Deliberative democracy and the media

Deliberative democracy is based on the principle that politics should be inclusive, deliberative and consequential. This means that there need to be mechanisms to ensure that all those affected by collective decisions should be able to influence the outcome and that this should involve a process of reason and reflection.

Reflection on important issues cannot occur in an information vacuum. We need inputs into our decision making and the better the quality of that information, the better the capacity for us to reflect on what outcomes we think should be aimed for. Certainly there is a tendency to overplay the role of information alone in considering our positions. The common refrain from those concerned about inaction on climate change, for example, is that the public needs to be better informed. But information alone isn’t enough. There is plenty of that out there already. The problem lies in the way that it is put together, the context in which it is presented, and the level of trust in sources of information that reflect the complexity and nuances of the issue, while still being accessible.

In other words, we also need to consider the need for information to be provided in ways that enable us to side-step fallibility in modes of reasoning, such as the tendency to only seek information the reinforces our pre-existing positions (referred to as motivated reasoning, or commitment bias) or to draw intuitive conclusions that sometimes poorly reflect the substance of the issue (referred to as type 1 reasoning, or peripheral processing; as opposed to type 2 reasoning or cognitive processing). These are motivational issues that I’ll write about another time.

But no matter how well intentioned the motivations behind our political reasoning, it will be fallible to the extent that the information available is poor either in the way it is synthesised, balanced or if it attempts to misdirect or deceive. Not all forms of information are equal, nor trustworthy, if the intention of those providing the information is strategic (i.e. seeks to achieve a particular outcome beyond providing information, especially one that is in their direct interest) as opposed to communicative. Indeed, when it comes to climate change there are many sources of information that are provided strategically, but working out who to trust is difficult, especially when the issue, such as climate change, is so complex. Trust in scientists themselves has been undermined from some sectors. Some scholars, such as Ainslie Kellow (a former mentor of mine) argue that, no matter how well founded climate change is per se, the science has been over-egged in some instances — a perception that has not been helped by the famous ‘climate-gate’ emails. In a world where everybody communicates strategically, no matter how well intentioned, the overall effect is a decrease in trust.

So the question becomes, who can we trust to provide trustworthy information? It is well established that the news media (or fourth estate) has traditionally been important to the functioning of a healthy democratic system. Quality journalism (ideally) identifies issues and synthesises information for public consumption, providing a range of views that permit members of the public to develop well-informed positions, which are, in turn, ideally expressed through the political system via formal and informal mechanisms such as voting, public opinion etc. Ideally there is a kind of self-regulation in operation where there is an incentive for news media to provide considered and trustworthy information to consumers, who should be in a position to judge the quality of the information and whether they are willing to pay for it, or simply spend the time to digest it.

However, this assumption appears to be increasingly challenged, with traditional modes of journalism apparently under threat — both for better and for worse. There are a number of reasons why this appears to be happening, not least in the face of technological innovations delivering vast amounts of freely accessible information, undermining the ability of news outlets to fund what we refer to as ‘quality journalism’ — an issue that is identified by Michelle Grattan in her piece in the Conversation. This is a kind of supply side problem where the cost structure is affecting the ability to afford good quality journalism. Another supply side problem involves the concentration of media ownership (partly due to cost pressures) and the potential for the strategic use information going hand in hand with increasing political power, should the motivations of media proprietors switch from mere information provision and profit to activism — a charge that has been levelled a more than one proprietor in recent times.

But there is also related a demand side problem in which information overload and freely available information at that, undermines the appetite of citizens, as consumers of that information, to seek out and fund quality journalism, or to make discerning judgements about what they are reading. And there are longer-term effects that appear to in play as well. The news companies, who are under such tight constraints, need to find ways to attract readers. And in some cases there is a tendency to ‘dumb’ down content, seeking to titillate rather than inform. Or there can be increasing Balkanisation of news outlets who increasingly cater to the specific beliefs of their audience, stroking their sensitivities for profit. The effect is to entrench perspectives even further and produce information enclaves where whole sections of society get their information from entirely different sources, each supporting different conclusions. The result is a spiral into partisanship, and refusal to take into account competing perspectives, with the market catering for the demand for information that provides a firewall against any perspective that doesn’t accord with a consumers’ worldview. The same thing occurs in online groups, who can more easily find others with their own, sometimes extreme views, facilitated by technology.

Good democratic process requires that we, the citizens open our minds to competing perspectives, even if we ultimately reject opposing arguments. We need sources of information that digest these views and present them in ways that are trustworthy. It is the ultimate expression of freedom of choice, to actively choose among alternative, rather than blindly ignore them.

The ideal model of journalism that seeks to illuminate these alternatives seems increasingly under threat. Although there are alternative models to traditional media that do seem to provide ‘quality journalism’, they seem to be outcompeted by fragmented, biased information sources or even outright propaganda.

Civic Pedagogy Revisited

I recently discovered an opportunity to apply to a department at a local university to design and teach my own course. While I am certain that I would like to teach a course that civically connects students to the community, I remain uncertain about the course content and implementation. This uncertainty not only stems from my rookie status as a graduate student designing her first college course, but also from my desire to construct and implement a course that might actually get students to think critically about social, economic, and political issues while making a difference in their community.

I continue to revisit the Westheimer and Kahne piece about educating the “good citizen” and think about the goals I have for the course. After looking at several course syllabi, it seems that the recipe for most experiential learning courses includes “a few servings” of the personally responsible and participatory visions of citizenship with “a hint” of the justice-oriented pedagogical vision. Should my course employ each of these visions of citizenship? How do I incorporate a vision that integrates critical analyses of social, economic, and political issues while building capacity for collective service, participation, and action? Are there course models out there that effectively engage these notions of citizen participation?

Then I had another thought: What pedagogical tools effectively sustain student engagement in the community or with an issue not only during the course, but also after the course ends? I read an inspiring story last year about a social action course that applied theories and history to social change and ultimately led the students to raising the minimum wage in the community. Was it the context that mattered? Or, was it the fact that one student entered the course invested in this particular issue, found that others were personally affected by the issue, and organized to create tangible social change?

Higher education institutions serve as civic venues of opportunity for young people to catalyze ideas about social justice and become engaged in their communities via service and scholarship. I’m thrilled about the prospect of bridging my practitioner and scholarly backgrounds into a course, and look forward to spending the next few weeks researching different pedagogical possibilities. Ideally, my first stint in the classroom will provide my future students with an opportunity to develop into informed decision-makers who feel empowered in civic action.


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An e‑Deliberation™ event is a collaborative deliberation process mediated online. Participants work individually, in teams, and as a group to address or resolve the Focus of the event. The process is systematic and is consent-based. This approach also allows minority ideas to be considered carefully. The process yields a multipronged, integrated strategy or policy around which there has been a meeting of the minds and a critical mass of persons to ensure its success in implementation. While it is mediated online, groups may elect to meet face to face as well if co-located. e-Deliberation™ is based on the cybernetician Stafford Beer's Team Syntegrity protocol.

I Am Not a Babysitter

Pictured: Women's Work

Pictured: Boring Women’s Work

This is going to be a quick (hopefully not “quick”) relatively link-free post. There’s literature talking about this, but I’m not going to drag it up right now since I really oughta be working. It’s just really been bugging me, so this is a philosophy/vent.

I have a four-year-old daughter. As a result, I organize my life to a significant extent around her schedule. Often, this means that I either can’t make things or need to schedule them around the fact that she’s got to get to preschool in the mornings and home in the evenings, I’m making dinner, and that early evening (between when I knock off work and when she goes to bed) are prime family time.

This is often at odds with my professional culture, not to mention culture in general, that drive me up the fucking wall. Recently, for instance, I was in a conversation about scheduling a meeting that several other attendees really wanted to schedule in the evening, during the week. I was already annoyed enough by the fact that I needed to justify at least three times during the conversation how, NO, you need to LISTEN, meetings at 5PM really suck for me because that’s when my daughter is coming home from preschool and we’re eating dinner and stuff. Later, it came back to me that one of the people involved in the scheduling had quipped that they were trying to set up this meeting with me, but it was hard because I had “babysitting duties.”


OK, not quite, but still. A couple caveats: I know the person who said that, and I don’t think anything was meant by it and generally like this person. And in terms of formal stuff, my job is pretty good about me having a child (certainly much better than many other jobs under capitalist conditions of production) – I got my tenure clock stopped for a year, I mostly set my own hours, etc. So I have it much less bad than many.

But the culture around this stuff really sets my teeth on edge. I am not a “babysitter.” There are so many things wrong with this.  First, while I am lucky enough to be married to a wonderful woman with whom I have a healthy relationship, I am not merely a backstop to her primary child-care duties. I really resent the implication that comes out, e.g., not only in the term “babysitting,” but in the way that if I say, “I can’t do Mondays, as my wife gets home late,” it mostly passes, but if I say, “I can’t do Wednesdays, I like to be home for dinner with my family,” it seems to be more looked-askance-at. Part of our healthy relationship is that we try our best, within the confines of our socially inflicted normative damage, to be co-equals in our parenting. Yes, of course, we don’t always need to be there both – but neither of us is “covering” for the other when only one of us is there.

Second, while of course I have obligations to my daughter (and trust me, sometimes I am playing “you be the King, and I’ll be the Princess” out mere teeth-gritting Kantian duty), that is not the primary reason, most of the time, that I spend time with her. I spend time with her because it is valuable to me to do so. Most of it is enjoyable! It’s really cool to hang out with someone who’s learning a lot of things about the world, and it’s fun to be silly with a four-year-old in ways that I’m not with other people. Even the parts that may not be “fun,” we’re building an Aristotelian friendship – I am trying to help her be a _phronemos_ and she’s helping me, cultivating virtues like patience and care in me.

Academia, for all its lefty cred, is not always the most congenial place to see things this way. It’s not just about my daughter – I recall one incident, when I was talking about the job market, when I was told by a colleague _in front of my then-fiancee-now-wife_ that I shouldn’t have a serious relationship until I had tenure, as otherwise it would prevent me from moving around as needed.

But of course it’s not just academia (and I want to reiterate that though this is a pet peeve, most of this comes up among people to whom I bear no overall ill will. Except the “no serious relationships” guy, fuck that guy, he was also just an asshole in general). Numerous times I’ll be out on the street with my daughter and get some variation on “it’s so nice to see a father spending time with his child!” That shouldn’t be laudable. It should be expected.

Part of what frustrates me, I guess, is that it doesn’t need to be this way. I don’t work on a nuclear submarine or in an ER. As I’ve pointed out to my students when I sneak in some feminism, the only thing that keeps me from bringing my daughter to work with me is social norms about the separation of the work and home spheres. I doubt that the quality of their education would be degraded if instead of meeting for 2.5 hours with only adults, we met for five hours, talked philosophy, ate a meal together, and played with our children (or took care of our elderly, etc.). Along with some colleagues, I organized a free philosophy class in Baltimore, that had “kid-friendly” plastered all over the proposal material I sent the organizers, and yet when I showed up to the first class with my daughter, I had to go home because they neglected to tell me that their space wasn’t lead-abated and so young children weren’t allowed in – I doubt if there was an issue with the content of the class it would have been relegated to an oversight in the same way. I gave a sharp student the suggestion (at her request for some literature on the ethics of care) to read one of my favorite books, Sara Ruddick’s _Maternal Thinking_ and she said she liked it, but couldn’t relate to a lot of it, since she wasn’t a parent – and yet, you know, we consume media about war and police procedurals as if they’re touchstone human experiences.

We’ve got a society that’s unfriendly to children in the public sphere, and expects women to take care of them in the private sphere because we made it that way, not because it has to be that way, and it hacks me off.