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Generating Wisdom through Democratic Process

ref: Designing Multi-Process Public Participation Programs



A critical systemic dimension of public participation is community intelligence (see Essay 3 and Appendix A, above). As it deepens and broadens, intelligence becomes wisdom.

For my purposes here, I'm defining wisdom as the capacity to transcend limited perspectives towards greater and deeper understandings and broader, longer-term beneficial outcomes. Wisdom can also be knowledge, statements or solutions that arise from such understandings and envisioned outcomes Democratic wisdom emerges from creative interaction among diverse parties and perspectives, in co-creative service to the common good. To some extent it emerges naturally, as the compelling presence of diversity stretches people's perspectives to be more inclusive.

History is filled with democratic follies and catastrophes -- and with wisdom that has little impact on the lives of ordinary people and the fate of civilizations. We need to midwife a coming together of democracy and wisdom.

We need a democracy capable of generating wisdom grounded in the lives and perspectives of ordinary people and fully usable by them, which can simultaneously provide guidance on technical, obscure public issues that could make or break our survival as a species.

To that end, we need to clarify what kinds and levels of wisdom are available to and through democratic processes. So, just as we have various spectra of public participation (see Essay 3, above), I believe it would be helpful to come up with a spectrum of collective wisdom-generating dynamics.

I offer below a draft of such a spectrum. It attempts to clarify the dynamics through which wisdom can come about in various democratic processes, conversations and institutions. This presentation of these dynamics starts at more or less shallower levels of wisdom-generating power and proceeds to perhaps deeper, more powerful levels.

Some levels tend to include and transcend the levels below them, enhancing the sense of a hierarchy of levels. However, an actual process or conversation may well have elements from a variety of levels. Many processes characteristically specialize one level.

A Spectrum of Deepening Wisdom Through Democratic Process

1. BALANCED HEARING - Hearing all major viewpoints, or the views of a diverse group.

2. SOLIDARITY - Acknowledging differences and conflicts, while setting them aside to collectively pursue shared goals.

3. FAIR DELIBERATION - Hearing competing views regarding the leading alternative proposals and then collectively evaluating them to choose one.

4. NEGOTIATION - Working through differences to outcomes acceptable to all parties. This often, but not always, involves compromise.

5. FULL HEARING - Hearing all the relevant voices, ideas, information and stories -- especially those usually marginalized -- in a context where they are heard by each other, by the public and/or by relevant public officials. In the right circumstances, healing and/or creative outcomes arise naturally from this process.

6. CREATIVE CONSENSUS - Consciously using both differences and commonalities creatively* to come up with previously unseen possibilities that engage the life energy of all involved.

7. TRANSFORMATIONAL DIALOGUE - Bringing forth the underlying perspectives, needs and energies -- and discharging any of their destructive aspects while empowering their co-creative contribution towards broadly beneficial outcomes. This differs from creative consensus primarily in the depth of its shared inquiry into what underlies various reactions, beliefs and proposals.

8. COMMONS CONSULTATION - Finding collective guidance in the common ground that exists among the world's great Wisdom Traditions (e.g., the Golden Rule, respect for the Earth, etc., as expressed in such documents as "The Earth Charter" and "Towards a Global Ethic") as personally experienced and valued by those involved

9. HOLISTIC DIALOGUE AND DELIBERATION - Creatively integrating a full spectrum of perspectives with long-term needs of the whole (community, situation, watershed, world, etc.) -- while honoring the gifts, limitations and evolutionary nature of all the living systems involved. This usually involves some form of systems thinking or sensibility. The term "living systems" can include individual people, groups, organisms, ecosystems, communities, cultures, etc.

10. SPIRITUAL DEEPENING - Tapping into the deepest wellsprings of individual and collective wisdom, while still engaging creatively with any emergent unity or diversity.* This is particularly difficult in democratic forums because most techniques for spiritual deepening are associated with particular religious beliefs, practices or rituals shared by some people and rejected by others. Yet there is no denying the wisdom-generating capacity of such techniques. The challenge is how to usefully integrate a variety of such pursuits -- or to develop generic versions that are acceptable to widely diverse people and/or have no explicitly spiritual character.


* Diversity AND commonality can be used creatively OR destructively. For example, diversity can be used creatively for broadening understanding, stimulating creativity, and engaging greater resources. However, as we all know, diversity can also be used destructively through such dynamics as prejudice, domination and violence. Likewise, commonality or unity can be used creatively in such forms as life-affirming values, functional common ground (like shared language or experience) or a shared spiritual center ("that of God in every person"). But we have all seen commonality and unity showing up in destructive or dysfunctional phenomena like conformity, mob dynamics and cultural blind spots. Community wisdom can arise from brilliant engagement with these two factors.


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