Most of our public discourse is plagued by toxicity and a lack of deep engagement. We witness bluster rather than cooperative discernment, bargaining rather than constructive negotiation, bullying rather than cooperative inquiry. The public square has become an arena for anxious combat and agonistic talking past one another. This mode of disagreement reduces argument to a two-position binary of winner and loser and a toxic encounter that lacks reciprocity, inhibits deep engagement, and repels citizens from participation in our political system.
Our understanding of the role of citizens has also deeply atrophied. We often view it through the important but narrow lens of what passport we hold or what country we were born in, rather than see it as representing our shared identity as fellow humans with common needs and fears and aspirations, working and living and solving our common problems — together. We increasingly see citizenship as a narrow set of individual characteristics like nationality or birthplace, and not as a broad set of duties — to vote one’s conscience, to volunteer for worthy causes, to protest injustice, to deliberate with one another — that transcends political and social boundaries.
Such a state of affairs, however, is neither inevitable nor unalterable. Both citizenship and civil discourse can be reimagined and reconstituted so as to embody the democratic ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and the founding documents of democracies around the world. Another, more constructive approach to disagreement understands argument as a mode of collaborative interaction that transcends the limits of simplistic pro-con constraints. It seeks fresh perspectives that emerge from exploring the relative merits of all positions brought to the table for consideration. It emphasizes both truth-telling and open-mindedness. All participants reach for a shared future together.
Such democratic deliberation is also a method for collaborative inquiry into the nature and genesis of a disagreement. It involves recovering the history of a controversy and describing, in mutually-recognizable detail, the evidence, reasons, narratives, and assumptions that generate contrasting positions and points of view. It enables deliberators to reconsider their arguments, adjust their claims in light of good reasons, qualify assertions to reflect newly-recognized complexity, and change their views altogether. It is often said that democracy is born in talk, and one can envision deliberation as a scene of charitable yet energetic conversation that supports the true spirit of such democracy.
Deliberative citizenship likewise names the identity of those who engage in such discourse. Citizenship in this more inclusive sense represents the state of freely and intentionally belonging to a community of human beings at any scale—from the local to the national to the global—who are committed to treating one another as equals and to engaging in collective deliberation and action.
This deeper sense of citizenship complements and transcends our many individual, political, social, and economic identities that, while critically important, so often polarize and divide us rather than unite us. Healthy democracy depends on its members feeling empowered as citizens, brought together by some common purpose. Inclusive and robust deliberation helps to restore this status.
Fundamentally, the model of deliberative citizenship assumes that disagreement can be constructive; in fact, it acknowledges that disagreement is an inevitable event within and across communities. When citizens deliberate about a contested issue, they may find a way forward through the thicket of a controversy and discover innovative approaches, locate novel perspectives, and create new knowledge.
To learn more about why deliberative citizenship is particularly relevant to Davidson College and to this moment in time, click here.