Were the comments in closing plenary session inappropriate?
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Michael Briand

Joined: 30 Jun 2004
Posts: 31
Location: Denver, Colorado

PostPosted: Fri Aug 18, 2006 11:29 pm    Post subject: Were the comments in closing plenary session inappropriate? Reply with quote       

In December 2004, not long after the second NCDD conference, held in Denver, I posted a comment http://www.thataway.org/discussions/forum/viewtopic.php?t=79&sid=ced2c2d791b5c997737d0955ba66308b in which I observed that, in democratic public life (i.e., in the space outside the realm of family and friends), there are multiple forms of talk that, depending on the circumstances, can be regarded as legitimate, appropriate, suitable, or even necessary. I gave as an example of non-dialogical, non-deliberative talk the “protest” speech that typified the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

But context matters. Among other things, it influences the way statements are interpreted. How, for example, should we regard the remarks made near the end of the closing plenary session about the importance of the issue of race? Were these “speech acts” of a type that, although unobjectionable in terms of content, nevertheless were “out of place” at that specific time in that specific setting?

The comments I’m thinking about were made in the wake of the (in hindsight, probably ill-advised) “prioritizing” exercise, in which matters of race, race relations, and racism fared (seemingly) poorly in relation to other matters under consideration. Had they been made in a context that was clearly meant to exhibit features of dialogue and deliberation, they might have been interpreted by others as intended to foster this type of communication and to engage participants in it. That is not how they came across to me, however. I didn’t like the way those comments came across, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because I wasn’t prepared by the context to receive them.

I want to make it clear that I consider matters of race, race relations, and racism among the most serious and pressing substantive moral and political issues in the U.S. today. In fact, I have proposed a “model dialogue” project that would address one or more aspects of “race in America.” So I have no objection whatsoever to the substantive proposition contained in the comments that urged us to make race/race relations/racism a priority in our professional (or political or personal) work.

That said, I wonder whether we ought to reflect on whether calls such as the one we heard for greater attention to such substantive moral and political issues were in some sense “inappropriate,” at least appearing as they did late in the last session of a conference on dialogue and deliberation. I have my doubts.

If participants in the concluding plenary had been involved in what could have been characterized accurately as a “political discussion,” the contentions and exhortations in question would have been quite in order. In contrast, had the concluding plenary been a setting in which something like an explicit or implicit consensus prevailed that communication should be confined to matters having to do with the application of principles, strategies, and techniques of dialogue and deliberation (including application to substantive moral and political issues such as race), the context would have been quite different. Of course, even so, surely no one in attendance would have wanted either to prohibit others’ substantive statements regarding the importance of the issue of race or to have criticized it afterwards. But the issue is not censorship; it is sensibility—it is about a sense of propriety.

Most of us probably had some sort of emotional reaction, negative or positive, to the comments that were made. In part, at least, we did so because neither the speakers nor we had made a conscious, thoughtful, intentional decision about the appropriateness of discussing substantive political issues in the circumstances. It’s hardly in keeping with the spirit of dialogue and deliberation to subject others to talk that is hortatory and at least implicitly critical when they haven’t been prepared for such talk, let alone consulted about the desirability of listening to it.

How ought we to think about the making of substantive political statements in the particular context of the closing plenary of a conference on dialogue and deliberation? Were our reactions the ones we would have wished we had had, had we been able to reflect in advance about our imminent experience? To put the question in the future tense, what do we want our reactions to be in similar situations we may find ourselves in some day? How should we judge what we experienced on August 6th, and how should we judge similar events in the future?

I am inclined (and at this point it is only an inclination; I will need more dialogue to reach a personal judgment I can have confidence in) to the view that we should regard the substantive statements about the issue of race as inappropriate, and that we would have done so, had we consensually adopted a norm or principle or other rule to the effect that communications during the plenary should be limited to questions concerning the application of principles, strategies, and techniques of dialogue and deliberation to substantive moral and political issues.

But of course, we had done no such thing. Thus, for all intents and purposes, we authorized people to speak on any topic of their choosing in any manner they liked. Some people might wish to end a D&D conference in this manner. I prefer not to. Hence I felt the comments were inappropriate, but only because I held the personal view that communications should be limited to matters involving the application of principles, strategies, and techniques of dialogue and deliberation. Because it was a personal view—something I felt disposed to and hoped others would treat similarly—I can hardly fault anyone for taking the opportunity to say whatever he or she felt needed saying.

If, as it seems to me many people believe, there is a presumption that dialogue and deliberation is a practice that licenses people to speak freely without considering in advance the concerns of one’s listeners, then that is a presumption that is unwarranted and requires justification (as is, equally, the presumption that people should not speak freely without considering in advance the concerns of one’s listeners). I am inclined to the position that one should not feel morally or politically authorized to speak freely in circumstances in which people have not been prepared in advance by the consensual adoption of communicative norms or rules, to receive statements as made in the spirit of dialogue and deliberation. In the absence of such preparation, it is reasonable for people to interpret substantive statements as inappropriate and objectionable, even if they would not so regard them in other circumstances. To make such statements without consideration for how they might be interpreted and reacted to by one’s listener’s is, if not deliberately disrespectful, at least negligently so.

Feelings probably run strong about the subject I’ve raised here. And they are almost certainly quite diverse. Nothing wrong with either of these facts; indeed, in themselves they are good things. What troubles me is the inference I draw about the prospects for dialogue and deliberation, both within the public realm and within the “D&D community,” NCDD in particular. (Incidentally, these are distinct arenas, and questions posed about them may warrant different conclusions.) It’s not as if we haven’t talked about this matter before, as witness the comment I posted in 2004. We experienced events of this nature in the Denver conference, and we discussed the subject at length thereafter.

Yet my sense is that we haven’t even begun to talk constructively and productively about the phenomenon and the propriety of making substantive moral and political statements, without prior dialogue and deliberation, in a conference supposedly devoted to discussion of these principles and practices. Why? I hope it’s not because we’re each so comfortable with our own convictions, beliefs, habits, etc. that we can’t see the need for dialogue and deliberation concerning this topic, or because we believe dialogue and deliberation either can’t or shouldn’t be used to explore it with the intention ultimately of finding or constructing at least some modus vivendi or “way forward we can all live with.”

I hope this because I worry that, if people within the “D&D community,” or even NCDD—people presumably deeply committed (whether for moral reasons or for pragmatic ones) to dialogue and deliberation—cannot or will not engage in D&D concerning what at an NCDD conference we should talk about, how we should do so, and when and where it is appropriate to do so, then how are we going to initiate with people who differ immensely from us, both in their political outlooks and in their views on dialogue and deliberation, the kind of constructive, productive public talk that will be required in order to address satisfactorily such horrendously difficult substantive issues as race?

As I did in late 2004, I welcome any (D&D-type) discussion that will help us work together to clarify, resolve, or come to terms with the questions raised by comments such as those expressed on the issue of race in the concluding plenary of the conference in San Francisco.

P.S. The closing plenary prompted another thought. I can’t help wondering at what I view as an irony, viz., that we folks in the “D&D community” are as individualistic and opinionated as any of our fellow citizens are. When it comes down to it, I suspect we’re as tenacious in holding on to our personal perceptions, interpretations, beliefs, values, priorities, habits of thought, moral sensibilities, etc. as people whom we consider far more ideological than we are. To be sure, not all ideologies are equal; some are a lot better than others. But if there’s scant possibility that we can truly discuss our views about dialogue and deliberation open-mindedly and self-critically, it’s still an ideology to which we subscribe. And that’s a fact that ought to temper our enthusiasms and lead us into a more reflective, more genuinely dialogical and deliberative frame of mind—certainly with regard to substantive assertions to which we are strongly disposed to assent, but even more so with regard to dialogue and deliberation themselves.
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