Deep Democracy and Community Wisdom
A wise person has perspective. They can see the big picture
without losing sight of the small. They can see the part without
losing sight of the whole. They understand the partnerships of
day and night, good and bad, the known and the unknown. They have
observed how it all fits together, including their own limitations
and immense ignorance - and that realization makes them humble,
insightful and flexible. They are free to creatively see and respond
to what's actually around them.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot
change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know
the difference." This famous "Serenity Prayer"
arises out of, and nurtures, wisdom.
Can communities be wise? Interestingly, a community of people
(whether a group, a company, a town or a nation) is better equipped
to be wise than an individual. This is true despite the fact most
of the communities we live in or with are clearly foolish, small-minded,
unconscious and/or destructive. Truly wise communities (some of
which operate on millennia-old traditions) are seldom seen or
publicized by our civilization, preoccupied as it is with bustling
off to its own demise.
As individuals, we are inherently more limited than a community.
Although we can consult books and friends and critics, in the
end we are limited to our own single perspective. We are, alas,
only one person, looking at the world from one place, one history,
one pattern of knowing.
A community, on the other hand, can see things through many
eyes, many histories, many ways of knowing. The question is whether
it dismisses or creatively utilizes and integrates that diversity.
Communities are wise to the extent they use diversity well.
The wisest know that every viewpoint represents a part of the
truth, and that it is through the cooperative, creative interplay
of viewpoints that the wisest, most comprehensive and powerful
truths emerge. So they engage in that interplay, that dialogue
- a creative controversy or consensus process that winds its way
to wise public judgment.
The best government is that government which enables communities
to do this - to nurture and utilize their wisdom and resources
- especially their diversity - in such a way that they require
less and less government.
A community that can manage itself in a wise and sustainable
manner is one that has mastered democracy. They know they can't
depend on leaders (from dictators to saviours, from representatives
to experts) to do things for them. They know that democratic citizens
and leaders work best in partnership with each other, co-creating
each other's power. They know that leaders must be seen as living
extensions of their own will and wisdom, which must be kept active.
They know that passive "followership" abandons leaders,
deprives them of the wisdom and creativity of the community, and
opens them up to the corruptions of alienated power.
A democratic community grows beyond dependence and paternalism.
In a sense, the more democratic a society is, the more it has
"come of age." Movements for democracy might even be
seen as the maturation process of a culture. A mature society
knows how to handle itself in dynamic context with others, drawing
on its inner resources (its diverse members) and relating responsively
and creatively with its environment.
The more it knows how to nurture and use the rich diversity
of individual views and capabilities within it, the more wise
(and democratic) a society will be. It will resist small-minded
leadership and even the dictatorship of the majority. It will
cherish dissent as a wise individual cherishes doubt - as a door
to deeper understanding.
However, as we all know, it is not easy to do something creative
with diverse opinions and experiences. It's much easier to settle
for lowest-common-denominator agreements, press for (or give in
to) one-sided decisions, or enforce thoughtless compliance. But
a wise, democratic society knows that such approaches inevitably
overlook important factors and result in poor decisions. A public
rush to judgement is comparable to an individual jumping to conclusions.
In the long run, it only makes things worse.
So a major activity of a democratic community is developing
the skills, procedures, and attitudes needed for people to jointly
create with their diversity. As more people become artists with
these democratic tools, the community's thinking becomes more
wise, their collective behavior more intelligent and successful.
In this process, communities leave domination and fragmentation
(alienated individualism) behind. Those dysfunctional approaches
arise from a false dichotomy between the individual and the group.
In fact, individuality and community are two facets of the same
thing - our alive humanity. Individuals and communities can only
be whole and healthy when they nurture each other. This is the
lesson of deep democracy.
Through building creative partnerships among empowered, deeply
unique individuals and groups, deep democracy enables real community
wisdom to emerge. Peace, justice and fruitful, sustainable lives
are natural concomitants of this process.
Just as a healthy body contains a deep wisdom that enables
it to heal itself and to go about its daily business with energy
and intelligence, so does a deeply democratic society resonate
with the creative, healing wisdom of the body politic.
A note on leadership and governance:
Good leadership is not a matter of getting everyone to follow
you. Good leadership is helping the group or community make the
best out of each individual's contribution. A good leader organizes
or catalyzes a partnership of thought and action that cultivates
and harvests each member's unique contribution for collective
understanding and success. The best leaders are like the best
teachers and parents: They enable their groups to independently
nurture and utilize their wisdom and resources.
Thus we find, as Rajesh Tandon, co-ordinator of India's Society
for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), says: "The appropriate
role of the state is to create enabling conditions for civil society
to manage the public affairs of the community." (Tranet #77,