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In our deliberative democracy and integration projects[i] we treat our participants – natives as well as migrants – as citizens, able and willing to discuss in a rational way the big themes like democracy, freedom, tolerance or emancipation. We assume that rational deliberations on these topics are possible, provided that the social context is right and that mutual understanding and even consensus are reachable. We know about cultural differences, but we nevertheless believe that across cultures and times understandings of, and agreements on, fundamental values are possible. People have too much in common; have too many shared ideas, goals and experiences, to make the opposite assumption plausible.[ii]
The reactions of many policymakers, politicians, practitioners and volunteers active in integration and political education to our deliberative approaches range from disbelief, skepticism to cynicism. We have often been surprised by this and we did not always anticipate these reactions appropriately.
Our different points of departure – the assumption that we are dealing with rational, sensible citizens, and the assumption of a universally shared horizon of fundamental values – have far reaching consequences.
Personal backgrounds obscure the essentials and suggest relativism
First of all, because we think that there is a basis of shared fundamental values on which we can build a rational deliberation, we do not feel it necessary to give much room in our deliberations to the personal, cultural, ethnic, religious, historical or social backgrounds of the participants. These backgrounds are often very interesting, we know that many people love to talk about it, and in taking backgrounds into consideration we can sometimes better understand some standpoints. Nevertheless, in a deliberation on fundamental questions like “what is democracy”, “what is tolerance” or “what is freedom”, these backgrounds are to an important extent dispensable.
Giving too much room for individual histories can even hinder deliberation. This can be because people get distracted, bored and annoyed. Some people just cannot stop trying to justify their opinions with their life story, and in these stories truth and relevancy are often difficult to assess. More importantly, these digressions can make reaching mutual understanding and agreement more difficult because they obscure the essentials and regularly suggest the existence of something totally unique and distinctive, something that is, consequently, incomprehensible for people with different backgrounds. In allowing these kinds of personal histories, the suggestion is that it is only possible to understand an individual’s approach to a topic like democracy through their unique lived experiences. In other words, these deviations suggest and allow cultural relativism: every culture is unique and cannot be understood and criticized from the standpoint of another culture. This relativism is at odds with the assumptions and aims of deliberation, and, for that matter, with the assumptions and aims of the integration of natives and migrants in open, pluralist democracies.
Political theorists and universals
In our encounters with decision makers and practitioners in the fields of integration and political education we are often seen as social and political scientists that, unfortunately, do not really know how to deal with real people. We might know something about ideas, but what do we know about flesh and blood? This is the terrain of social workers, social pedagogues, or social therapists. This is illustrated, for instance, by project calls of organizations like the German Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge[iii], the Bundesministerium für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend[iv], the Bundesministerium des Innern[v], or the Dutch NGO Vluchtelingenwerk.[vi] Many of their calls have a strong tendency towards social work, pedagogics, therapy, treatment. Consequently, many existing projects in the spheres of integration and political education do not directly address the topics that are in need of discussion, but instead address these topics indirectly: in the context of cooking and eating together, crafting together, celebrating together, making music and theatre together, gardening together, hiking together, etc.. First we have to get to “know” each other, and only after that we might get into some real issues, the assumption often seems to be.
We have no doubt that social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists do important work. We also strongly believe that deliberations only have a change of success when they take place in a respectful, courteous, non-aggressive and pleasant environment. We devote much attention to this in our own workshops too.
Nevertheless, the approaches of social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists should not cover the entire domain of political education and integration. There are two reasons for this. First, these approaches suggest a relativism which demotivates participants and hampers the search for compromise and consensus. Second, these approaches are counterproductive because they do not take the ideas of the “clients” as ideas, but as personal problems in need of treatment. Regularly, this enrages the clients, making them drift further away from the broad democratic conversation.
Academic political scholars are tempted to assume the existence of, and are tempted to search for, tendencies, generalizations, laws, universal theories. Certainly, political theorists assume it is possible to formulate a normative political theory about, for instance, democracy across times and cultures. They evaluate a theory on the basis of rational consistency and coherency, and on the basis of the plausibility of the assumptions regarding human beings and societies. These assumptions are partly empirically inspired or grounded and can to some extent be empirically tested. Political theorists know that values clash and have to be balanced. And they also know that values have different weights in different circumstances and that, consequently, they are also balanced differently in different circumstances. But this can all be encompassed in one theory; one does not need new theories for every new situation.
So when a political theorist deliberates democracy with a refugee from Syria or Iraq, he understands that this refugee might consider law, order and security more important than freedom of expression and freedom of association right now. But that does not imply that he cannot agree with the refugee about the importance of these freedoms for human dignity and democracy. They can wholly agree on conceptions of democracy, freedom and tolerance, and they can wholly agree on their inspirations, ambitions, and strivings regarding these values. And they can agree that their current priorities in Syria should be different than in Germany. What they should not agree upon is that democracy, freedom and tolerance are just contemporary European values, not relevant to other times and places, incomprehensible for people with other cultural backgrounds. Bashar al-Assad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Bin Laden, or Kim Jong-un might like to think that, but it is not a proof of open-mindedness and cultural tolerance when we would agree with them.
Social workers, social pedagogues or social therapists are less tempted to search for general or universal ideas and values. Problematic behavior, ideas or attitudes are more quickly understood in the context of personal circumstances and backgrounds. When individuals do not function well in a particular social, political environment, social workers are tempted to treat the individual; they are not tempted, as social and political theorists would do, to question the environment. Often this is a valid approach. But it also harbors a relativistic element that endangers the formulation of a common ground, a common point of departure, a shared understanding of the foundations of an open society. Addressing personal backgrounds relativizes what is and should be universal and abstractly, rationally justified. This relativism hampers a political education of migrants or natives that aims to establish an understanding of the fundamental, constitutive ideas of a pluralist democracy.
Stupid ideas should just be treated as stupid ideas
This approach also becomes counterproductive when people, natives or migrants, correctly, get the impression that their thoughts and preferences are not really taken seriously. A fundamental driving force of populism is that the citizens concerned do not feel heard, represented and respected by the political, societal and media establishment. Therefore, they cut their ties with mainstream political parties, journalism (Lügen Presse), interest and other societal groups, and lock themselves up in bubbles of like-minded “victims”. Getting these citizens to return to the broad societal conversation is one of the most pressing vocations of contemporary western democracies. In trying to get these citizens on board again, it is not helpful to address them implicitly as “social problems”, as people with social, psychological, educational, or occupational flaws in need of therapy and not able to have a straightforward, rational discussion about their ideas and views. This paternalism and disdain is apparent to the people concerned and strengthens their belief that they are not taken seriously as citizens. Many citizens and migrants might have different ideas and values, but they do not immediately have a problem that is in need of treatment. They simply have different ideas, albeit sometimes uninformed, undemocratic, dangerous or stupid ideas, but still ideas about which we can and should have a rational discussion.
Taking their ideas and views seriously is a precondition for being taken seriously oneself. Showing people that their conversation partners assume that they are fully capable of thinking rationally about social and political issues, addressing them as social and political scholars specialized in ideas and facts, and not as social workers specialized in social problems, empowers people as citizens and makes it possible that people can be convinced by better, more coherent arguments as opposed to so-called “alternative facts”.
In our workshops with refugees we often had the very same experience. After having been treated, implicitly or explicitly, too often as children or as representatives of an inferior culture, they were relieved finally to have the opportunity to talk about fundamental themes. Not surprisingly, they often also turned out to have rather sophisticated thoughts on topics like freedom, democracy and tolerance: as refugees, they had had a reason to think about these topics. Because we respected them as rational beings, they were also prepared to respect us as social and political scholars, sometimes, not always, better able to think through and evaluate standpoints or ideas on societal values.
With the same attitude this year we will also try to get in a conversation with groups of frustrated, angry citizens in Brandenburg, Germany (for a summary of the project, click here). We will trace them via the messages they left behind on a multitude of social media, messages showing dissatisfaction and resentment, and a tendency to support right wing populist positions. We will listen to these citizens carefully and seriously and we will not treat them as social problems. From their side, we expect the same.
They will not disappoint us.
[i] For descriptions of some projects of 2016, see: https://socialscienceworks.org/projects/. An explanation of our deliberative approach so far, offers: Blokland, Hans. 2017. How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach and experiences. Potsdam: Social Science Works.
[ii] For a deeper justification of this, see: Blokland, Hans. 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.