Two years ago I wrote this piece outlining how Citizen Assemblies violate the conditions Surowiecki outline as necessary to create a wise crowd. My point was to show how there is a fine line between when a dialogue becomes a group monologue, or worse, just a mob. Those who engage in policy discussions need to be aware of where this line lies lest they accidentally confuse consensus and agreement with silent coercion.
I experienced this problem a few months ago while attending an Imagine BC Leaders’ Summit, A Dialogue on Habitat, Health and Livelihoods :10 Big Ideas to Shape a Resilient Future. The day long event included 180+ leaders and interested parties from different sectors and was supposed to cap off discussions that had been going on about the future of British Columbia. But rather than be an open dialogue, the discussion was intensely closed and, to be frank, bordered on fascist.
Things started off innocently enough. The conversation opened up with a number of participants strongly advocating that British Columbia, and the world, needed a zero growth economy. The term was never explained or explored, but it was made clear that continued economic growth was impossible and threatened the plant. I felt concerned that a group of people who could afford to take an entire workday off to talk about the future would suggest that a zero growth economy was necessary (as quickly as possible) especially in a world where over a billion people live under $1 a day. I suspect that the underlying interest in zero-growth had to do with environmental sustainability but nobody used an alternative term such as a sustainable economy, ecologically sensitive economy or carbon neutral economy. No, it had to be zero-growth. Such an outcome is great if you’ve already got wealth, but it necessarily marginalizes those that don’t. The topic however, was less important than the process. A few people (including me) voiced our concern over the zero growth term in a smaller breakout session but never in the plenary discussion. I asked some of the other concerned voices why they didn’t speak up: most had concluded within the first 30 minutes of the day that speaking out on environmental issue simply wasn’t safe. I had to agree – I wasn’t speaking up either.
Of course, once a group appears to have consensus – because alternative perspectives have censored themselves – it doesn’t take long for the conversation to move into some disturbing places. Back in the plenary discussion the group had concluded that imminent environmental catastrophe was the pressing issue of our time and all other issues were subordinate or secondary. The conversation then quickly shifted to assessing why people outside the room (the general public that is) didn’t feel the same sense of urgency. In a conversation that would have made the authors of The Death of Environmentalism shudder with familiarity, at no point was there any introspection about how the people in the room had failed t engage others effectively. Instead, exogenous factors were immediately cited. Specifically, two emerged as key problems. First, the educational system wasn’t advocating “the groups” point of view sufficiently and second, the political structures discriminated against their issue specifically. The conclusion, the school system needed to be taken over so as to appropriately educate people and the electoral system needed to be reformed so as to produce outcomes the group favoured.
If that doesn’t sound like a scary or fascist conversation, imagine the same conversation structure, but with this subject.
In a dialogue setting a group of evangelical Christians determine that most pressing issue is the fast approach day of rapture and, due to lack of awareness and concern, many souls would not be saved. They conclude that the reason people don’t care about the rapture isn’t because evangelicals haven’t been effective at reaching out and engaging people but because a) they don’t control the educational system, and b) the political system is structured to not favour their issue. They conclude that must take over the schools and so kids can be taught Christian values and that the electoral system needs rejigging to produce outcomes that favours “Christian” issues.
Same conclusions, different subject matter.
This is why dialogues have to so carefully facilitated. It isn’t hard for them to become a mob and for the discussion to get angry and totalitarian.
Oh, and a final note. During the afternoon, in a moment you couldn’t have scripted, the fascist subtext of the conversation became explicit. During the Q&A after Thomas Homer-Dixon’s presentation, one participant asked “Your data on ecological collapse is terrifying. But enough isn’t being done. Do we have to take a page out of history and get the jackboots and the brownshirts out and just mobilize aggressively?” (I really almost lost it when this question was asked). Homer-Dixon, to his credit, was clearly taken aback and ran the other direction outlining that such an approach was not an appropriate solution. Jackboots? Brownshirts? We weren’t a dialogue anymore, we were a mob. At least now it was explicit.