Increasing deep divisions in the world. What can be done? Materials for teaching and assessing deliberation, by Prof.Jürg Steiner

We experience increasingly deep social and political divisions in the world, for example in the United States and the European Union, not to speak of war torn countries like Syria and Ukraine. Are there ways to build bridges across such deep divisions? Our research group attempted to answer this question with a project in Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Brazil.[1] Since politicians are often interested to keep up such divisions in order to keep their power basis, we did our research with ordinary citizens, for whom we were more hopeful that they are able and willing to build bridges to the other side. Thus, our research takes a participatory approach searching solutions from the bottom up rather than from the top down. We organized discussion groups in all three countries with participants from both sides of the respective deep divisions. In Colombia, we brought together ex-guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries, in Bosnia-Herzegovina Serbs and Bosniaks in the city of Srebrenica, and in the Brazilian slums (favelas) police officers and local residents including teenagers. In all groups, the topic for discussion was how to arrive at a better culture of peace.

It is already a positive result that most of the contacted people were willing, to sit together at the same table with persons from the opposite side. This was particularly remarkable in Colombia, where a short while ago ex-guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries were still shooting at each other in the jungles. In Srebrenica, where in 1995 the horrible massacres had taken place, it was also not a given that Serbs and Bosniaks were willing to talk with each other. In the favelas of Brazil, there is often horrendous fighting between police and locals with deaths at both sides, so that here, too, it was not certain that we could bring together people from both sides. As expected, there were ugly scenes in some of the groups. In one of the Colombian groups, for example, an ex-paramilitary severely offended the guerrilla side, when he exclaimed, “we used to cleanse the guerrillas from thieves, from cattle thieves, from rapists.” With his statement, the ex-paramilitary was demeaning the guerrillas in general and the ex-guerrillas in the group in particular. What he said was detrimental to a discussion on the peace process. There were, however, also many friendly exchanges between the two sides. In one group, an ex-guerrilla offered an olive branch to the other side with the following positive statement: “For me, basically and most importantly, in order for us to reach agreement we need to be able to talk in a civilized way, just like human beings. That there be negotiation in order to reach an agreement.” To this olive branch, the ex-paramilitaries responded in kind.

This positive exchange between the two sides in Colombia has much to do with what we understand in political science as deliberation. Its core is that politics is not exclusively seen as brute power game but also as serious debate about the merits of arguments. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has formulated the core of the deliberative model in a classical way as “the unforced force of the better argument.” Good deliberation presupposes that not only politicians but also ordinary citizens actively participate in discussing political issues and this in an unconstrained way as free and equal agents. Arguments have to be well justified in terms of the common good. It is also important that one listens with respect to the arguments of others and takes them seriously. Finally, one should be truthful in all what one says. In its ideal form, the deliberative model hardly ever exists in reality, but it can serve as a normative regulatory idea.

Deliberation is particularly important in deeply divided situations, if democratic instability and political violence shall be avoided. At the same time, it is extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to have any deliberation at all in such situations. Our research shows that there is hope to attain some level of deliberation in such difficult situations. We could even find cases where it was possible, thanks to good deliberation, to reach agreements across the deep divisions. In a group in a Brazilian favela, a teenager proposed that she and her teenage friends meet police officers during their coffee breaks to discuss common problems, a proposal that was warmly welcomed by the police officers. In Srebrenica, Serbs and Bosniaks agreed that stray dogs are a great problem and that a dog shelter should be built. Such agreements on small everyday matters are, of cause, not yet a solution for the deep divisions but at least steps in the right direction.

What we do with our research material may in the end be even more effective to overcome the deep divisions. We plan to introduce the tapes and the transcripts of the discussion groups to the schools of the respective countries using the following website: In small groups, students should listen to the tapes and read the transcripts and discuss among themselves and under the guidance of their teacher what went well and what went badly in the discussions. In this way, they will learn to deliberate across deep divisions. The deliberate model of democracy will not be taught as an abstract philosophical idea from above but on the basis of concrete discussions with which students can identify. We believe that deliberation can be learnt like any other skill, especially if it is learned early on.

[1] Jürg Steiner, Maria Clara Jaramillo, Rousiley C. M. Maia, Simona Mameli, Deliberation across Deeply Divided Societies, Transformative Moments, Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Professor Jürg Steiner, is Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (and Professor Emeritus at the University of Bern).


About cmlharris

Senior Lecturer, Department of Government, University College Cork, Ireland
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