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April 3, 2003

ideology and deliberation on campus

At the Society for Values in Higher Education's conference on "Discussion, Dialogue, and Deliberation," some of us watched a video advertising a University of Michigan program that involves students in "sustained dialogues" on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It struck me that the video would drive conservatives up the wall, because of the choice of topics, the assumption that the personal is political, the psycho-therapeutic style, and the attempt to raise consciousness by unrooting hidden prejudices even among apparently enlightened students. It also struck me that there were hardly any conservatives at our conference. This is a common experience in my life. I'm a "progressive" on most issues myself; yet almost all my professional projects are defined in strictly nonpartisan, nonideological ways; yet practically everyone I meet and work with is on the left. I raised this issue at the conference, illiciting diverse and interesting responses. I won't try to characterize other people's views of this matter. For myself, I think we have three choices:

1. We could decide that dialogue or deliberation, properly understood and worked out, isn't neutral. It's a form of politics that's inherently more attractive to the Left than to the Right. (For example, some people think that it must deal with racial and gender oppression, because these topics are at the root of most important conflicts.) Thus, although conservatives should be welcomed and respected if they choose to participate, we shouldn't expect them to join in large numbers, nor should we adjust our styles and topics to attract them. To a considerable extent, deliberation (at least on college campuses) will attract the traditional blocks of the Democratic Party: liberal whites, racial and ethnic minorities, gays. They have plenty of diagreements and plenty of hidden mutual animosity to work though, so it is worthwhile to bring them together to deliberate.

2. We could decide that a properly deliberative approach requires the participation of underrepresented groups. In the case of this conference, there was pretty good participation by people of color, but to my knowledge there were no Republicans, evangelical Christians, or people with any current connection to the military. Just as we would act affirmatively to increase the representation of an underrepresented minority group, so we should take affirmative steps to invite the Right to participate. We should make sure we identify potentially interested conservatives and ask them to participate. We should evaluate our public statements and image to make sure that they don't appear hostile to the Right. We should include conservatives as partners from the beginning of our projects, asking them to help us frame our questions and concerns. And we should not presume to speak for them in their absence. I sense, for instance, that they would dislike the University of Michigan's dialogue program, but it is up to them to express their own views of it. I thought some of the characterizations of conservative views at the conference were stereotyped and inaccurate.

3. We should do a bit of both. Some useful exercises (for example, dialogues on racial identity) are going to be dominated by leftish participants, and that's fine. Others will naturally attract conservatives.

Choice #3 seems attractive because it is moderate, but I believe it is impractical. Given very limited energy and resources, the movement for deliberative democracy is going to have to choose between #1 and #2, I believe, and not imagine that we can manage a bit of both.

April 3, 2003 12:14 PM | category: deliberation | Comments


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