Democracy Café

Democracy Café is held once a month on the second Saturday of the month. It takes place in the Playhouse here in Salisbury starting at 10 am and lasts 2 hours.

The idea is that people can suggest a topic of a broadly political nature and we go around the table collecting usually about five or six suggestions. We then vote on them and the winning one gets to be debated. The rules are that we listen to people’s opinions and on occasion, challenge them. The meetings have always been successful and people usually come away feeling that they have learnt something.

It is free to come although as the Playhouse lets us use the space for free, that we should buy a drink to help with their costs. You can see write ups of all the previous meetings to get a flavour. We look forward to seeing you at a future meeting.

Democracy Café in progress

Notes and observations on Salisbury Democracy Café held on Saturday 8 June.

WE ALL NEED BULLSHIT ANTENNAE!

THIS was one of the best deliberations we have had at a democracy café and one of the most enjoyable. Little did I know that the two topics chosen would result in such nuanced and profound discourse. [Any observations I make are in brackets and italics.] So here goes!

The first topic revolved around the recent commemoration of D-Day and whether or not we should stop harking back to the war.  The conversation launched with the observation that underlying the question was a subconscious awareness that we were being manipulated by the media and retrograde forces to give the military more money than it warranted.

But there was also a recognition that we should always remember and learn from the horrors of tyranny, and those who died in wars, but without glorifying it.

Another angle was that WWII, with all its horrors, did lead to the post-war consensus with its decrease in inequality, the creation of the NHS and the welfare state [indeed in his book The Great Leveler Walter Scheidel argues that it is only after mass mobilization warfare, state collapse, transformative revolution and catastrophic plague that significant social levelling has ever occurred].

The argument that we should not forget the fight against fascism but without the pomp that often goes with it, was countered by the explosive claim that WWII was not a fight against fascism at all because war was a system of control maintained by the establishment.  It was a narrative which demanded that we suspended our disbelief.  There then ensued a fascinating riff between the narratives we follow that often have little to do with the actuality and the pursuit of truth that undermines them [actually, I’m not sure this riff happened in the meeting or in my brain! But in any case, I guess the narratives discussed during the meeting equate to the political notion of dominant ideologies or hegemonies]. It was forcefully argued, however, that those people that actually fought during WWII did really fight fascism, as did those who volunteered to fight Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

A comment that received a round of applause suggested that within the current narratives we were all actors without a script.  All we wanted was to be able to live with dignity and grace but how did we create a new script in order to achieve that.  It was suggested that the expansion of deliberative democracy might be part of the solution.

AFTER the break, which itself was filled with more discussions – including one revolving around the limitations of reason and empiricism and whether reality transcends those pillars of The Enlightenment, a topic, perhaps, for another café – the second topic chosen was: Do politicians have a licence to lie?

This question emerged from a recent court ruling which rejected a private prosecution against Boris Johnson that he lied while in public office when he claimed during the referendum that the UK sent £350 million a week to the EU.

The dialogue returned briefly to the idea of narratives set up by ruling cliques [I prefer using this word to the ubiquitous ‘elites’] and the claim that we had not yet reached the point of development at which people were capable of dealing with a more accurate version of reality.

Another line of thought was that it was unfair to pick on politicians for their lack of veracity because we were all guilty of lying and deceiving, although it was immediately suggested that politicians should be held to a higher standard because they put themselves forward for public office.

Education about political philosophy was thought to be important although it was argued that people tended not to vote on facts but on values and identity [there has been a raft of books on this subject recently including Against Democracy by Jason Brennan and Democracy for Realist by Achen and Bartels.  In view of much scepticism recently about the role of reason in human affairs it might be instructive to refer to a book called The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.  The authors do not argue against reason per se – indeed it would be difficult to argue at all without deploying reason – but against Aristotelian logic in favour of Socratic dialogue on the basis that they believe that reasoning works best as a social activity.  Indeed, it is the latter view that forms the basis of Salisbury Democracy Cafe].

An argument was made that the meeting had heard a lot from the pessimism of the intellect and not much from the optimism of the spirit and that we needed more of the latter.  It was intriguing to discover, however, that an apparent split between a pessimistic worldview and more optimistic one actually, on closer interrogation, unveiled some areas of overlapping consensus.

So, at the end of two hours of intense deliberation, the question was asked what it would take for us to develop the capability to achieve a ‘more accurate version of reality’.  The answer was to acquire bullshit antennae!

This democracy café truly was, as our literature says, an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.  My thanks to all those who took part.

Dickie.

References to book mentioned in this article and during the meeting:

The Central Philosophy of Buddhism a study of the Madyhamika system by TRV Murti.

Trading with the Enemy by Charles Higham.

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel.

Against Democracy by Jason Brennan.

The Enigma of Reason by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.

Democracy for Realists by Achen and Bartels fffffffffffffff