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Book Club Week 4: Difference Democracy

In week 4 of the NCDD Book Club on Democratizing Deliberation, we’re focusing on John Dryzek’s chapter “Difference Democracy: The Consciousness-Raising Group Against the Gentlemen’s Club.” Join in the conversation by adding a comment!

About your host, Kim Crowley: As a training consultant specializing in instructional design and accelerated learning, I’m eager to explore how deliberative democracy might become more accessible to a variety of learners.

My lens in viewing the chapter:

As a volunteer community facilitator, (currently with the Hartford Public Library’s immigrant civic engagement dialogue-to-action project, “Creating a More Vibrant Hartford through Adult Learning”), I think about how to bring more people to the table in ways that won’t leave them feeling unheard (possibly in spite of speaking out) or overwhelmed by too many choices. Dryzek’s central frame of competition among discourses (defined as shared assumptions and capabilities used to organize a coherent shared storyline) captured, for me, an overall cultural phenomenon: We tend to share a perceptual filter of competition that intimidates some and emboldens others. Regardless of designs for mutual understanding, many individuals do seem to initially come to public issues with a sense that discussion is about separate people articulating ideas so that the best ideas can win.

I wonder whether we could add another frame that would shift us away a little from a discourse Darwinism in which ideas compete to get fed. I’d like to nurture a framing metaphor in which ideas (and identities) do not threaten to kill each other off as much as they come together to mate: to combine, build on each other, and produce something new.

The chapter provides an overview of frames that have been explored:

Models of Difference Democracy (pp. 58-62)

Several models frame competition around the needs of identity groups. These models include: continuous identity exploration (which is seen as ideal, but unrealistic); struggle against oppression from the dominant order; and group representation through quotas or through the guarantee that disadvantaged groups are represented, consulted, and have veto power.

From your host:

As a child in a school that participated in busing, I experienced some of the unintended negative consequences that can come from organizing around identity groups. (The classic Robbers Cave experiments later drove home for me the generalizability of my particular experience.) I also understand that identity group membership is fundamentally important to most people. I wonder whether real psychologically-based identity needs might somehow be married into Dryzek’s contest of discourses (which we’ll get to in a bit).

Does Deliberation Repress Differences? (pp. 62-67)

When this chapter was written, research was needed to determine whether the following criticisms of difference democracy are supported by fact:

  • Democracy itself, as a dominant discourse, controls people’s basic assumptions and tames them through mechanisms for teaching self-control.
  • Deliberative democracy favors universally understandable stories of people of power. At a disadvantage are people (particularly women and minorities) outside of a dominant speech culture characterized by general, formal, dispassionate confrontation.
  • Deliberative democracy pushes individuals toward too much unity.

Deliberating Across Difference (pp. 67-73)

Adding forms of communication may lighten suppression of differences, but any form needs to pass two tests.

  1. Test of non-coercion: Exclude any form of communication that involves coercion or the threat of coercion.
  2. Test of generalizability: Exclude any form of communication that cannot connect the particular to the general.

Conditions under which forms can fail these tests:

Storytelling and testimony are coercive when group norms constrain the range of acceptable stories. When stories don’t generalize beyond the oppressed group, they can fuel cycles of revenge. Greetings are coercive when they indicate outsider status or intimidate. Rhetoric is coercive when used manipulatively. Examples: Framing issues in terms of threats to the core identity of the group or silencing criticism by emphasizing expert credentials. Argument (the only form that must be present in deliberation) lacks coercion only when all parties have equal ability to challenge validity claims. Coercion results from suppression of challenges to the particular. Argument can also expose the failures of any communication form including itself.

Dryzek concludes: Practitioners of deliberative democracy can address issues of difference by using a variety of communication forms that meet the two criteria. Theorists who hold that consensus is the goal of democratic deliberation or that deliberation is about strategic competition rather than mutual understanding are wrong. People can have different public reasons for supporting a mutual agreement.

Difference as the Contest of Discourses (pp. 73-79)

Dryzek asserts that the most justifiable frame for thinking about about society-wide democratic dialogue and deliberation is as public contests among discourses (shared assumptions and capabilities) rather than as contests among people’s identities.

The network form of organization can promote dispersed control over the terms of discourse. The U.S. environmental justice network, for example, grew bottom up with no central leadership. Groups within the network have successfully reframed risk and social justice, and that has extended deliberative democratic control. The network form, while bringing out a greater number of positions, has created coherence around a common storyline. The movement has also successfully affected public policy. Discourse outside of officially sanctioned state forms is especially important because it is less constrained and allows alternative discourses to begin to gain footing.


From your host:

Let’s start building! I’ve created separate discussion areas for each of the four topics below. Feel free to comment and question wherever you’d like:

  1. Validity of criticisms?
  2. Privileged voices?
  3. Alternatives to competition?
  4. Anything else.

This post was submitted by a member of the NCDD community. NCDD members are leaders and future leaders in the fields of public engagement, conflict resolution, and community problem solving. You, too, can post to the NCDD blog by completing the Add-to-Blog form at www.ncdd.org/submit.

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