism and radicalization. We have tried to develop new ways of meaningful citizen participation and to advance new strategies to strengthen civic and political competences. Obviously, as the surge of political estrangement and populism in almost all Western democracies shows, more than just talks with newcomers are called for. It is about time that Western citizens themselves start to communicate with each other about the values, ideals, ideas, and perspectives that are supposed to hold their societies together.

So far the deliberations have strengthened our beliefs in the possibility to talk with people from all walks of life and from different cultures about critical topics in earnest and thoughtful ways; on condition that participants are taken seriously and the social context in which the deliberations take place is inviting, accommodating and courteous. We addressed demanding subjects, but our participants proved very able to discuss them with eloquence, respect and often deep insight. Sometimes we disagreed, but our disagreements never closed doors for enduring engagement.

How did we do it? What did we learn? Below, we start with an explanation of our scholarly points of departure and motivations. After that we describe our deliberative approach. We illustrate this approach by going into a typical deliberation on democracy and pluralism. And we conclude with some remarks on what we can reasonably expect of 15 hours of deliberation on fundamentals like democracy, freedom and human rights.


1 Scholarly points of departure

At the start of every series of workshops we make explicit what our intentions, goals and assumptions are. For obvious reasons, the refugees in our workshops were often suspicious, even scared of those they view as authorities in Germany. They don’t like to talk about politics and values with strangers. Typically they came from countries where expressing views on politics meant trouble. Trust had to be built up. A good start here is explaining who you are, why you are doing this, what your assumptions are, and what you want.

Why do we organize these deliberative workshops? Obviously, our participants were keen to know. As social and political scholars we are interested in democracy, political participation, civil society and, especially, in finding new ways for political and social engagement. Many of the debates in Western social and political science and philosophy in the last decades have centered on concepts like citizenship, social cohesion, social capital, or deliberation. Apparently, there is a widespread concern about “diminishing democracy”, about citizens participating less and less in social and political associations, about citizens understanding less and less about social, economic and political processes and structures, and about citizens becoming more and more receptive to easy answers to complicated problems. We urgently need to find new ways to participate meaningfully in social and political activities and, by participating, to increase political competence (Dahl 1950, 1989, 2000; Fishkin 1995; Putnam 1993, 2000; Blokland 2006, 2011). Therefore, we do not organize these deliberative workshops just for refugees and migrants, but also for native Germans and other Europeans. We do not think that refugees are a particular “problem”, no more, at least, than natives.

On top of that, we have a special interest in normative or philosophical questions like, What is freedom? How far does the freedom of expression go? Do people have the freedom to build organizations aimed at dismantling democracy? What is democracy? To what extent should the state stay neutral towards different ways to live a life? Are there values or ideas that are shared by everyone in the world? Are people really that different? Citizens in our societies need to talk much more about this kind of fundamental topics. For too long we avoided discussions on basics, because we were afraid that these would never lead to any workable consensus and would only create conflicts that could escalate. For many years, avoiding discussions on fundamental values was also the advice of many political scholars (cf. Blokland 2011: 40ff).

Not talking about fundamental issues creates societies without knowledge and understanding of their own foundations, and, consequently, societies that in the end are unable to justify and defend themselves. Moreover, this abstinence nurtures political communities without the ability to decide what is important and unimportant, and to decide in which directions it should steer itself. Not talking about these fundamental issues creates societies at the mercy of blind social and economic structures and processes that few understand, societies that broil hidden and undirected resentment, societies that fall apart. Obviously, in political communities that undergo quick change, for instance because of the migration of substantial numbers of people or because of rapid economic transformations due to globalization and technological innovations, there is a need to discuss and to delineate what binds people together.

Furthermore, we believe that most people are able to think sensibly about topics like these and are capable to reach agreements or workable compromises. Also in our workshops we have found that many people, certainly the young people we talked with, have an interest in thinking and deliberating about these topics – and often simply like to play with big ideas – provided that the social environment in which they are invited to do so is right. In this context, the confrontational, hostile election campaigns and debates that have become common in many Western democracies are counterproductive from the perspective of democratic deliberation: they close citizens’ minds. They are also dangerous because they undermine the pillars on which democracy rest: the willingness and the ability to listen, to discuss, to evaluate, to compromise and to tolerate.

A next set of assumptions we communicated explicitly to the participants is, firstly, that we believe that we can learn something valuable from almost every other culture. We think that contemporary Western culture has important shortcomings and that we as Europeans or Westerners can learn a lot from other cultures, for instance, with respect to community, hospitality, solidarity, or “companionship”. Our Western civilization went wrong in important ways, destroying not just the natural environment but also key conditions of human wellbeing (Lane 2000), and it is time to correct the course of blind rationalization we have taken (Blokland 2006). Other cultures could inspire us here. Therefore, we did our best not to enter our deliberations with a superior, paternalistic, Eurocentric perspective: let us tell you what to think and how to organize your life. This arrogance is out of place.

But, secondly, we also made clear that we are not cultural or ethical relativists; neither are we postmodernists. Not everything goes. A pluralist midway exists between absolute cultural relativism and absolute ethnocentrism, and this midway is what we have to respect as our common ground (Berlin 1997, Taylor 1992, cf. Blokland 1997, 1999, 2011). [iv] We believe there are values which are universally recognized, and we believe we can rationally discuss and criticize values and cultures. Values unavoidably clash and have to be balanced. Values have distinct weights in distinct contexts and, consequently, are balanced differently in different contexts. Nevertheless, the values, their frictions or clashes, and the need to balance them, are universally recognized. We also do not balance them at random, but in reasoned ways. In addition, there are ideas on democracy, pluralism, freedom, tolerance and gender – ideas also grounded in German, European and international law – that have a well thought-out, plausible, scholarly basis. We can explain, justify, and defend these ideas and show how they are interrelated and mutually supportive.

With scholars ranging from John Stuart Mill (1859) and Karl Mannheim (1940), to Isaiah Berlin (1988), Jürgen Habermas (1981), Robert Dahl (1989) and James Fishkin (1995) we believe that ideas and values only survive when we discuss them in the open. These ideas and values, and this open discussion, have been eroded from within by those who believe values and the ways we balance them cannot be rationally defended, and by those who have never been challenged to do so. Therefore, an unexpected but welcome outcome of an open exchange with refugees coming to Europe could be a better understanding of our own European cultural tradition and identity. The open discussion with representatives of other cultures about pivotal values will broaden our own minds, will relativize, but also revitalize our own cultures. It could help us to trace back and to redefine the European identity that should form the fundament of a European Union.


2 Deliberative approach

2.1 Mutually building up an argument and an understanding

Typical for our deliberative communications is that we do not “teach” or “lecture” the participants via, what the Germans aptly call, “Frontalunterricht[v]” what is right or wrong, and correct or incorrect. In many educational settings, even at universities, it is still the norm that an authority is standing in front of a group of people delivering a long monologue telling students what to think. Numerous European “integration-courses” are like that, and their number seems to be on the rise, under the influence of anti-migration populist movements. They do not work because in the end they are often based on disrespect, and easily recognized as such.[vi]

Instead, we try to build up, together with our participants, a mutual understanding of pivotal values and concepts. In collaboration with the participants, we try to explore, to examine, and to think through their often hidden assumptions, their explanations and justifications. Together with the members of our workshop, we explore how ideas on concepts like democracy, freedom, tolerance and emancipation hang together, feed each other, are ultimately based on our understandings what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in a decent society. Together we try to develop an understanding of a complex web of mutually reinforcing values, ideas and perspectives.

Usually we ask our participants what comes to their mind when we say, for instance, “democracy”. For that matter, we could also start with “freedom” or with any other “essentially contested concept” of our political and cultural tradition. Characteristically, these concepts are strongly interrelated and get their meaning in a somewhat consistent and coherent network of related concepts. Any discussion of a particular concept creates at some point the need to discuss the other concepts as well (Blokland 1997: 6-7). As inferred above, these concepts always get their meaning or definition in the context of a social and political theory, a theory that ultimately rests on visions on man, society and world. Since these visions are inescapably philosophically inspired, these meanings are always open to debate. But this does not imply that every meaning given to these concepts is equally plausible.

2.2 Starting with abstract values and perspectives

In the process of deliberation it helps to start with abstract values like democracy and freedom, and then slowly translate the insights we developed collectively into concrete issues. Immediately bringing topics to the table like arranged marriages, head scarves and burkas, not to mention homosexuality or the right to express very unpopular opinions and the right to offend and to insult, is often counterproductive: people get into fights on symptoms and not on causes, they disagree immediately, cannot track the sources of their disagreements, and stop communicating, feeling misunderstood, misjudged, disrespected.

2.3 Discussing normative ideas, not empirical situations

For the same reason, we invite the participants to discuss normative ideas and not empirical situations or states of affairs. Immediately going into the supposed reality of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Brandenburg or Pennsylvania leaves implicit the measures used to evaluate the respective situations and creates intangible, unsolvable disagreements.

People often immediately translate normative questions to their own personal experiences. Democracy? We do not have that in Nigeria, Afghanistan or Syria; or Brandenburg or Pennsylvania for that matter. It is all one big sham. It is a lie. Discussion closed. Understandably, participants are also regularly tempted to bring the discussion back to the question: who is to blame? This is not very productive either: people easily feel attacked and get emotional, much stays implicit, and what people have in common and what they agree about, stays out of sight.

We often have to explain in our workshops that there is a difference between empirical and normative questions, that there is a difference between what is, and what should be, and that we want to talk about ideals, about what we think constitutes a Good life and what constitutes a Good society where this life is possible. When we would like to agree about how to live together, we first have to make explicit our normative ideals on life and living together and have to try to reach a minimal, workable consensus on this.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that our participants share, with other refugees and with us, a lot of ideas about the good life and the good society. Finding this out together, already takes away a lot of anxiety for both sides.

2.4 Setting cornerstones

Furthermore, in the process of jointly searching plausible understandings of concepts like democracy, freedom, identity, emancipation we mainly ask questions, and we allow ample room for the participants to do the same. It is again a matter of respect to give the participants the opportunity to influence the agenda: it is a dialogue. As social and political scholars and as ethical and political pluralists, we do have some cornerstones that we want to set, and our questions are not randomly formulated, and if necessary we steer the discussion in the direction to get to those foundation stones, but how the house looks like between the cornerstones is open to debate.

2.5 Overcoming language and knowledge barriers

Most of our participants select themselves. Consequently, they are probably more than averagely motivated to talk about these kinds of topics. For this reason, they can be considered as potential “multiplicators”, relatively influential people starting deliberations in their own communities, spreading the ideas we collectively developed in the workshops. Still, despite their high motivations, they are not trained social and political theorists. In our deliberations we need to adjust to their abilities and knowledge. We usually cannot deliberate in the same language as in this article; we constantly have to adjust to the available language skills, to the existing knowledge and to the available abilities to reason in abstract terms. This all varies per person and per workshop. Apart from asking a translator to clear up communications, we constantly need to be ready to use other formulations, other telling examples, and other indirect ways to get messages across. For this purpose we also make use of short documentaries, clips, pictures, drawings and cartoons. Moreover, we always have ready some provoking citations and theses to start the conversation or to keep it going.

2.6 Creating a safe and inviting environment

People do not like their values, hence their identity, to be questioned. Any setting that gives people the feeling they are under attack, that they are not respected, isn’t productive from a deliberative perspective. Also therefore, we invest in creating a friendly environment where people feel at home and that invites them to reflect. The style of chairing a meeting obviously is crucial here. But also eating and drinking together, as the Greeks knew, is important. Equally important is being in a place that is neutral and warm, like a community center or a library. We also prioritized taking refugees out of their refugee-home: we address them as citizens, not as refugees-with-a-problem.

Furthermore, the refugees often had bad experiences with politics and with formulating standpoints on politics, values and worldviews. Participants regularly seemed afraid that the expression of views could have personal consequences for their position and status in their new home country. Thus, we needed to make clear that we were not a government body, but an independent civil organization and that we had no connections to the “Ausländerbehörden” (Foreigners Authority). True, we depend on state subsidies for this project but in our classrooms we are successful in keeping the state out. Everything that we would discuss, would stay between us: we would inform nobody about an individual’s opinions and everybody would stay anonymous.

Related to this, we show respect by making plain that we are not social workers working on personal problems, but social and political scientists and philosophers. We bring to the table what we think can be plausibly defended, by general standards of sound reasoning and empirical justification. We can understand that many refugees have had terrible experiences and are traumatized. We feel bad for them, but in our workshop we are not going to talk about that. We do not define them as people with a social or psychological problem, but as citizens able to deliberate sensibly about fundamental topics. In fact, most of the refugees are relieved to be treated this way.

2.7 Preventing direct comparisons and confrontations

We try to avoid unproductive tensions and frictions by going into comparisons: at our place, in our superior Western world, women have the same rights than men, theoretically. Tell us, how is the situation in your native country or culture? Even when people are not content with features of their native culture or country, they will feel tempted to defend these features abroad. They often feel personally attacked. Therefore, instead of talking about women rights in Afghanistan, Iraq or Eritrea, we talk about the ways the rights of women historically have developed in a country like Germany. When did women get the right to attend a university, the right to vote, the right to open a bank account, the right to buy a car, the right to report rape in a marriage? We show our participants empirically how women have entered the labor force, how careers and specific jobs became also available for women (in principle), and how the roles of men and women have evolved over the years.

Previously, we discussed with our participants socialization and identity, and tried to show how identities are to an important extent the product of socialization, how everybody is a product of his family, neighborhood, culture, tradition, religion and time. We explored how identities are socially constructed, how people can have several identities at the same time (a father, a musician, a lover, a Muslim, a sportsman, an American, etc.), how people play with their identity, and how identities are evolving, always in flux.

The general observation is: societies and people change, people rethink values, norms, habits, expectations, also when these values, norms, habits, expectations are based on specific, seemingly unshakable, interpretations of holy books like the Bible and are enforced by churches and other tradition bearers.

Nonetheless, the fact that the ideas and laws in the Western world on the positions of men and women have changed profoundly, does not mean that all change has to be welcomed. For instance, Western societies still have not found a balance between career and family. The expectation that women have a career as well as a family, has not be paired with the corresponding acceptance that men have to take a care role in their families often at the expense of their careers. Hence both sides are faced with unattainable standards and scant political support. This has created an overburdened society, where family life has been eroded and where, partly as a consequence, a decreasing number of people want to have children. In this sphere, Western societies need to learn, to adjust, and to change.


3 Excursion: Deliberation on democracy

The above is somewhat theoretical, so let us give an example how a deliberation might unfold in practice. We did not always completely accomplish the following deliberation, which predominantly has to be read like a kind of road map, but sometimes we certainly came close.

We usually start a deliberation by asking the participants the meaning of a concept like “freedom” or “democracy”, as remarked above. Some of the participants habitually answer that democracy is about elections and voting. We go with this answer, just to start the discussion. When it is about voting, should the majority then always decide, we ask? Yes, the reply regularly is, that’s democracy! The people should decide! But what when the majority decides that the minority should pay all the taxes? Or that the minority should no longer be allowed to speak its own language? Or should no longer have the right to vote? Some participants saw this trouble coming, they often fled from countries where majorities or dictators did not respect minority rights. No, that’s not democracy, most participants would recognize. But why exactly is this the case, we ask? And are there any other topics they would not want to be decided on via majority decisions? Why these, we question? More and more topics are usually brought up by the deliberators. They then often start to talk about constitutions, about having inalienable rights that cannot be taken away from them. They frequently also start to talk about freedom, respect and equality. Some values – think of language, culture and religion – are that precious to people, that they will never accept majority decisions on them. Taking “democratic” decisions on these issues undermines respect for the “democratic” procedure to come to collective decisions, they would feel disrespected in their humanity, they would feel their freedom to live their identity curbed, they would feel treated unequally to other people, people belonging to majorities whose languages, cultures, religions, or identities are apparently considered superior to theirs.

Time to bring the discussion back to voting. Is democracy just about voting or does it need something more? Voting on what, we ask? We need alternatives to vote on, somebody declares, real alternatives. In our native country it is always the leader who decides from of which alternatives we are allowed to choose. They call it democracy, but it is a sham. But what exactly are real alternatives, we propose to ponder? How do you know which alternatives are preferable? And how do you get significant alternatives? We need an open discussion; we have to talk it over, some reply. We also need to learn, at school and from each other, others fill in. Ignorance and democracy do not go well together. And for this open discussion we need freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We then also get alternatives, some participants assure, because people have different ideas. And when we allow people with comparable ideas to unite, to organize, we get organizations like political parties that can offer alternatives at elections.

Thus, we conclude together, democracy is not just about voting, but also about discussion, about the open exchange of ideas and visions, for which we need freedom of expression and association. And when we finally vote, we do not take decisions on every possible topic via majorities. People have rights which cannot be taken away from them, and about some topics is it better not to vote at all, but instead to let the people or particular minorities decide for themselves.

Apparently, we deliberate, we need freedom for democracy to function. At the same time, democracy is no guarantee for freedom: democratic majorities are an enduring threat to the freedom of minorities. Power seems to be the problem, irrespective where is comes from. Sometimes we cite on a PowerPoint the American president Woodrow Wilson, who stated a century ago: “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it” (1912).

So, a democracy needs to control power, we need to disperse it. How can we do that, we ask our workshop members? Somebody repeats we need a constitution where rights are defined which no democratic government can overrule. And we also need, somebody else fills in, an independent authority that makes sure that the constitution is respected: an independent judicial system. And we need a parliament that keeps the government under control! And we need regular elections so that we can vote governments out of power that abuse their power or that we do not like for other reasons. And we need the freedom to criticize the government, we need a free press, and we need the freedom to associate ourselves with likeminded people into political parties, and other civil organizations, that keep an eye on government, other authorities, and each other.

People by now regularly get overexcited at the thought of disempowering government. A picture emerges of a democratic society were everybody expresses opinions, debates the opinions of others, where every power is curbed by other powers, and where at the end of the day nobody can get anything done. We throw in another theses: A multitude of political parties, civic organizations, and press creates predominantly confusion and disorder, weakens the nation and makes it impossible to make correct and clear decisions.

Many participants, natives and migrants, have heard this argument before. But how to counter it effectively? We need to bring the discussion to an even higher level. First we need to ask ourselves why we allow this cacophony or plurality of competing ideas, values, perspectives, interests, actors and powers to develop. Chaos seems to be the result. It is time to discuss pluralism and monism, a philosophical issue about which many of our participants love to talk about, despite the fact that it also regularly bewilders them. It is an issue that comes back in many other discussions: freedom, tolerance, civil society.

We start again with a provoking thesis: Every question has only one right answer and all correct answers can be ordered in one coherent, consistent system. Some people, philosophers for instance, have more knowledge of all the correct answers. These people should rule.

Most participants have to chew on this. Many, Westerners and non-Westerners alike, have a strong temptation to agree with the first thesis. We then ask these people: “What is the need of a discussion or a vote, or a democracy at all, when all questions have just one correct answer?” Good point. For what kind of questions do we have answers that have some universal validity or plausibility, answers we do not need to vote on?

When we feel the group can handle it, we bring up and discuss the difference between scientific and philosophical questions. Even for PhD students this often proves to be a difficult issue. Science is about empirical observation and logical reasoning, we explain. For philosophical questions we do not know, or do not agree yet, how to answer them. “Where is my coat?” is a scientific question. We can come to a generally accepted answer via observation (“look, it is hanging there on the wall!”), or via logic (“I cannot find it here, but I left home wearing a coat, so I must have left it on the SBahn”). But how to answer questions like: what is the meaning of freedom or democracy, is freedom more important than equality, how should we distribute our national income, what is a good life, what is a good society, is there a reality behind or above the reality we observe, is there life after death? Some people believe they know final answers here, but the simple fact that they are not able to convince all the others of its truth, begs the question.

We return to the thesis and introduce the difference between monists and pluralists. Monists think that all questions, even ethical questions about right and wrong, or questions about beauty, have only one correct answer and that all these answers can be organized in one consistent, coherent and frictionless system. Often they also believe that some people have more knowledge of the ‘correct’ answers. We can leave government to them.

Monist can be found all over the world and at all times, we stress. The history of thought in the West is a history of a battle between monists and pluralists, and only recently the pluralists got the upper hand. But still, monists can be found everywhere, and often at unexpected places.

Pluralists think that ethical questions often have several plausible answers. They think there are many different values, each itself worthwhile, but that these values often clash. When that happens, compromises have to be made, values have to be balanced. We cannot have it all. And this is a tragic truth, typical of the human condition.

We ask the participants whether they can think of examples of values that collide and have to be balanced. We propose freedom and equality as examples: The freedom of the wolves is the death of the sheep. Unlimited freedom leads to inequality and consequently to the diminishing of the freedom of those at the bottom. Trying to get a more equal society diminishes the freedom of the winners. Another example: the wish to have an adventurous life with constantly new experiences is at odds with the wish for security, continuity, serenity.

We get back to democracy: Many questions in a democracy are philosophical by nature. Are there any experts, we ask, on the question how much money should be spend on education, defense, the building of roads and bridges, art and culture? Are there any experts with ultimate, universal answers to the question whether we as a society, a democratic community, should focus on economic growth or should prioritize happiness? But what is happiness, and how could governments contribute to it? We ponder, every question a society needs to answer, even the ones that seems entirely technological or scientific, have a philosophical or political component. What decisions with regard to nuclear power cannot be left to experts? Is the question how many hospitals should be built in a country, purely technological or scientific?

Democracy apparently exists because we do not have purely scientific, objective answers to many questions we need to answer in every society. We do not accept that specific people have a bigger say in providing answers to these questions, we do not accept self-appointed authorities, we demand that every person has an equal say, an equal vote. For the same reason we value freedom, another topic that we go into at length: there are no final, universal and eternal answers to the question how to live one’s life, each person has to make up, and is able to make up, her own mind, and therefore it is a matter of respect to leave people room to make their own decisions.

People get tired. It’s time for lunch!


4 What effects to expect?

Illustrated above is the way we try to investigate together with our participants how values and concepts hang together, and constitute an interwoven, mutual reinforcing, to some extent consistent and coherent, set of values, norms, ideas, concepts. Just by asking whether democracy is about voting or discussion, and whether majorities should always have their way, we entered into discussions on minority, constitutional and human rights, into discussions on freedom, autonomy, equality, pluralism and monism, relativism and absolutism, tolerance, dispersion of power, political parties, civic society, etc. On top of that, we tried to show how this all hangs together. One topic leads to another, and many ideas are interrelated.

Still, research has shown over and over again that people have a remarkable ability to be and remain inconsistent. They also have a great capacity to ignore facts that contradict their standpoints. Although guilty of this habit themselves, academics, politicians, journalists and other opinion-makers are regularly amazed by the inconsistent and incoherent thinking of people not working with ideas on a daily basis. Explaining to people that they are inconsistent rarely makes them admit their flawed reasoning. Usually, this explanation is experienced as an insult to their intelligence: “You think I’m stupid?”. Consequently, their intelligence and self-respect needs to be protected at the costs of consistency or plausibility. Hence, wallowing in inconsistencies and fact-denial is hardly ever productive in the context of deliberation. It is better is to illustrate how consistency looks, and in doing so to seed some doubts, doubts that may become effective later, in a different context.

Again, people do not change their mind easily, and even when they did change their mind, they will not readily admit this. Therefore, it is very difficult to find out to what extent people have come to other positions during deliberative workshops. We do not try to answer this, for instance by bluntly asking participants at the end of our meetings how much they have changed. They do not know, they do not want to tell, and changes might appear much later, silently, working in the background.

What can you expect of in total about 15 hours of deliberation? First of all we want to show and to experience that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss with other citizens fundamental values, ideas and perspectives that too often are not talked about in our societies. It is a general experience in citizenship, deliberation, reflection, civility, social and political participation that hopefully will prepare the ground for many more deliberative exchanges.

Consequently, the aim of our deliberative workshops is not just to communicate ideas and values hold pivotal for an integration into European culture, but to create a social setting in which people are able to discuss these ideas and values freely and courteously. We offer an experience and training in the communication of often very sensitive topics, topics that can lead to misunderstandings, frictions, conflicts and radicalizations. The workshops aim to help people, migrants as well as natives, to express and openly discuss in a respectful way ideas, values, orientations, and habits that often stay implicit and therefore develop into unproductive, disruptive conflicts. We try to resolve frictions, before they become unmanageable struggles.

We cannot be certain that all the participants fully understood everything that was put forward during our deliberations. But do academics or professional politicians always fully understand each other? Furthermore, even when not everything is fully comprehended, the experience that it is possible to talk sensibly on this kind of topics, is essential. The discussions on homosexuality are an extreme example: in many cultures nobody ever talks about the topic, it is a taboo. Some participants might have talked about it openly for the first time. We might not have changed their mind. But we certainly demonstrated that one can have a consistent, coherent discussion on it. The rest hopefully comes later.

Perhaps counterintuitively, we have found that in comparison to their colleagues with a migrant background, the German participants in our workshops did not always have more elaborate, thought through answers to many of our questions. Often they were also amazed by this themselves. An important motivation of our German volunteers to participate in the workshops was precisely that they regularly had experienced in their encounters with refugees, that they were short of answers when the refugees were asking them about democracy, freedom, tolerance, equality between the sexes, or homosexuality. The situation is not different for many other citizens.

Last but not least, what we in the end can achieve and aim for is to seed some doubt, to create some cracks and open windows for reflection. By going into democracy, ethical and political pluralism, freedom, tolerance, or identity we show that there is not much we can be really certain and therefore dogmatic about. Values clash and need to be balanced. Values have different weights in different circumstances. We want and we need freedom because there are no eternal, universal truths about how to live one’s life. We want and need democracy basically for the same reason: we need a procedure to reach compromises and agreements because people have different, regularly conflicting, ideas, interests and values, and because there are no king-philosophers or other dictators that know all. Identities are, to an important extent, the product of coincidental times and places; they are flexible and changing. Consequently, much is fluid, unstable, in the process of change. But this does not mean that anything goes: on the contrary, there is a constant need to talk things over, again and again, and we can do that in sensible, fruitful ways.

This willingness to reflect, rethink, reconsider and deliberate we found abundant among the young participants of our workshops, wherever they came from. Young people are still looking for answers, refugees from wars and extremism have a lot to think about, and people entering other cultures are searching for something to hold on. As a society we need to invest in these people, as we need to invest in our native citizens that have forgotten to ask themselves the very same questions we are asking the refugees. We basically have to choose between easy, invalid answers to more and more complex questions, on the one hand, and the opening of new meaningful ways of social and political participation and of strengthening political competence, on the other hand.


Potsdam, Mai 2017


Thanks to Sarah Coughlan, Nils Wadt, Jesse Kalata, and Johannes Kuhnert for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Also thanks to the many participants of our workshops for sharing their thoughts with us. Obviously, only the author is responsible for the content of this paper.



Berlin, Isaiah. 1988. ‘On the pursuit of the ideal’, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. London: John Murray. 1990.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1996. The sense of reality: studies in ideas and their history. London: Chatto & Windus.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1997. The proper study of mankind: an anthology of essays. London: Chatto & Windus.

Blokland, Hans T. 1997. Freedom and Culture in the Western World. London & New York: Routledge.

Blokland, Hans T. 1999. Berlin on liberalism and pluralism: a defense’, The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms; Journal of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, Vol.4, Nr.4, 1999, pp.1-24.

Blokland, Hans T. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT) and Farnham: Ashgate.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2015. Some important lessons from political science on political participation and democratization.

Blokland, Hans T. 2015. Why social scientists should help people to find out what they want.

Blokland, Hans. 2016. Debating values and cultural identity with newcomers and natives in Europe.

Blokland, Hans T. 2016. How to debate values in a diverse Europe.

Dahl, Robert A. 1950. Congress and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Dahl, Robert. A. 1989. Democracy and its Critics. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 2000. On Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale university Press.

Elster, J. (ed.). 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fishkin, James S. 1995.  The Voice of the People:  Public Opinion and Democracy.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, James S. and Peter Laslett (eds.), 2003. Debating Deliberative Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Vol. 1: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Vol. 2: Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Lane, Robert E. 1972. Political Man. New York: Free Press.

Lane, Robert E. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1940. Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction. London: Routledge.

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty.

Putnam, R.D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R.D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recogniti­on’: An Essay by Charles Taylor, with commentary by Amy Gutmann (ed.), Steven, C. Rockefeller; Michael Walzer and Susan Wolf. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[i] A description of the project can be found here:

[ii] We will publish a separate article on the, often challenging, recruitment of participants.

[iii] A description of this project can be found here:

[iv] cf.

[v] Teacher-centric learning

[vi] For an example, watch this video from the Guardian on an integration project in Norway. Every migrant in this country is obliged to attend classes on female rights and respect for women. The lessons were made compulsory after a string of sex attacks by migrants in Stavanger. Jenny Kleeman meets the students and asks whether “western” values can really be taught in a classroom.