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Sanctuary Discussion*

At the mention of “citizen discussion,” we tend to conjure up images of rapid-fire, heated exchanges between partisans, often in the glare of the media spotlight.  Haste, partisan heat, and intense public scrutiny may to some extent be inevitable features of citizen discussion.  But they can also create an environment in which real discussion may wilt before it has a chance to thrive.  Interactivity Foundation (IF) has originated and now used in some 14 separate projects a means of providing citizen discussion a refuge from such threats.  We describe this shelter as “sanctuary.”  Although sanctuary discussion is distinct from the public discussion, it can contribute importantly to public discussion, as I will have occasion to describe in my next couple of posts.

How Sanctuary Discussion Is Used to Prepare Citizen Discussion Reports

Sanctuary shelters discussion by providing three forms of protection that are absent from most forms of democratic discussion (usually by design): adequate time to listen and learn, confidentiality, and anonymity.

Adequate discussion time. Although the actual time spent in sanctuary discussions can vary, sanctuary discussions cannot be hurried.  Practical constraints such as external deadlines are relaxed to the fullest extent possible in order to allow discussion to unfold according to its own pace and rhythm.

More specifically, ample time is given for:

  • actual panelist discussion

  • panelist interaction outside of organized discussion sessions

  • panelist reflection between meetings
  • planning and editorial support on the part of the discussion facilitator.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality is a second important aspect of sanctuary and can be ensured in various ways.  IF panelists sign a non-attribution agreement at the beginning of a discussion project.  This legally binding agreement prevents both the panelists and the facilitator from attributing statements made during discussion sessions to individual panelists.

Anonymity. Anonymity extends confidentiality from the individual portions of sanctuary discussions to their overall results or products, such as citizen discussion reports.  Anonymity is best preserved by both omitting the names of individual participants from reports and avoiding personal attribution for any particular statement or quotation.

The Purposes of Sanctuary

In general, the purposes of sanctuary are to ensure that discussions are as unhurried and open as possible and to encourage the broader public that might examine their results (in a form such as citizen discussion reports) to focus on their development and content rather than the specific background of the citizens who participated in them.

Adequate time. Sanctuary eliminates haste (and sometimes heat).  This allows the discussion to proceed at a pace dictated the internal evolutionary dynamic of exploration, development, and selection and exclusion of conceptual possibilities—rather than by extrinsic factors like pre-established schedules, external events, or decision-making timelines.  Sanctuary frees participants from such “practical” pressures, allowing them time for thoughtful and full discussion.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality, such as that conferred by a formal non-attribution agreement, frees participants to express themselves openly and fully.  It protects them from the fear of having their views “used against them”—whether during sanctuary discussion or later, in public.  This sort of fear is not uncommon.  It can arise any time participants become concerned that what they say might:

  • be contradicted by a perceived authority or expert
  • be ignored, dismissed, or ridiculed by other participants
  • threaten their material interests
  • undermine their social status, standing, or reputation.

By preventing a public “tally” of who contributed what to the sanctuary discussion, confidentiality frees participants from fear of psychological, social, political and/or economic reprisal.  Confidentiality helps create a refuge in which unproductive criticism and self-censorship is minimized and open, empathetic, and constructive discussion can be encouraged to flourish.  It emboldens participants to “make mistakes,” express unpopular views, challenge conventional ways of thinking, and change their minds as they develop conceptual possibilities.

Anonymity. Whereas confidentiality is crucial during actual sanctuary discussions, anonymity becomes important once they are over.  By not attributing elements of the resulting work product, however large or small, to individual participants by name, the specific background of individual panelists is kept “off the record.”  This is designed to make it difficult—if not impossible—to evaluate or discuss the development or results of sanctuary discussions, such as citizen discussion reports, in terms of their “authors’” detailed credentials, backgrounds, or political leanings.  Public discussion of a sanctuary discussion can instead be channeled into the areas that are likely to be far more useful: the sanctuary discussion’s results and the process by which they were developed.  As a result, subsequent discussion is not only more fair, it is substantively enriched—more likely to be of use to citizens, each whom ultimately bears the burden of personal exploration, development, and choice.

Contrasts between Sanctuary Preparatory Discussion and Other Forms of Citizen Discussion

Democratic discussion, deliberation, and dialogue have been conceived of in scores of ways, some of which feature elements that bear at least a passing resemblance to sanctuary discussion as described above.  Closer inspection of these alternatives will almost always reveal, however, that the concept of sanctuary discussion is quite distinctive.  Indeed, few (if any) concepts of democratic discussion, deliberation, or dialogue—whether theoretical or in actual use—embody any one of the central aspects of sanctuary described here, at least in any robust way.  So far as we know, none combines all three.

Interactivity between Sanctuary and Public Discussion

One of the reasons that sanctuary discussion is so unusual is that it fills a niche that other institutions and approaches often leave open by design.

Participatory democracy, for example, is rooted in face-to-face encounters.  Representative democracy, for its part, depends on open meetings and records.  Moreover, few governmental bodies can afford to “let discussion run its course.”

Most alternative versions of citizen discussion end up mimicking one of the two basic forms of democratic governmental decision making, both of which seem to positively exclude the possibility of sanctuary.  (For example, the many theorists and groups emphasizing the so-called “public sphere” as an alternative to “state-centered” citizen discussion are in effect advocating a non-governmental form of participatory democracy.)

Yet there is—or at least can be—a connection, an interactivity, between sanctuary discussion and public discussion.  Sanctuary discussions can produce results or “products” that can serve as the opportunity or occasion for interactivity between sanctuary discussion and public discussion.  One such product of sanctuary discussion, IF’s citizen discussion reports, are provided for public use by democratic citizens and thus provide a way for the broader public to interact with sanctuary discussions.  In my next “Perspective” I will describe these reports in greater detail.


* For an earlier, expanded, version of this essay, see essay S-1 at: