I closed my last blog post with the question:  In view of the interdependent nature of society, which democracy do you think would be more healthy: one in which its citizens viewed each other with respect as human beings, even when they disagree on solutions for societal issues, or a democracy in which the citizens despise and disrespect each other based on partisan or ideological differences?  Many may see this as a rhetorical question.  I think it is worth exploring. A good place to start is with another question: What do we mean by a healthy democracy?

I see a healthy democracy as a system of government that not only works in the sense of getting needed things done but also engages its citizens and leaders in building a society at every level that is ever more inclusive, more participatory, more just, and less violent – a society in which every person has the opportunity to contribute to and benefit from the common good.  That never-ending task requires regular self-examination at a personal level and also at a systems level, as I wrote about in the last blog. Issues and problems at a systems level are, of course, very complex. That level of complexity requires a multi-disciplinary approach and the willingness to see systems from many different perspectives to have the ability to identify a problem or a need for improvement.  Scott Page, in his books, The Difference and Diversity and Complexity, speaks of “cognitive diversity.” If you have a cognitively diverse group of people working on a complex problem, they have the advantage of bringing different perspectives, tools, and problem solving approaches from their respective vocational and scientific disciplines.  (See Scott Page, The Difference, p. 256).  

Another crucial point of view and knowledge needed in that room, are the perspectives and knowledge gained from how people from different identity groups experience the systems. For example, it has taken me years to come to grips with the fact that as a white male my experience with law enforcement while driving a car has been different from that of many African-Americans and other people of color. The same is true for other systems including the school system, the health system, and the economy.

But, to be able to hear and learn from their varied perspectives, we have to be able to open our minds enough to listen to each other.  Scott Page said it this way: “Healthy democracies thrive on informed disagreement—diverse points of view result in new policies and ideas. On the other hand, uninformed disagreement is not very helpful—responding to shouts of “is not” with chants of “is so” makes good television but brings few other benefits.” (p. 6, “A Decision-making Guide to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative” online at https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/scottepage/wp-content/uploads/sites/344/2015/11/MCRI.pdf)

But, what is the likelihood that we will get along well enough to listen to each other long enough to reach informed disagreement if we do not respect each other and manifest it in our conversation?  In my experience, without mutual respect, the chances of a positive outcome are almost nil. Based on his research, Page seems to agree. “People feel more comfortable and open when around people from their own identity groups. For diverse groups to perform well, people must feel as though their identities have been validated and their contributions verified.  If a person’s involvement in a group does not require abandoning her self view, the result is the person contributes more and the group performs better.” (The Difference, p. 263)  But how do we get there?  How do we get to mutual respect?

The authors of the Declaration of Independence gave us some guidance. They wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [today we would say: all people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Even when truths are self-evident, we have to choose to believe them.  In effect, respect is a choice. It is not a passive act. The root word for respect is respecere, which means,”to look again.”  It came to mean honoring or deferring to someone.  When you respect another person, you see the “other”as legitimate. (William Isaacs, Dialogue And The Art of Thinking Together, pp. 110-111) Respect goes beyond mere tolerance. It means that you choose to see the other person as having priceless worth and dignity. She is worthy of being heard. It is about treating every other person as you want to be treated.

This requires a willingness to engage others, even when they belong to other identity groups or you suspect that they disagree with your ideas.  You must make room for people who differ from you. In conversations, you must maintain space for inquiry into their perspectives. Choosing to respect each other is a good place to start in building a healthy democracy.  The benefits of doing so may not be self-evident but research indicates that “the benefits of diversity do exist…and over time, if we can leverage them, we’ll be better off. We’ll find solutions to our problems. We’ll make better predictions. We’ll live in a better place.” (The Difference, p. 270)  If you don’t believe the research, would you believe me?  I have seen it happen in the most unlikely circumstances.