I heard a couple of ideas and stories at the Kettering Foundation last week that really got me thinking. In a discussion on the conducive conditions for democracy in a community, Lew Friedland used the phrase “civic ecology,” i.e., the relationships between citizens, decision-makers, advocates and the media.
This model for democracy-building feels rich in opportunity and loaded with fewer of the dangers than the terminology most decision-makers, advocates and journalists use. The first two groups are inevitably agenda-driven and their language usually reflects it. Decision-makers often promote public deliberation so they can “educate” citizens – an opaque term that can belie a more Orwellian agenda. Advocates are always trying to “reinvigorate” the public discourse and promote “engagement.” The obvious problem there is that the language tends toward blaming the victim. The deeper problem, I think, is the implied narrative of uphill toil. There is the problem and we have to fix it.
The media blames everyone but themselves. Or even when they do blame themselves the blame-culture is perpetuated. It’s not entirely their fault. It’s very hard to present information without a clear narrative. And there’s no clearer narrative than a conflict. And the best conflicts always have villains and victims.
You know, public journalism came up a lot too. It’s one of Kettering’s focus areas. I wonder if the challenge to public journalism in our faltering democracy lies in part in the contradiction between the cooperative goals of good public journalism and the marketing of antagonism that fuels most media and much of the ensuing public appetite for media.
“Civic ecology,” implies an eco-system where, for instance, advocates’ strategies cannot be detached from the public’s current capacity to engage. An ecological analysis can skip the blame and get right to the “environmental engineering.”
In a similar vein, Rich Harwood‘s comments opened my eyes to the importance of time in democratic renewal, at the local or national level. Like an eco-system, a community cannot transform through a salutory shock to one of its parts. Democracy requires tending. Rich’s group has worked in Flint, Michigan for several years “to grow the community’s strength.” He said that only now, five or six years later, are community members discovering new narratives and a new vocabulary to cement the new models for engagement they’ve developed.
Rich also had a good line about the ongoing polarization debate: “I’ve never seen a person with a red face or a blue face.”