What if we had constructive discussions?


The extraordinary synchronization of our experiences due to the pandemic promotes a global awareness of the urgency of reinventing ourselves and offers us the opportunity to transform our modes of organization. This presupposes, both upstream and downstream of political decisions, sharing and exchanging, and therefore offering the necessary conditions for constructive citizen conversations. “Authority is that which increases the other”, according to Michel Serres . A debate that is authoritative is therefore a debate that makes people grow.

However, what is given to us to see, three months before the French presidential election, is the persistent poverty of the political debate. The renewed fascination for exclusionary, pessimistic, nostalgic ideas is undeniable. High-profile attempts at diversion from the great challenges of our time are trying to impose themselves. As if it were possible to avert social demands and the major anthropological and ecological upheavals amplified by the pandemic.

To the authoritarian temptations which strive to reduce the role of intermediary bodies and counter-powers and to disqualify critical knowledge and science, is added, in a democracy, the tense defense of positions of power. Each day takes shape the risk of a progressive disappearance of the possibilities of the democratic debate, with the profit of a trivialization of the polemic, the insult, the lie.

Since democracy is a “form of life”, as the philosopher Sandra Laugier puts it, since the confiscation of speech is deadly, it is essential to fight to preserve places of dialogue and defend formats favoring reciprocal listening and the expression of narratives based on various registers of skills. Hearing what individuals and groups have to offer as a common agenda presupposes building a learning society where everyone participates in co-constructing knowledge and recognition.

In recent decades, under the impetus of associative movements and scientific research, democracy has spread, reaching places of socialization such as the family or school. The private and intimate spheres have become political. The diversity of experiences, points of view, knowledge and know-how is a richness that political deliberation would be wrong to do without. Everyone, at any age, deserves to be seen as a real political subject. Like democracy, citizenship, from local to global, benefits from being renewed.

Promoting Fractal Citizenship

Fractals were invented by French-American mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot . They describe identical geometric shapes, whatever the scale at which they are observed. What might a fractal democracy look like? To a democracy that presents the same mode of operation at all levels. It already is in part. By its history: it first developed in restricted perimeters before, little by little, expanding, by applying its founding principles on ever larger scales, and by opening up to an ever-increasing number of people.

This evolution has been linked to that of the modes of communication. The faster and farther we were able to disseminate information (and laws), the more it was possible to extend the democratic field. But the possibility of debating directly remained dependent on the size of the forums, on the physical possibility of organizing contradictory debates. We debated in agoras, universities, courts, salons, academies, councils, clubs…

The Internet has shattered these limits by offering, for the first time in history, the possibility of organizing large-scale debates, including internationally.

By establishing a “European citizenship”, our continent has taken an important step. It grants all European citizens rights set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

On the other hand, you can, by conviction, declare yourself “citizen of the world”, but no rights will be attached to this state. And no world organization is designated by direct suffrage. The United Nations, for example, does not have a “citizens’ chamber”. From the IMF to the WTO via the COPs, the major economic, environmental and climate issues are not dealt with in a democratic way. It is high time to enrich this system with other modes of expression and decision-making, at all levels.

Open consultations

First track: the constitution of ad hoc assemblies, on specific subjects. France has done this with the citizens’ convention for the climate. 150 people were drawn by lot, representative of French society, and worked for several months to submit proposals to the government, which included some of them in the bill “to combat climate change and strengthen resilience facing its effects.

According to a count made by Le Monde , 78, or 53%, were “partially taken over” and 18 were fully taken over. As political scientist Hélène Landemore, a specialist in deliberative democracy, points out:

“The 150 citizens submitted ambitious proposals and also made it possible to publicize climate issues: 70% of French people today say they are aware of these proposals. »

It would be interesting to observe the momentum carried by such an initiative with a view to a more global movement: a future world citizens’ assembly on the climate, for example.

Second track, civic technologies ( “civic tech” ). These are digital platforms that make it possible to collect data at all scales, including very large ones, to organize the confrontation of ideas, the evaluation of proposals and, ultimately, to help with decision-making.

Transparent (open source), platforms like All Our Ideas or pol.is are very easy to use and are already used by millions of people. The first hosts tens of thousands of consultations and has generated, for example, more than 42 million votes on questions submitted by the United Nations (on sustainable development), the OECD (on education), the city of Calgary (for its participatory budget), or that of New York, which was inspired by it to bring out several projects in terms of the environment.

The second was notably popularized by Audrey Tang, a “citizen hacker” from Taiwan, former leader of the “sunflower movement” in 2014, now a minister. It has deployed a whole series of tools for consultation and above all for deliberation which today form an integral part of the democratic life of the country. Thus, she explains, “people are free to express their ideas, to vote for or against the ideas of others” . But we find that they “agree on most things, with most of their neighbors on most questions. And this is what we call the social mandate or the democratic mandate”.

The time of “humble government”

A third track is not a matter of technique but of methodology or state of mind, this is what the Finns call “humble government”. He postulates that the resolution of complex problems begins by questioning the structural and cultural issues of political decision-making in order to renounce vertical decision-making for a “networked model”.

The implementation of this humility supposes four conditions.

  • The first consists in seeking a consensus, even minimal, on the objectives pursued and the common values ​​that underlie them.
  • Second condition: give autonomy to the different entities called upon to put the reform into practice.
  • Third condition: feedback loops in which everything stakeholders learn by applying the reform circulates.
  • Fourth and final condition: the possibility of constantly revising the reform, as soon as a situation or new knowledge calls into question what has been decided.

If technology is not the solution to the problem of the confiscation of democratic speech, it is a tool which, well used, contributes to solving it. And while it remains logical and reasonable to give elected officials time to implement their program over several years, many subjects can and should be submitted for discussion and forms of voting at a much more sustained pace.

The new Enlightenment must therefore update their formidable heritage in an egalitarian context and with regard to two notions ignored in the 18th century: acceleration ( and  the finitude of the planet) and the simultaneity of human experiences (globalization). And help us move from a logic of having to a logic of being.

The proposals are not lacking. Making the link between the myriad of initiatives or individual wills that exist and the entities capable of acting on a large scale invites us to multiply the intermediate spaces (middle grounds), massive open online debates (MOOD), where ideas turn into actions, where people from diverse backgrounds co-construct possible futures .

On the occasion of UNESCO’s International Day of Education, the festival “And if learning were a party?” provides another opportunity. Abstention, growing, is not (only) a sign of citizen de-participation. Many other ways of getting involved in collective life are being deployed in all generations . Those who aspire to political responsibilities must no longer ignore them.

Author Bios: Francois Taddei is Inserm Researcher, Director and Marie-Cecile Naves is a Doctor in Political Science, Sssociate Researcher both at CRI Paris, Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI)