Friday, July 9, 2010

Reflections on the Recent Criticisms of AS’s OBOE Deliberation

Some of you likely are aware of recent criticism of America Speaks’s Our Budget, Our Economy (OBOE) deliberation, held on June 26 across the country.  PublicDecisions was pleased to co-host one of these events, in Second Life, in conjunction with several other groups.  (See this post for more about our particular event.)

It’s concerning to see people on either side of the political spectrum come out against what AS was trying to accomplish...and what they specifically were trying to accomplish was to facilitate a national conversation about a difficult and complex subject.  Despite claims by a range of organizations that the deliberations were biased towards or against some particular aspect of the discussion, either overtly or not, I would argue that AS went out of its way to ensure the conversation reflected a range of political, social, economic and cultural perspectives.  I commend them for the expansive advisory group that guided the process, with people from all kinds of organizations and perspectives, and that shepherded the discussion and process for many months beforehand. 

As a researcher, the larger question to me is, how can we understand the nature of this criticism?  What might it mean for future deliberations?

In a forthcoming paper on a recent study I completed, one finding I write about is that the lens we use to see participation has everything to do with how we see, understand and enact participation.  This means that if we consider the Right and Left phenomena from a political science standpoint, there of course is a lot of competition among people about an outcome or perceived outcome.  In this way, they could see the AS event as a way to threaten the status quo and criticizing funding, etc. is one potential avenue to subtly or overtly seeking to discredit the overall effort and diminish its potential influence.  If either side sees things it has historically embraced as potentially being negatively affected as a result, this makes perfect sense.

However, if we use another kind of lens to look at the phenomena, such as a sociological lens, we may identify something very different going on.  For example, these criticisms may be a way for the groups on the Left and Right to coalesce around something they care about and therefore self-define each distinctive group itself...rather than allowing the AS event to define us all as one group of people bound together in a democracy by this issue.  By criticizing the AS event like this, they draw more people towards their respective groups.  (My paper talks about a variety of lenses, these are just a few examples for this particular situation.)  What AS did through the June 26 program is to provide one way for considering this important challenge that simultaneously also seeks to change the current dynamic in different ways.  Looking at the phenomena using different lenses can help us find a variety of explanations for what’s going on and propose some reasons for understanding why it’s occurring.

In terms of the potential influence on future deliberations, I would argue that we can’t allow the potential for criticism of varying kinds to keep us from doing this important work.  Yes, it’s very painful to hear, particularly when people spin “untruths,” to be charitable about it.  This is where having a community of people who believe in democratic principles is so valuable, to keep us grounded in what’s really important, no matter what others say.  I have been very heartened to see so many statements of support for what AS sought to accomplish through the OBOE event, and am glad to add my voice to it.  June 26 was a great step forward for us; if future events “rock the boat,” so be it.  The fact that people can even say these things – and that we can shoulder those comments – are themselves signs of a strong democracy.  I look forward to participating in and speaking up in support of future deliberations, sponsored by AS and other groups, that reflect the spirit and practice of democratic principles.

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