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

This is the sixth 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

A question for Peacebuilders and Mediators:

What would Mediation look like if practitioners were to become front line advocates for democracy, mediating in the trenches of human relationships?

Conflict has a way of shaking the foundations, opening everything up. Before conflict nothing is really there; after conflict nothing remains the same. Mediators are uniquely privileged to being invited into people’s vulnerabilities. While vulnerability can create anxiety, it is also an opportunity for radical change. Such opportune moments are rare; they do not announce themselves, nor are they always ‘safe’ and risk free. Great mediators recognize them and are unafraid to step into these uncomfortable places.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

The Mediator as a professional:

The question that mediators have to ask ourselves is whether we are merely in the business of cobbling agreements and changing superficial behaviors or whether we have a higher purpose. Can we, with our powerful tools, help create a society that can manifest the magnificent vision of humanity that we dared to imagine during periods like the Enlightenment, after WW2 and during the civil rights movement? To do so, we need to become deliberate protectors and advocates of liberal, secular democracy.

Inherent in the claim to neutrality and ‘omnipartiality’ is a certain conceit that, unlike others, we are able to transcend our biases. Living up to this claim requires much humility and the difficult work of getting to really know and appreciate people who are not like us and whose behaviors and lifestyles might be offensive to us. For those weaned on the idea of a sacrosanct ‘omnipartiality’, I have good news, one does not have to lose this ability to become an advocate for democracy. Mediators have always valued non-adversarial engagement. All that is required now is for us to drill down below this value and re-discover the philosophic foundations that gave rise to it.

Central to a democracy is the idea of fairness. As a mediator, being scrupulously fair allows me to build trust by giving everyone equal opportunities to express and be understood. It also gives me the opportunity to challenge those who might be stuck in unexamined belief systems or logical fallacies. A mediator should be able to question or challenge without fretting about whether it will displease clients or offend parties. A skillful mediator should also be able to minimize offense by framing questions in such a way that it allows people to reflect and rethink without feeling threatened.

The Mediator as citizen of a democracy:

American mediators as a class are particularly challenged by the rise of Trump. Many have wondered how anyone could take him seriously- in other words, ‘intelligent’ and ‘good’ people, would obviously support Bernie or Hilary. Citizenship in a democracy requires that we be conscious of and sensitive to diverse perspectives. Mediators, who are citizens with unique skills and responsibility, should be perturbed that they only know Trump supporters as caricatures. We can seek them out by subscribing to conservative journals, tuning in to TV and radio shows and engaging those we wouldn’t normally socialize with. Yes, it would mean listening to ideas that seem instinctively offensive or threatening to us, but we do so because they are fellow citizens who are worthy of our interest, attention and compassion. In India when ultra conservative, right wing Hindus flexed their muscles and found support amongst the middle classes I sought them out to understand where they were coming from. I did the same with very conservative Muslim activists whose viewpoints I almost completely disagree with. Over the years I believe that I have been able to develop genuinely respectful relationships with the Hindus and Muslims that I have been engaging with. This has also, incidentally, allowed me an opportunity to temper some of their aggressive ideologies with democratic values.

Peace builders and mediators must recognize the vulnerability of our democracy and speak up when civil liberties are compromised; freedom of expression is curtailed; the angry and the aggrieved eschew dialogue; and most of all when dissidents and outliers are harassed or killed. We cannot be mere spectators, haplessly wringing our hands, as we watch the very foundations of our democratic societies being weakened. We have a responsibility to ensure that the lessons of Brexit do not go waste. It is easy enough to bemoan the outcome of the referendum, however we should be more troubled by what has become of the democratic process itself.

Democracies require robust civic engagement, participation and dialogue if they are to survive in the face of the extraordinary threats that they face today. There is a serious need to revitalize our own democracies and think beyond cycles of elections and street protests.

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.