Report of the Salisbury Democracy Café, December 2021
Our first hybrid democracy café with face-to-face and Zoom had some teething problems I think it’s fair to say. But I think it will improve as we gain experience and we will be persisting. My notes on the session might a little sketchy because I was also trying to administer the Zoom, but I’ll have a go.
So, the first question was: What can we do now to effect change? I suppose the question in its broader sense is, if we want to effect change and want to do it now, what options are open to us? Of course, long-term structural changes, like deepening out democracy with the introduction of citizens’ juries and proportional representation were mentioned. But they take time and lots of patient negotiations and campaigning. What is there for us to do now?
It was mentioned that many of us feel like spectators – in fact some thinkers argue that our democracy, or representative government, has become a spectator sport. There is a feeling of frustration and powerlessness, although it was pointed out that we should not assume that everyone feels like this. Many people may get annoyed by things that are happening at a national or local level, but that feeling may not last long.
One idea was that we should try harder to practice democratic skills like debate and learn to spot distraction policies deployed by those in power. It was also pointed out that we should, perhaps, concentrate on positive campaigning rather than being too negative, although it was suggested that you need to pick out the negative, or what is wrong, in order to press for positive change.
The café heard that change has happened in the past by people taking to the street and demonstrating, and although that didn’t always work you had to take a risk to force change.
Education was also important, particularly in encouraging people to find reliable news. And it was also suggested that rather than the various political parties working in their silos that they should form a national coalition in order to co-operate for policies that would benefit the country.
The second question was: What does the extradition of Julian Assange say about UK sovereignty and the UK press? This follows the decision by the High Court that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should be extradited to the USA following assurances that he would be humanely treated in prison. One of the fears among opponents of the decision is that is an infringement of press freedom. As Wikileaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson said in a statement: “Julian’s life is once more under grave threat, and so is the right of journalists to publish material that governments and corporations find inconvenient. This is about the right of a free press to publish without being threatened by a bullying superpower.”
Focusing on the question of the media it was noted that it is as much subject to cognitive bias as anyone else. Is Assange, for example, a hero or a misogynist rapist? And if you choose one of those one then you are simply displaying your own bias.
We all know that humans are subject to cognitive – what is sometimes called myside – bias. There are many forms of bias that cloud our judgement including availability bias, a kind of mental shortcut in which we grab at our most vivid personal memories or experiences in order the make decisions. Closely related is cherry picking evidence, in which we pick and choose evidence that best suits our pre-exiting belief. The more interesting question, perhaps, is to what extent, if at all, we can counter these various forms of cognitive bias. Maybe a subject for another café …