Missing the Woods of Democracy for the Trees of Expediency: Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy
Part V

This is the fifth part in a 6-part series looking at the complexities and vulnerabilities of a democratic system. The full article originally appeared in Tikkun Magazine in August 2016.

To those in the USA, anything sound familiar? To others, take note.

By Ashok Panikkar

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”.- Groucho Marx

The challenge facing a fledging field

As a mediator and facilitator who has had the extraordinary good fortune of living in democratic societies, I would now like to explore how professionals like me can play a more active role in strengthening democratic values in our societies. What I have to say here, with few changes, could apply just as well to other professions like teachers, therapists, engineers, scientists or even programmers.

If peace building and conflict resolution are to be relevant beyond the narrow confines of commercial disputes or small claims courts, we need to hold on to our own creation story and remind ourselves of the reasons that brought us to this work. After its birth, in a spurt of idealism and humanism, when it rose out of the cruelty and devastation of the great wars and the upheaval of the civil rights movements, conflict resolution now finds itself at the crossroads. We are today faced with two choices:

  1. We model ourselves as a profession in the manner that mechanical engineers, carpenters, switchboard operators, VCR mechanics or chimney sweeps have throughout history, as useful and productive professionals whose relevance rests almost solely upon the vagaries of the market.
  2. Or we fashion ourselves as a vocation like the original (non-market driven) scientists, artists and philosophers who were motivated by a passion or cause larger than themselves, whether it be the spirit of inquiry, justice, beauty, goodness, peace or truth.

The roots of the work we do lie in the historically unique development of liberal and secular thought coming out of the Enlightenment. Mediators often talk about how traditional societies have had their own versions of mediation. Some, when challenged, will admit that this is a flimsy argument, but justify it as necessary. In their view, if mediation is seen as indigenous (and not foreign) it becomes an easier sell. I fear that this is disingenuous and dangerous. Indeed, in most traditional societies village elders or high status ‘outsiders’ have settled disputes or created peace and harmony through reconciliation processes, many of them wonderfully wise, such as Ho’oponopono. But with very rare exceptions, most traditional forms of dispute resolution tend not to be egalitarian, prize group harmony over individual interests, and pay short shrift to human rights.

Our enthusiasm to spread mediation by making it “acceptable and accessible” should not blind us to how, what we understand to be mediation, is substantially different from traditional forms of dispute resolution. By obscuring the differences between mediation and traditional (and hierarchical) forms of dispute resolution, we misrepresent the essence of mediation and do not do justice to the liberal democratic culture from which it springs. Needless to say, mediation as self consciously egalitarian and based on individual autonomy might not find favor among the governments of Singapore, Qatar or China who might see little value in furthering democratic values or funding these projects. But is that too much of a price to pay for sustaining our own democratic values?

If we, the beneficiaries of democracy, allow it to flounder because of our inability or unwillingness to hold steadfast to its values or fight for it when need be, these values will, most decidedly, deteriorate. As we get impatient with the pace of change and become cynical about our own democratic societies, the demagogues and technocrats will demean and chip away at its core until it is no more different from plutocratic or oligarchic rule. If democracy becomes a faint parody of itself or ceases to exist, there will also be no mediation or peace building as we understand it anymore. We will become just dispute settlement professionals scrambling to sell our services, cogs in a market driven economy or, even worse, fig leaves for oligarchs and despots of all stripes who will offer us silver to cover up their human rights abuses at home.

If this strikes some readers as an exaggeration or unlikely, I would request you to look closely at the key political and intellectual developments of the last couple of decades. Even without Brexit, after bringing down the Berlin Wall, the signs were clear. First, there was the intellectual repudiation of universal human rights in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries that espoused traditional “Asian Values” that privileged tradition, duty and obedience above individual conscience and autonomy. This was buttressed by the rise of a capitalist and repressive China and the economic success of authoritarian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This was, in turn followed by growing ideological intolerance and the weakening of democratic institutions in countries like India. Finally, we now see the cracks in the most powerful example of international humanism, the European Project and the rise of demagoguery and right wing forces in the USA.

As always, it is the writers, teachers and dissidents amongst us who are the canaries in the mine of democracy. Look, too, at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989; the increasing intimidation of writers and artists since then; the intolerance of ‘liberal’ students towards ‘offensive’ views on campus; the disappearing space for constructive discourse even in the ‘developed’ democracies; and finally the inescapable violence in our public spaces. Having looked, now please try to connect the dots.

We might just be witnessing the end of 20th century idealism and a return to nationalism, tribalism and intolerance. With this we will witness once again, after a historically astonishing seventy year breather, minorities relegated to the margins, human rights observed only when it doesn’t clash with national interest, and individual human beings accommodated to what the majority believes is the collective good.

The choice is ours as activists and mediators. Will we have the courage and wisdom to stand up for our inconvenient values and principles in the face of pressure from those who are threatened by pluralism and what it encompasses- human dignity, freedom and equality? Or, will we fall prey to market forces that have co-opted other idealists before us, inventors, thinkers, teachers, scholars, artists and even social workers who have been forced to become de-politicized ‘professionals’ in an unfeeling and unreasonable market environment?

You don’t have to be a Cassandra, a voice of doom or a conspiracy theorist and most of all, you don’t have to be ‘negative’. All you have to do is revisit the history of the last five hundred years, the growth and decline of the world’s civilizations, and the freak circumstances that gave rise to liberal philosophy and democratic institutions. If you do, you may possibly come to similar conclusions and run the risk of being called pessimistic. However, no conscious and truly educated person could honestly call you unrealistic.

We, who have benefited most from the rise of the liberal, secular democratic state, have a few choices before us.

  1. We can continue to rant in frustration against slow moving democratic processes and even help tear down its ‘corrupt’ institutions.
  2. Or we can take the easy way out and focus on adapting to or even thriving in an unforgiving market environment like other cogs in the capitalist machinery.
  3. Or, and this is the most difficult thing to do, even as each one of us struggles in these uncertain times to survive economically, we can with a sense of urgency, invest in protecting the most humane system of government that our species has ever created.

Democracy is the only system of government that can guarantee our essential dignity as human beings, our freedoms and autonomy; if it goes we lose way more than the right to vote in elections or an ability to make fun of Donald Trump.

Ashok Panikkar, founder of Meta-Culture (www.meta-culture.in, www.ashokpanikkar.com), is passionate about strengthening liberal, secular democratic societies. He is also on MBB Consulting’s roster of experts. For more information, contact Jeffrey Range at jrange@mbbconsulting.org