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Weapons of Mass Dialogue

July 25th, 2007 by Devangshu Dutta

REVIEW: DISCORDANT DEMOCRATS: ARUN MAIRA (Penguin Books India)

As I read through Arun Maira’s book, the month unfolded with a number of high-pitched disagreements around the world. In India, quotas and reservations were a hot topic, as was an apparent divergence between the Prime Minister and corporate chiefs on executive income and distribution of wealth. Self-appointed moral police disapproved the expressions of a student of art, while, elsewhere in the world, suicide bombers expressed disapproval of foreigners on their soil.

We are surely not the first to wonder why, after millennia of physiological evolution, societies around the world are still stuck in the same, predictable response: where disagreement (on an issue) translates into disapproval (of a person), more often than not leading to conflict that is frequently violent.

The need to accept differences and the use of democratic dialogue as a process to close the gap is the basis of Arun Maira’s Discordant Democrats. While the book is largely about democracy in India, Maira draws from events, personalities and initiatives around the world to make the case for democracy as the only reasonable mechanism to manage diversity in society, and dialogue as the only reasonable mechanism to sustain it.

This is embodied in a quotation that is commonly attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, Maira goes beyond free speech to the need for mass dialogue. While free speech typically stops at the “right to express different opinions”, dialogue is about the free “exchange” that can move people closer. Dialogue, unlike debate or argument, is not about sticking to one’s own point of view but about parties reaching a consensus through a process of mutual expression and understanding.

When comparisons are made between Communist China and democratic India, democracy is presented as the millstone around the neck of India’s development. India has a demographic diversity that is among the highest in the world, and a body politic that is among the most fragmented. It is the disagreements among the various segments, interest and pressure groups that some people often hold up as the biggest hurdle to India’s economic and social progress. On the other hand, the advocates of “democracy in action”; may hold up noisy debate as the true expression of desires of individuals and small, otherwise powerless, groups. And there is little common ground between these two groups.

But, as Maira writes in the preface: “This book is about democracy and about consensus: two ideas that cannot but be associated with India. Indeed, one must wonder whether India could be one country without democracy or without consensus.”

Maira takes a middle path, in differentiating between the “hardware” and the “software” of democracy. He describes the hardware as the mechanisms that we are all familiar with — the Constitution, devolved institutions and the framework of free and fair elections, whereas the software is dialogue and deliberations. The democratic hardware enables the freedom of divergent expression. But it is the democratic software that enables a convergence to consensus and the emergence of a functional rather than dysfunctional society.

This is an important distinction when we examine the relative success or failure of countries that are all apparently democratic in structure. Most elections may be free and fair, but are the results later really representative of the electorate’s wishes? From what we can see around us, the hardware of democracy is robust, but there needs to be greater emphasis on the software.

Maira devotes the latter part of the book to tools that he calls Weapons of Mass Dialogue. Using topical and real-life instances of the dialogue mechanism being applied, he takes the reader through the steps of creating a common aspiration, exploring and identifying the thought anchors of the parties in the dialogue, framing the situation and then arriving at a solution.

As a comparison, the example of a Native American tribe comes to mind. To resolve conflict between members, the tribe follows a structure that requires a member to silently listen to the other’s views and then express that person’s views back to him until he or she concurs that the listener has completely understood what has been said. Only then does the first listener get the opportunity to express his own views, while the first speaker only listens and then reiterates what he or she has heard.

This mechanism may appear lengthy in most modern debates, but when we are dealing with issues as complex as the evolution of our cities or the uplift of disadvantaged castes and socio-economic classes, do we really have any other option?

Our genetic response to crisis is hard-wired from our days in the wild: fight or flight. While the latter is clearly “escape”, the former is also an “exit” because it shows an inability to deal with a discord to a mutually satisfying result. We need to expand this to a trinity of responses that includes “unite” – an integrative process that can help cope with the complex and interrelated world we live in.

The tools may look contrived and slow to those championing the cause of “action” there are few alternatives to dialogue. But in a world where discordant democrats do not often listen to each other, Maira’s Weapons of Mass Dialogue are definitely worth a try. Here it is on Amazon.co.in.

EXCERPT:
We want action. And we want democracy. Sometimes, in despair, when that speedy action is difficult in democracy, he seemed willing to forsake democracy. But that is a cop-out. We have to find a way to have both – speedier action and more democracy. Once again, a very important “either-or” choice is raising its head. We must convert it into a ‘both-and’ solution. As Einstein said, we cannot solve the difficult problems that we face with the same thinking that led us into those problems. Rather, we must look into the theories-in-use that are causing the problem, and develop a new one. In this case, the problem with our theory-in-use of how people can work together to resolve problems that they are all part of. The call for an authority above them, “insulated from the intense pressure of democracy” – a dictator or expert that they would be willing to unquestioningly delegate upwards to – is giving up on the further evolution of humanity’s democratic enterprise.

[Here's the book on Amazon.co.in.]

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