Friday, April 15, 2016

Democracy Is Failing: A Novice Revisiting of Nonviolent Communication

Democracy is failing. Some scholars and politicians suggest that democracy remains in name only as the stresses and strains of economic, political and environmental upheavals intensify. Democracy is dead. The necessary conversations either aren't taking place or fail to take the views and needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized into account. Problems resulting from inequality have a way of percolating up because they deny dignity of life (Al-Rodhan, 2015). As seen with ISIS, and police departments and BlackLivesMatter, extremism takes root and recruits when long-standing inequality and resentment are allowed to flourish. The long term harm and cost to society that result from fixity of view, blaming, and exclusion are incalculable.

For the last year I have been exploring alternative pathways for communication and negotiation -- pathways in which sociological concerns can be expressed distinct from the racial, religious and partisan politics that often infuse debate. Media have a polarizing effect and increase, rather than dismantle, affective resistance and bias so that cognitive positions become more extreme (Mock & Homer-Dixon, 2015). Especially in the absence of mechanisms creating a sense of citizenship and community. As a result, borders and biases are buttressed to reinforce partisan, institutional and system identities. The situation and debate over the state of the European Union is one current example. In addition, because media depend on market and attentional value, resistive posturing often shifts focus away from actual needs. More resources are often spent in maintaining brand and image than in redress for those without resources and most at risk. Institutions, think tanks and corporations have been created -- and many a publication and book written -- in avoidance of actual conversation and negotiation. The most recent trend towards algorithmic decision-making based on Big Data (Pasquale, 2015) threatens to devoid human agency of responsibility and enforce an artificial consensus based on habitual tendencies abstracted from their context rather than provide for equality of opportunity and cultural diversity.

Boundaries that have proved particularly problematic in public discourse concern (a) the divide between government and academic institutions and (b) the divide between academic institutions and the public (Macilwain, 2011; 2016). The rise in reactionary populist nationalism deepens these schisms by reinforcing racial, religious and partisan bias. Relying on populist movements to motivate change emphasizes polarization across race, gender, and the religions and institutions on which society depends. Populist emphasis of ideological biases in public discourse increases political instability since it reinforces exclusionary processes.

Humility in intellectual discourse is the opposite of reactionary populist nationalism. Nonviolent communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg (Rosenberg, 2003), is a good example that allows for agonistic pluralism as well as cultural diversity (Mouffe, 1999) while overcoming biases that can falsely frame perceptions of needs and solutions.

Nonviolent Communication is but one of several negotiation methods that differs from the western mode of election and governance. Indeed, the African Indaba Process was used during the recent Paris climate talks (Rathi, 2015). It can take years of practice to master the methods of Nonviolent Communication unilaterally and, in cases of persistent inequality, it can be difficult to persuade individuals to follow the process, which depends on identifying emotions, followed by linking emotions to basic needs. Identifying underlying needs increases the possible range of pragmatic solutions. People in positions of power often fail see the positive benefits of a nonviolent communication process that goes beyond the assignment of blame and/or dismissal due to ignorance. Moreover, giving voice to emotions is full of risk since emotions can be weaponized.

Neither politicians or corporations, and not even academics, have an accurate view of the various dimensions of any given problem in our society. All voices need to be invited and heard in finding dignified solutions to the multi-dimensional problems of our time. The largest oversight in negotiation, design and planning is that rarely are all affected peoples included at the table -- an oversight that typically results in partial solutions that exclude the concerns and needs of the most vulnerable. As observed by Cynthia Enloe and Annick Wibben the individuals most often omitted from negotiation processes, and whose perspectives therefore go unrecognized, are women. Inclusion of women more fully informs diversity in viewpoint and the range of possible solutions.

Al-Rodhan, N. (2015) Proposal of a Dignity Scale for Sustainable Governance, Journal of Public Policy (Blog), 29 November

Enloe, C. (2014) Bananas, Beaches, and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angles, CA

Macilwain, C. (2011) Science’s attitudes must reflect a world in crisis. Nature News 479, 447.

Macilwain, C. (2016) The elephant in the room we can’t ignore. Nature News 531, 277.

Mock, S. & Homer-Dixon, T. (2015) The Ideological Conflict Project: Theoretical and Methodological Foundations, CIGI Papers, v74.

Mouffe, C. (1999) Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism? Social Research, 66(3), 745-758.

Pasquale, F. (2015) The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA

Rathi, A. (2015) This simple negotiation tactic brought 195 countries to consensus. Quartz (Blog), 12 December

Rosenberg, M.B. (2003) Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. PuddleDancer Press; Encinitas, CA

Wibben, A.T.R. (2011) Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach. Routledge - Taylor & Francis Group, New York, NY