Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Man Over Time...

By Jill Blair

Thanks to Hallmark and all the other companies that generate tools to bring good cheer into our lives, the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas now flow into one another seamlessly. This was not always true. When I was growing up there were much more clearly defined distinctions between Halloween – when goblins and candy ruled; Thanksgiving, when turkey, pumpkin pie and crazy families were the main events; and Christmas (in our house Chanukah), when trees, candy canes and too much gift-giving left people tired and abundant. In these modern days, we have managed to change the nature and pace of time and create one long holiday season that starts almost when our kids go back to school and doesn’t end until days after the New Year.

In the Jewish tradition we have two holy days that our sages, not our business partners, have inextricably linked and we are instructed during that period between (the tween days), to give time to reflection and reconciliation. These are the ten days between our New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur (a day of fasting and forgiveness) – and we call this time, “the days of awe.” Our custom is to reflect during this period and to reconcile, with ourselves, and others. We seek and offer forgiveness for the ways in which we have violated our own sense of purpose and the values and ethics of our social bonds and expectations. Not because I am deeply religious, though I have my moments, but because I am concerned about what I see as our evolving relationship with and need to rule over time, I am thinking that there is significant human and social value to the this tradition and it may be worth adopting more broadly. It is a tradition that honors the human spirit but importantly, it honors time itself.

When we rush from one event or meeting to the next – when we schedule our own lives and the lives of those we love from task to task – when we confuse accomplishment (something done) with achievement (sometime done well), we have designated time to be our enemy. We are gluttons for more of it and desperate to conquer it.

But what if…

What if this holiday season we accept the limits of time, and instead of filling it up with action, we save some for reflection?

What if we honor ourselves and those we care about by setting aside the time that is needed to complete our conversations and share our greatest hopes and uncertainties and…

What if we measure the meaning of this season by how well we listen to one another?
By the questions we consider and the conversations in which we engage?

What if we measure the value of this time not by what we do but how deeply we feel when we do it?

December is my birthday month. It is also the birthday month for a friend of the same considerable age. She recently wrote to me about what it feels to be turning 55 this year – it seems like a number that not long ago was completely out of reach – a distant and foreign destination of little concern in her common world. But here we are. And my friend noted, “at least with this age I have found some answers to long lingering questions.”

Which takes me to my conclusion…it is time that answers our questions. But we must be listening.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Is the Medium as Important as the Message?

By Matt Leighninger & Bruce L. Mallory

As practitioners and students of deliberative democracy for more than a decade, we are intrigued by the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and by the contrast between these methods and the traditional ways in which governments try to engage citizens. Media commentators speculate on whether the Occupiers will achieve their policy goals; maybe we should all be more focused on the equitable, participatory, ways in which those goals are being developed.

Whether one agrees with the ideological content of the OWS movement or not, this unfolding example of civil discourse, respectful exchange of ideas, small-group facilitated dialogue, and listening rather than speechifying is a welcome alternative to the prevailing, alienating polemic of talk radio and much of the blogosphere. The use of direct democracy, expressed through the highly structured “general assembly” as the means to engage participants in the drafting of manifestos and hour-by-hour decision making, is remarkable to witness. Most of the core principles that have guided deliberative democracy practices are readily evident in the OWS movement. These include a commitment to small-group, facilitated dialogue; equal participation and full respect for every member of the group; an emphasis on deep and careful listening as well as thoughtful expression of ideas; the engagement of diverse participants who bring divergent experiences, identities, and ideologies into the conversation; and the importance of sustained exchanges meant to inform and transform rather than one-off, one-way testimonies that neither inform nor transform.

These core principles, applied across deliberation models, settings, and topics, are being utilized in a dynamic, passionate, uncertain context in the OWS movement. In fact, it is the application of these deliberative principles that is allowing the inchoate structures of OWS to generate common ground, maintain community, and avoid either internal or external confrontations (so far).

Some of these tactics have been used in recent years, primarily by city officials and other local leaders, to engage their constituents productively in public decision-making and problem-solving. These methods for democratic governance are promoted and supported by associations for local officials like the National League of Cities. This work has gone largely unnoticed, particularly by state and federal officials; OWS has brought principles of democratic governance out of doors and into the spotlight.

The “human mic” phenomenon is particularly appealing. This completely low-tech, innovative work-around to restrictions on sound equipment has created a powerful bonding mechanism. The necessary concern for whether others have heard a speaker’s message requires participants to suspend their own immediate responses or judgments and place the needs of other community members first. Thus, the first question is not, do you agree with what you are hearing, but rather, did you hear it? This requires that individuals focus on listening first, only then forming an opinion about what is said. The frustratingly slow process of the human mic mirrors the slow, messy, unpredictable nature of direct democracy itself. At the same time, the process creates social capital within a group of people who have only been together a matter of weeks, days, or hours. It produces the sense of attachment to a community, a feeling that one of our founding fathers, John Adams, would have called “public happiness.”

While the general assembly strategy appeared to be a spontaneous invention, it was influenced significantly by experiments in democratic governance and popular protest in other countries. Veterans and careful observers of the recent protests in Greece, Spain, and Egypt were among the early organizers of the occupation. Democratic innovations from Madagascar, relayed to the organizers by anthropologist David Graeber, seem to have been particularly important. Graeber spent extended time in villages in Madagascar that had been abandoned by the government for some years; his field work focused on the use of consensus decision-making in which the local residents managed their own affairs in the absence of formal government structures. He described what he saw as “democracy without government,” and subsequently applied these lessons to his participation in anti-globalization protests in the 1990’s. The use of tactics from other countries – and the implied recognition that the United States is not the only laboratory for innovation in democracy – has invigorated OWS in much the same way as Brazilian methods for participatory budgeting are helping local officials in Chicago, New York, and several California cities involve their constituents effectively in key budget decisions. Where OWS will end up, we can’t predict. But we do hope that the example being set of small ‘d’ democracy will live on, indoors and out, whatever the issue or context.

Bruce L. Mallory

Professor of Education, University of New Hampshire

Director, Carsey Institute and NH Listens

Matt Leighninger

Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium