Notwithstanding my desires and self-delusions to the contrary, I’m not always right. My wife, children, and co-workers can and will—with only minor prompting—attest to this all too obvious fact. For further proof one need only review any of my failed attempts at financial planning or time management or [ok, let’s keep this list “modest”] . As hard as it may be given my full head of hair, ripped abs, and stunning good looks, these and other personal histories command at least some degree of humility.
I also think that a touch of humility is warranted—and ultimately healthy—when it comes to assessing the Interactivity Foundation’s discussion processes as well. (Of course after that sentence, my employer and co-workers may rightfully reflect on the even more obvious truth of the first sentence, above). “For avoidance of doubt”—and the sake of my children’s hopes for college financing—I should immediately add that I believe there is much to commend about our discussion processes and that they can do a great deal of good, even and eventually helping to improve the health of our often sickly democracy. In ways, mostly small but with perhaps larger effect over time, IF discussions can help to nurture and remind ourselves of the necessary habits of mind, of the conversational and rhetorical skills, and the daily effort and mutual respect required for effective citizenship and self governance. Ok, so maybe in fact I’m not really so humble about IF’s long-term goals or vision.
Perhaps all I mean to say is that it is healthy to see the Foundation and its discussion efforts in a realistic and larger context or perspective. As suggested by the audacious and overwrought goals above, we can do a lot of good and should work diligently toward those ends. But as we do so, I’d suggest that we also remember and maintain the perspective of a skeptical sibling who is willing—and perhaps even all too eager—to remind us of our errors and limitations and to occasionally call “bullshit” whenever our egos outpace reality.
The IF discussion processes can provide an opportunity for small groups of citizens to come together in a structured, inclusive, and safe forum to explore and develop multiple and differing ideas about broad public policy concerns. We encourage robust but respectful and egalitarian participation. The discussions are facilitated and focused but there is no requirement of, or effort toward, any group consensus, decision, or action. In this sense—and for those familiar with the terminology common to practitioners and students of “deliberative democracy” efforts—IF discussions are directed more toward the “dialogue” and community-building and civic engagement end of that spectrum than toward the “deliberative” or deciding end. Participants may learn something—both about the topic itself but perhaps even more about the “grass roots” discussion practices and processes that can buttress our society. But these discussions are not just about self or adult education. For those participants—and I think there are many—who need to contribute (who want to see results beyond themselves or “external goods”), there is the knowledge that they may be helping (1) others build social and/or process and civic capital, (2) IF develop tools and ideas for further discussion, and (3), possibly, to develop new ideas that may take root and grow in another, later, and more political stage.
For all that, and what the annoying sibling would remind us of is that IF’s discussion processes are not a panacea, not sufficient (clearly other processes and skills are needed for the survival of even our dysfunctional plutocracy), and they are not singular or unique. There are multiple other deliberative, dialogic, discursive, democratic, and discussion-based processes and pathways (oops, sorry bitten there by the alliteration ant). Facilitation techniques, and especially flip charts, have been around for a long time and are promoted by many other organizations and scholars. And while IF’s particular combination of discussion techniques sets it somewhat apart, none of the individual techniques is unique. There are other organizations who practice and promote (a) small group discussions, (b) discussions focused on longer-term and broad public policy concerns, (c) exploratory and developmental discussions rather than deliberative discussions, (d) facilitated discussions, and (e) even discussions that include multiple and differing possibilities. All of these are done by at least a few others.
And all of which is to remind ourselves not to get too big headed and—more importantly—that we can and should collaborate with and learn from other like-minded groups. But then again, I could be wrong … again.