While finishing a report the other day, I was trying once again to communicate some of the qualities of ‘deliberation’ we see in our everyday, average NIF-style conversations. In these conversations, it’s not clear whether ‘deliberation’ happened or not…or when it happened, and when it didn’t during the conversation…or whether everyone present was actively part of the ‘deliberation’…or how careful and deliberate the process was in weighing various approaches.
Fizzle!…when a group is only interested in paraphrasing statements in the issue guide, no real interaction between participants is evident, and the moderator has to poke and prod the group constantly, it’s easy to recognize no ‘deliberation’ is happening. Kaboom!…when stories are told, fears are revealed, connections are made, listening is intense, you can hear a pin drop apart from the one person speaking, insights are shared and appreciated, and a surprising common direction in the conversation emerges, it’s equally easy to recognize that ‘deliberation’ has broken through that issue’s sound-barrier. But most of our forums don’t bring us to the clarity of a Fizzle! or a Kaboom! For some reason, I immediately thought of Newton’s First Law of Motion. Huh?
In a previous part of my life, I was totally absorbed in physics and math analysis…now it’s just in my deep history, but the principles never go away. I find myself thinking in terms of forum ‘spaces’…group ‘momentum’…overcoming the issue’s and the group’s ‘inertia’…identifying points of ‘friction’ that slow or stop progress…immersing the group in the complex ‘forces’ at play in each approach…seeing individuals connecting with each other around an urgent and important public issue as an increasing ‘mass’…the relative impact of various feelings and thoughts as ‘independent forces’ in a closed forum system…the enthusiasm behind a shared sense of direction as an ‘aggregate vector’ that can affect the world outside of the forum setting. A forum can be a ‘power’-filled experience, where the ‘energy’ of ideas and the ‘momentum’ of hope make the conversations continue first into the parking lot and then into more conversations and networking. But here’s the sticking point…’power’ is always zero, until there is some ‘motion’ in the desired direction.
So…what are people ready to DO at the end of a forum, or series of NIF-style conversations, or community project with a deliberative component embedded? I think we’ve pretty well refined our focused conversational style, fiercely protecting the non-partisan yet purposeful concentration on the tensions involved in every thorny issue with moral and ethical trade-offs. While that attention to detail needs to be retained, I believe our attention to movement needs a significant jump-start. Perhaps we’ve done too much ‘snapshot’ physics in our deliberative practice…also known as ‘statics’…where we basically look at an issue at a specific moment…like holding a single town hall meeting on an important, long-term topic. Perhaps it’s time to get into the really fun stuff…’dynamics!’…where we only take on one new, national focal issue each year, but then stick with it for at least 5 years as it morphs and divides and reacts and eventually relents under the ‘power’ of a careful and patient application of totally transparent public scrutiny.