Published on August 30, 2012

Stuck in the middle?

By Annie Quick

Annie Quick is Researcher and Team Coordinator. She has a background in different methods of deliberation and participation and in youth democracy.


Too often, dialogue is seen as a way to avoid disagreement. But even if this is possible, is it wise? 

A book came out a few months ago which caught my attention. ‘You’re not as crazy as I thought you were (but you’re still wrong)‘ is the result of a year-long dialogue between Phil Neisser, a self-described ‘left-wing atheist’ and Jacob Hess, a Mormon social conservative. The dialogue aimed to explore the many differences between them. Crucially, (and as the title suggests) they continued to disagree throughout the process about almost everything. Although they did identify common ground, they didn’t see dialogue as an exercise in building consensus. What they did achieve was a better understanding of, and respect for, each other.

I found the book quite refreshing and couldn’t think of anything I’d read recently which was similar. Although the idea of dialogue without agreement shouldn’t be very radical, too often public dialogue is implicitly seen as a way of overcoming disagreement. America Speaks’ town hall deliberation on the US national budget, for example, proudly reported that participants had become more moderate as a result of their deliberation, finding common ground in a culture of political polarisation.

The idea of deliberation as a path to consensus can also be found in the world of science and technology. Following high profile clashes between activists and companies over the use of controversial technologies such as Nuclear Power and GM crops for example, upstream engagement was proposed to involve the public earlier in the decision-making process. There’s an underlying and often unspoken hope that this kind of deliberation and dialogue can overcome, or even prevent such strong disagreements happening in the first place.

This worries me. In an attempt to avoid polarisation through dead-lock and the name-calling kind of conflicts, there’s a danger that we attempt to eliminate conflict and disagreement altogether. There are two outcomes I can see from this: either we do all learn to agree on the big issues, which I’ll argue would be a bad thing anyway, or, more likely, we would merely ignore divergent opinions and dialogue would become at best meaningless and at worse a justification for existing dominant values or decisions.

Hoorah for conflict and disagreement!

The first possible outcome, then, is that dialogue really does manage to create widespread agreement about important things. The problem is that getting everyone to agree is likely to end up with us all in the middle. I’m not really a down the middle kind of person myself, and if you take a slightly longer view, History hasn’t always looked back favourably on the political middle either. The political middle has colonised and enslaved large swathes of Africa and denied women the vote for most of our democracy’s history, to name just two injustices. In fact all the bits of history I find most inspiring are precisely when one side or another has launched war at the middle and dragged it, usually kicking and screaming, in another direction.

I’m making a fairly obvious point that’s been made many times before. In political philosophy the importance of disagreement and constructive conflict for democracy has been widely acknowledged. As JS Milll put it “That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in the next.” There’s clearly a much bigger issue here about the way our political system deals with dissent in democracy more broadly, which I won’t try to grapple with just now. (As a taster, though, just think about when you last heard the description of ‘moderate’ used as a criticism, or ‘radical’ used in praise of someone’s politics. If the answer is “all the time, actually” then I suspect you’re living in a very small subset of modern British political discourse.)

Consensus decision-making vs. Everyone agreeing with each other

While I don’t want everyone to agree, however, I am a strong believer in consensus decision-making. In this context, rather than a synonym for everyone agreeing with each other, consensus is about everyone giving consent to a decision.

Let’s look at a lot of the consensus decision-making going on at the moment in activist circles, most notably Occupy. These forms of decision-making, informed heavily by the anarchist tradition, were developed precisely to encourage and actively engage with diverse opinions, and in opposition to majority rule which was perceived as ignoring everything but the middle ground. (This is not to say that this necessarily takes place within these activist circles by any means, but only that this is the aim).

Even where consensus is achieved, it doesn’t mean everyone has convinced each other, but rather that everyone has agreed about what actions to take. A crucial moment in a consensus decision is when individuals are able to give consent to a decision that is not their first choice of action, in recognition of the trust they place in the deliberative process of decision-making. While the result of consensus decision-making may be agreement about a particular decision, then, the process itself, properly done, focuses almost entirely on opinions held by the minority. The power of veto means that incredible weight is given to those on the outskirts.

(While I’m on the topic of consensus, I’d like to recommend this fantastic two part history of consensus decision-making. It includes pirates!).

Opening up and closing down

So, coming back to our original problem: our second possible outcome of dialogue aimed at creating agreement was that dialogue would merely ignore divergent opinions.

Perhaps one of the most useful framings of this issue for dialogue and deliberation comes from Andy Stirling, who among other things is a member of the Sciencewise steering group. Stirling’s focus is social appraisal in science and technology. He suggests that appraisal aimed at creating consensus can have the effect of closing down discussion. The aim is to ‘cut through messy, intractable , and conflict-prone diversities of interests and perspectives to develop clear, authoritative, prescriptive recommendations informing decisions.’ The danger of this approach is that, with the aim of creating consensus, the framing of dialogue cuts off avenues early, stifles disagreement and produces unrealistically simplified results which serve as justifications for policy makers to take certain actions ‘with the support of the public’.

In contrast, he proposes an alternative ‘opening up’ approach which:

‘poses alternative questions, focuses on neglected issues, includes marginalised perspectives, triangulates contending knowledges, tests sensitivities to different methods, considers ignored uncertainties, examines different possibilities, and highlights new options.’

As in consensus decision-making, choices do need to be made, and we cannot forever be exploring our differences. But without going through the ‘opening up’ process first, we may be closing off pathways which would be more valuable.

If citizen dialogue is going to really contribute to a healthy democracy it needs to encourage and engage in conflict and disagreement, not in order to overcome it, but for its own sake. So, my advice would be: search for common ground by all means. But only if you’re using it to build trust in order to tackle the uncommon ground on which democracy relies. That’s where the fun really starts.

Image by San Diego Shooter

7 Responses to “Stuck in the middle?”

  1. August 30, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    Thank you, Annie, for so clearly saying that efforts to reach consensus should not be thought of a way to avoid disagreement and conflict, because disagreement and conflict are valuable, and consensus is best defined as consent to a decision, not as agreement. Also thanks for letting me know about the article by Andy Stirling. I will check it out. — Phil

  2. August 30, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    No problem Phil! Thanks to you and Jacob hess for inspiring the post.

  3. September 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks Annie, that is really interesting and helpful. I am revisiting the government’s ‘Synthetic Biology Roadmap’ and pondering what they mean by dialogue and what I mean and how, why and what would be important engage about in this area – this is a very helpful contribution. Haven’t got any answers yet though!

  4. September 3, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Hilary, thanks and glad you found it useful! Be good to hear what comes of your pondering.

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