Missing the Woods of Democracy for the Trees of Expediency: Brexit, Conflict Resolution and Democracy

This six-part series looks at the complexities and vulnerabilities of a democratic system. The full article originally appeared in Tikkun Magazine in August 2016.

To those in the USA, anything sound familiar? To others, take note.

By Ashok Panikkar

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.” Abraham Lincoln

Most folks, who voted for Brexit, worried about the costs of globalization, feared open borders bringing mass migration into Britain and agonized about ‘faceless’ bureaucrats in Brussels threatening their national sovereignty. Those who voted to remain in the EU, and others who were appalled at the eventual outcome, reacted predictably. Most blamed manipulative politicians, Britain’s infamous tabloid press, xenophobic Little Englanders or even the ill informed rubes who didn’t know any better. Pundits bemoaned the end of post WW2 internationalism; the downing of protectionist shutters; the resumption of nationalistic passions or even the return to the bad old days of European wars and collective bloodletting. Some political scientists questioned the use of a single referendum and said Cameron should have asked for three, spaced, so people would have time to consider the ramifications. Presumably having faith that after casting one (trial balloon of a) vote, we would reflect and make the second (slightly more deliberate one) after which, we would be in a better position to make the third (and finally intelligent) vote. Phew, third time lucky. Playing rock, paper, scissors for as long as it takes to get the right result. Does the democratic process have to look like a visit to one of Trump’s casinos to make it work for us?

Democracies are condemned to eternally balance the tension between popular sentiment, intelligent thought and deliberate action. Intelligence and deliberation are rarely as attractive as heightened emotion and sentimentality. Given a choice, emotion will almost always reign and in its wake, populism will win. Populism, usually innocent of reason or complex facts, can be both seductive as well as emotionally satisfying. Emotions generated by thousands marching for a just cause (or against an unjust war) are not wholly dissimilar to righteous anger of rioting football fans who believe their team was cheated by a biased referee or a murderous mob angered by a book that ‘insults’ their faith or leader. The presence of hundreds or thousands of others is an elixir that not merely motivates but also validates our feelings. Nothing brings reflection and introspection to a halt quite as easily as the certainty that we are right and that multitudes of others believe us to be so. When citizens are unskilled in critical thinking and constructive dialogue, they easily fall prey to propaganda and mass hysteria. It is easy enough to blame Britain’s tabloids, Nigel Farage’s scare mongering or Boris Johnson’s machinations. The real tragedy is that we have partaken of the benefits of democracy without much awareness of how a democratic society functions or indeed our own individual and collective responsibilities in sustaining it.

Here is a critical difference between democracies and all other forms of government: A despotic state treats its citizens as uneducated children who cannot be trusted to make autonomous decisions. A democratic state, on the other hand, trusts its citizens to take difficult decisions for the common good. However, here is the rub: A democratic citizenry that is ill informed cannot make educated decisions. A citizenry unwilling to stand up for democratic values leaves the public space open to demagogues and anarchists.

While not a political scientist, I can count at least five critical elements that are required to ensure a functioning and humane democracy.

  1. Representation: Citizens are able to freely elect their representatives in fair and open elections.
  2. Rule of law: The country is ruled by a system of written laws and not by the arbitrary diktats and wishes of Gods, individuals or groups.
  3. Accountability: Effective checks and balances are built in to ensure that the government is held to the highest standards of probity and is accountable to the people.
  4. Political action: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions through political engagement in the form of advocacy, lobbying and protest.
  5. Dialogic thinking: Citizens are able to give voice to their opinions and have them challenged through discussion and dialogue- not merely through representatives who debate or deliberate on their behalf.

It is when democracy is reduced to a spectacle of campaigning, electioneering and sporadic or endemic protest, without intelligent civic engagement and discourse, that witticisms like H.L. Mencken’s (“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance”) become all too prophetic.

Six conversations that should have preceded the Brexit referendum

Had Britain been a robust democracy and the British suffused with the spirit and skills of democratic citizenship, the legitimate question of whether they needed to remain in the EU could have been handled differently. The time between the announcement of a referendum and the eventual holding of it could have been used to inform and educate the UK citizens to vote intelligently. The national and local governments could have organized community level conversations about the issue- to learn about the ins and outs, the complexities and the nuances. These conversations would not be, initially, spaces for advocacy and campaigning, but for learning, seeking clarity and building understanding. Here are the six conversations that could have taken place:

  1. The first conversation could have been about the distinctions between nationalism and internationalism, the historical roots of and the political and philosophical basis of the European Project (that eventually took shape as the European Union).
  2. The second conversation could have explored the relationship between Britain, EU, US and other countries in matters of security, trade, immigration, culture, etc.
  3. The third conversation could have explored the advantages and disadvantages of staying within the EU and leaving it.
  4. The fourth conversation could have created a space for serious advocacy where citizens could listen to (yes, even impassioned) pleas from all sides of the spectrum including that of political parties.
  5. The fifth conversation could frame the issue not as a binary choice- leave or stay, but as a discussion about how best to address concerns about being in the EU. This could include the following questions- what kind of an EUcould we, the British people, envision as worthy of being a part of; how could we help inform or change the EU to meet our distinct interests; and most importantly, what kind of a nation and society do we wish to be?
  6. The sixth conversation could have helped people make deliberate and intelligent choices.

But alas, even in the nation that gave us the Magna Carta and Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, democracy has been reduced to the mechanical action of casting one’s vote. Democratic discourse has now been replaced by screeching, emotional campaigning that reduces all complex ideas to simple, idiotic sound bites and bumper stickers. Voila Brexit!

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” Winston Churchill

If we are to bring about any real transformation democracy will require from all of us more effort than periodic visits to the election booth. In this essay I revisit the raison d’etre for democracy and will seek to establish what I believe are the cornerstones of Democracy- Diversity, Dialogue, Freedom of Expression and Critical Thinking.

Let us, for a moment, leave aside the hapless citizen of Britain, India, France or the USA who, burdened by lowered wages, the seemingly ubiquitous presence of ‘foreigners’ and the breakdown of old traditions and virtues, panics into doing stupid things at the ballot box. What about us Conflict Resolution professionals? What was our initial reaction or even considered response to Brexit? Most of my peers sympathized with Remain voters because, like me, they are inclined to back the idea of open borders and internationalism worried as they are about nationalism and xenophobia.

Here are my second thoughts. But some context first: For years, I have struggled with the tension between building my professional practice and holding on to the reason and idealism that brought me into this work. During the first eight years, as I struggled to make Meta-Culture sustainable, I told myself that the best way to advocate for the field and the wonderful values that brought me to it was to model an alternative way of addressing differences and conflicts. Once people experienced the magic of mediation, the power of dialogue, or the collaborative intelligence of consensus building, they would be transformed forever. The word would be out- no more adversarial litigation and unthinking competitiveness; no more ethnic and religious feuds; most importantly, no more war! I was never so stoned as to believe that the future would be one of eternal sunshine (with nice shade bearing trees for those wary of skin cancer). However I confess that, I did briefly entertain the not uncommon notion that, while planetary change was a long process, as long as enough good people did good work in their own or other people’s backyards eventually, one day, reason (or failing that, compassion and empathy) would prevail. I was unable to remain in this sanguine state for long, given my unfortunate interest in human history and my pre-occupation with individual autonomy and human rights.

I did not train as a mediator or facilitator solely to practice a trade, though I am relieved to say that over the past two decades there have been many years when I was able to do so gainfully. I didn’t, also, stay in this field for more than two decades because I thought it would create world peace (which, incidentally, is a smashing idea, not entirely unlike perpetual good health, eternal happiness or a never ending bar of Belgian dark chocolate). I came into this work for two reasons, one fairly modest and another rather ambitious:

  1. I found this to be an intelligent and humane way by which I could help people manage disputes and understand each other better.
  2. I realized that these non-adversarial and dialogic processes were pretty much the only ways in which pluralistic societies would be able to create order and manage themselves without endangering human dignity, particularly in an age marked by increasing complexity and discontinuity.

To many of us who do this work, the connection between conflict resolution and managing pluralistic societies may seem self evident, but please bear with me. Allow me to flesh out the ways in which this connection plays out and why, if we accept this as reasonable, we also have to question how we frame our careers and what we aspire for the field itself.

My mini-thesis goes thus:

Democracy is uniquely equipped to address complex issues with regard to the challenges of pluralism and the management of diversity. While universal suffrage is one way to give people a voice, when used solely or as the primary way in which people exercise their right to self-government, it has serious limitations.

  • Elections, even with proportional representation, tend to give mandates to majoritarian sentiments and agendas.
  • Elections rarely allow the surfacing of substantive matters, complexity or nuance.
  • Mass electoral campaigns tend to be catered to the broadest and lowest common denominators and hence encourage populism and its older evil sibling, demagoguery.
  • Politicians almost always benefit from polarizing issues on ideological lines, which is easier to do than the hard work that it takes to distinguish themselves from their counterparts intellectually and substantively.
  • The media dumbs complex matters down to sound bites that serve their business need to appeal to the largest (or most dedicated) consumer base.
  • The mass of citizens, struggling as they are to survive, tend to be too tired, self absorbed, ignorant or apathetic to invest the time necessary to grapple with complex issues.
  • What is true of elections is equally true for referendums, which are often touted as a form of ‘direct democracy’.

Diversity is the primary problem that every democracy seeks to address. Autocracies, theocracies and oligarchies maintain social and political order by privileging one worldview and marginalizing minority groups, views and rights. Arguably dictators like Saddam Hussain and Colonel Mohammad Gaddafi managed the complex tribal and ethnic diversities in their nations better than the ‘democracies’ that followed them. However they did so through repression and fear. While it is undeniable that most democracies need to do a better job of managing diversity, they are unique in trying to do so without fear and repression. This is as true of complex heterogeneous nations like the US, UK or India as it is of relatively homogeneous countries like Sweden or Norway where, even with relatively limited racial and ethnic diversity, there almost always are competing ideologies and interests.

Dialogue is the most egalitarian way in which democratic societies can manage Diversity without coercion or repression. As the Brexit vote demonstrated, when complex issues are addressed through emotionally charged rhetoric, manipulated information, fallacious logic, tribalism and xenophobia, the results are almost entirely predictable. I say predictable not because I was prescient enough to predict the outcome, I wasn’t, but when the democratic process is reduced to periodic elections and its’ accompanying overheated rhetoric, it almost always results in poor decision-making. This brings me to the vital next link in creating successful democracies — the ability of the population (or at the very least a sizeable section of the population) to think well.

Critical Thinking, not merely easy access to information, is what helps a citizenry weigh each issue on its’ merits and make effective decisions. Unfortunately, critical thinking is not intuitive and neither is it automatically bestowed on us when we arrive at puberty, acquire a college education or achieve a prized position (even that of Professor, CEO or Prime Minister). It cannot be learned through an internet search, reading a book or attending a 2-day workshop. It is a combination of knowledge, skills and most importantly, dispositions that have to be cultivated over many years. It requires that all institutions of society- the family, community, schools, work places- strive to become places where the spirit of questioning, curiosity, intellectual exploration, individual autonomy, dialogic thinking and deliberate and conscious cooperation are prized. In other words critical thinking, like scientific temperament, has to be infused within the culture. While autocracies are threatened by a critically thinking populace, democracies can scarcely function effectively without one.

Freedom of Expression is what gives wing to Critical Thinking, which is why societies that rank at the bottom for freedom of expression are overwhelmingly nondemocratic. Freedom of expression has become a hot button issue around which sane and deliberate conversation is rarely possible. Many ‘progressives’ or ‘liberals’, concerned as they are about discrimination and prejudice, tend to be wary of the right to express freely. This can be seen in the grudging and less than effusive support given to authors, cartoonists or filmmakers who are threatened, jailed or killed for the ‘sin’ of blasphemy. This is also evident when speakers at universities are banned for holding ideas inimical to the larger student population or professors are fired for challenging prevailing conceptions around politics, race, gender, religion or sexuality. The Free Speech doubters see lurking behind the right to free speech a license for ‘hate speech’ and the marginalization of the voices of the disadvantaged. Well intentioned as this impulse is to protect the marginalized, democracy pays a high cost for this squeamishness and in the process honest dialogue, which requires the ability to say things that might be offensive to some, is almost always repressed. When speech is clamped down upon, ideas are driven underground where they fester without recourse to the disinfecting qualities of sunlight and fresh air.

Without freedom of expression, there can be little or no critical thinking. Without critical thinking, there can be no useful dialogue. Without dialogue, diversity can only be managed through coercion, repression and the silencing of dissent. And if not to manage diversity, who needs democracy? Its only purpose, then, becomes to rubber-stamp and provide legitimacy to oligarchs and despots.

As a dialogue practitioner who has worked with highly polarized groups for the better part of three decades, it is my experience that, with rare exceptions, Minority Rights are best protected through minimum restrictions on expression. As someone who has found himself in a minority in most places and has been an immigrant three times in as many decades, the only thing that has ever protected me has been my right to express myself unhampered by fear or threat. Where people around me have been silenced it has not helped me feel welcome or safe. Instead, the silence of the majority has almost always ended up disadvantaging me, causing me harm. I have rarely ever been protected by others holding their tongues.

In the next few paragraphs I will explain why I believe that democracy as a system is inherently vulnerable and try to make the case that activists and peace builders must play an active role in developing and sustaining democracy. I also express concern about the costs we incur when we react to the slow pace of change in our democratic societies with impatience or forsake our philosophic and political roots in a scramble to accommodate the demands of the market place.

To summarize:

  1. Democracy is the best system to manage
  2. Diversity (without coercion or suppressing minorities)
  3. However, managing Diversity requires Dialogue
  4. Dialogue requires Freedom of Expression
  5. Freedom of Expression, to be constructive, requires Critical Thinking

Unlike Mussolini’s definition of totalitarian states “all within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” democracy privileges the individual citizen whom the state is designed to serve. Balancing the principles of majority rule and minority rights, democracies are driven and sustained by free elections, active public participation and honest discussion. Public memory being short, and ignorance of history being the norm rather than the exception, few remember the days when much of the world was ruled by hereditary rulers or dictators. It is sobering to remember that since 1900 only a handful of countries including the USA, UK, Australia, Sweden and Canada could be said to have had uninterrupted democratic governments; as late as 1991, half of Europe was communistic; and most of Asia and Africa, independent only since WW2, has always had an uneasy and tumultuous relationship with democracy.

Tragedy of the righteous avenger: Citizens in democratic states who are passionate about pluralism, equality, justice and peace can get very enthusiastic about pushing the boundaries of freedom and rights. Disgusted with hypocritical representatives, frustrated with cumbersome decision-making, and angered by continued injustice and broken promises, it is easy to get impatient with our own governments. This is as it should be. Democracies will and must be held to a higher standard. However, righteous indignation can lead us to mistake complex (and hence labored) decision making for incompetence and stumbling cultural change for systemic malfeasance. We forget that social and cultural change is slow and sustainable transformations are rarely brought about by street protests, legislation or diktat.

In a democracy everything is always up for discussion and negotiation, which makes decision-making a tedious and cumbersome process. Even after seemingly interminable discussion, it is always possible that some interests will not be met and not everybody will get everything they deserve. The astonishing thing about a democracy, however, is that every voice will be heard and every stakeholder will have the right to influence decisions and outcomes.

In a despotic or autocratic system, the only legitimate voices are those of the government or the dominant groups, while minority voices are either marginalized or silenced. Throughout history, even when benign regimes have been conscientious about the welfare of their subjects, individual and minority rights have depended upon the capricious munificence of the rulers.

Tragedy of the immortal salesman: We live in a world where the act of ‘selling’ is not limited to the professional salesman or woman. In an age where presidential candidates are marketed using the same techniques used to sell Coca Cola or the iPhone, it should not surprise us that Donald Trump has become a credible candidate for, arguably, the most critical office on the planet. When, even private citizens and professionals create their own ‘personal brands,’ there is little to differentiate us anymore from tele-evangelists or purveyors of snake oil. Market wisdom today requires that NGOs and even Mediators brand themselves in order to be seen and heard. From ‘dressing up’ for the market, adopting the seemingly ‘credible’ language of B-Schools and Silicon Valley, to packaging our services so that they are market friendly, and finally ‘being flexible’ with one’s principles, it is a slow but inexorable decline into the narrow alleyways and circuitous logic of the bazaar.

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”.– Groucho Marx

The challenge facing a fledging field

As a mediator and facilitator who has had the extraordinary good fortune of living in democratic societies, I would now like to explore how professionals like me can play a more active role in strengthening democratic values in our societies. What I have to say here, with few changes, could apply just as well to other professions like teachers, therapists, engineers, scientists or even programmers.

If peace building and conflict resolution are to be relevant beyond the narrow confines of commercial disputes or small claims courts, we need to hold on to our own creation story and remind ourselves of the reasons that brought us to this work. After its birth, in a spurt of idealism and humanism, when it rose out of the cruelty and devastation of the great wars and the upheaval of the civil rights movements, conflict resolution now finds itself at the crossroads. We are today faced with two choices:

  1. We model ourselves as a profession in the manner that mechanical engineers, carpenters, switchboard operators, VCR mechanics or chimney sweeps have throughout history, as useful and productive professionals whose relevance rests almost solely upon the vagaries of the market.
  2. Or we fashion ourselves as a vocation like the original (non-market driven) scientists, artists and philosophers who were motivated by a passion or cause larger than themselves, whether it be the spirit of inquiry, justice, beauty, goodness, peace or truth.

The roots of the work we do lie in the historically unique development of liberal and secular thought coming out of the Enlightenment. Mediators often talk about how traditional societies have had their own versions of mediation. Some, when challenged, will admit that this is a flimsy argument, but justify it as necessary. In their view, if mediation is seen as indigenous (and not foreign) it becomes an easier sell. I fear that this is disingenuous and dangerous. Indeed, in most traditional societies village elders or high status ‘outsiders’ have settled disputes or created peace and harmony through reconciliation processes, many of them wonderfully wise, such as Ho’oponopono. But with very rare exceptions, most traditional forms of dispute resolution tend not to be egalitarian, prize group harmony over individual interests, and pay short shrift to human rights.

Our enthusiasm to spread mediation by making it “acceptable and accessible” should not blind us to how, what we understand to be mediation, is substantially different from traditional forms of dispute resolution. By obscuring the differences between mediation and traditional (and hierarchical) forms of dispute resolution, we misrepresent the essence of mediation and do not do justice to the liberal democratic culture from which it springs. Needless to say, mediation as self consciously egalitarian and based on individual autonomy might not find favor among the governments of Singapore, Qatar or China who might see little value in furthering democratic values or funding these projects. But is that too much of a price to pay for sustaining our own democratic values?

If we, the beneficiaries of democracy, allow it to flounder because of our inability or unwillingness to hold steadfast to its values or fight for it when need be, these values will, most decidedly, deteriorate. As we get impatient with the pace of change and become cynical about our own democratic societies, the demagogues and technocrats will demean and chip away at its core until it is no more different from plutocratic or oligarchic rule. If democracy becomes a faint parody of itself or ceases to exist, there will also be no mediation or peace building as we understand it anymore. We will become just dispute settlement professionals scrambling to sell our services, cogs in a market driven economy or, even worse, fig leaves for oligarchs and despots of all stripes who will offer us silver to cover up their human rights abuses at home.

If this strikes some readers as an exaggeration or unlikely, I would request you to look closely at the key political and intellectual developments of the last couple of decades. Even without Brexit, after bringing down the Berlin Wall, the signs were clear. First, there was the intellectual repudiation of universal human rights in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries that espoused traditional “Asian Values” that privileged tradition, duty and obedience above individual conscience and autonomy. This was buttressed by the rise of a capitalist and repressive China and the economic success of authoritarian countries like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This was, in turn followed by growing ideological intolerance and the weakening of democratic institutions in countries like India. Finally, we now see the cracks in the most powerful example of international humanism, the European Project and the rise of demagoguery and right wing forces in the USA.

As always, it is the writers, teachers and dissidents amongst us who are the canaries in the mine of democracy. Look, too, at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989; the increasing intimidation of writers and artists since then; the intolerance of ‘liberal’ students towards ‘offensive’ views on campus; the disappearing space for constructive discourse even in the ‘developed’ democracies; and finally the inescapable violence in our public spaces. Having looked, now please try to connect the dots.

We might just be witnessing the end of 20th century idealism and a return to nationalism, tribalism and intolerance. With this we will witness once again, after a historically astonishing seventy year breather, minorities relegated to the margins, human rights observed only when it doesn’t clash with national interest, and individual human beings accommodated to what the majority believes is the collective good.

The choice is ours as activists and mediators. Will we have the courage and wisdom to stand up for our inconvenient values and principles in the face of pressure from those who are threatened by pluralism and what it encompasses- human dignity, freedom and equality? Or, will we fall prey to market forces that have co-opted other idealists before us, inventors, thinkers, teachers, scholars, artists and even social workers who have been forced to become de-politicized ‘professionals’ in an unfeeling and unreasonable market environment?

You don’t have to be a Cassandra, a voice of doom or a conspiracy theorist and most of all, you don’t have to be ‘negative’. All you have to do is revisit the history of the last five hundred years, the growth and decline of the world’s civilizations, and the freak circumstances that gave rise to liberal philosophy and democratic institutions. If you do, you may possibly come to similar conclusions and run the risk of being called pessimistic. However, no conscious and truly educated person could honestly call you unrealistic.

We, who have benefited most from the rise of the liberal, secular democratic state, have a few choices before us.

  1. We can continue to rant in frustration against slow moving democratic processes and even help tear down its ‘corrupt’ institutions.
  2. Or we can take the easy way out and focus on adapting to or even thriving in an unforgiving market environment like other cogs in the capitalist machinery.
  3. Or, and this is the most difficult thing to do, even as each one of us struggles in these uncertain times to survive economically, we can with a sense of urgency, invest in protecting the most humane system of government that our species has ever created.

Democracy is the only system of government that can guarantee our essential dignity as human beings, our freedoms and autonomy; if it goes we lose way more than the right to vote in elections or an ability to make fun of Donald Trump.

A question for Peacebuilders and Mediators:

What would Mediation look like if practitioners were to become front line advocates for democracy, mediating in the trenches of human relationships?

Conflict has a way of shaking the foundations, opening everything up. Before conflict nothing is really there; after conflict nothing remains the same. Mediators are uniquely privileged to being invited into people’s vulnerabilities. While vulnerability can create anxiety, it is also an opportunity for radical change. Such opportune moments are rare; they do not announce themselves, nor are they always ‘safe’ and risk free. Great mediators recognize them and are unafraid to step into these uncomfortable places.

“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

The Mediator as a professional:

The question that mediators have to ask ourselves is whether we are merely in the business of cobbling agreements and changing superficial behaviors or whether we have a higher purpose. Can we, with our powerful tools, help create a society that can manifest the magnificent vision of humanity that we dared to imagine during periods like the Enlightenment, after WW2 and during the civil rights movement? To do so, we need to become deliberate protectors and advocates of liberal, secular democracy.

Inherent in the claim to neutrality and ‘omnipartiality’ is a certain conceit that, unlike others, we are able to transcend our biases. Living up to this claim requires much humility and the difficult work of getting to really know and appreciate people who are not like us and whose behaviors and lifestyles might be offensive to us. For those weaned on the idea of a sacrosanct ‘omnipartiality’, I have good news, one does not have to lose this ability to become an advocate for democracy. Mediators have always valued non-adversarial engagement. All that is required now is for us to drill down below this value and re-discover the philosophic foundations that gave rise to it.

Central to a democracy is the idea of fairness. As a mediator, being scrupulously fair allows me to build trust by giving everyone equal opportunities to express and be understood. It also gives me the opportunity to challenge those who might be stuck in unexamined belief systems or logical fallacies. A mediator should be able to question or challenge without fretting about whether it will displease clients or offend parties. A skillful mediator should also be able to minimize offense by framing questions in such a way that it allows people to reflect and rethink without feeling threatened.

The Mediator as citizen of a democracy:

American mediators as a class are particularly challenged by the rise of Trump. Many have wondered how anyone could take him seriously- in other words, ‘intelligent’ and ‘good’ people, would obviously support Bernie or Hilary. Citizenship in a democracy requires that we be conscious of and sensitive to diverse perspectives. Mediators, who are citizens with unique skills and responsibility, should be perturbed that they only know Trump supporters as caricatures. We can seek them out by subscribing to conservative journals, tuning in to TV and radio shows and engaging those we wouldn’t normally socialize with. Yes, it would mean listening to ideas that seem instinctively offensive or threatening to us, but we do so because they are fellow citizens who are worthy of our interest, attention and compassion. In India when ultra conservative, right wing Hindus flexed their muscles and found support amongst the middle classes I sought them out to understand where they were coming from. I did the same with very conservative Muslim activists whose viewpoints I almost completely disagree with. Over the years I believe that I have been able to develop genuinely respectful relationships with the Hindus and Muslims that I have been engaging with. This has also, incidentally, allowed me an opportunity to temper some of their aggressive ideologies with democratic values.

Peace builders and mediators must recognize the vulnerability of our democracy and speak up when civil liberties are compromised; freedom of expression is curtailed; the angry and the aggrieved eschew dialogue; and most of all when dissidents and outliers are harassed or killed. We cannot be mere spectators, haplessly wringing our hands, as we watch the very foundations of our democratic societies being weakened. We have a responsibility to ensure that the lessons of Brexit do not go waste. It is easy enough to bemoan the outcome of the referendum, however we should be more troubled by what has become of the democratic process itself.

Democracies require robust civic engagement, participation and dialogue if they are to survive in the face of the extraordinary threats that they face today. There is a serious need to revitalize our own democracies and think beyond cycles of elections and street protests.

Ashok Panikkar, founder of Meta-Culture (www.meta-culture.in, www.ashokpanikkar.com), is passionate about strengthening liberal, secular democratic societies. He is also on MBB Consulting’s roster of experts. For more information, contact Jeffrey Range at jrange@mbbconsulting.org.