Deliberation & Social Justice

I’m in Portsmouth, NH, for a few days, meeting with a group convened by the University of New Hampshire. Among us are professors, theorists, and practitioners of deliberative democracy. Most everyone here is also deeply concerned about diversity, inclusiveness, and social justice. I sense a bit of tension between concern for democracy and concern for social justice, the very same tension I’ve seen at philosophy meetings where paper-givers have worried over the “opportunity conditions” for deliberative democracy. In short, the issue is whethere deliberative forums are truly democratic if full, democratic participation isn’t assured. Jürgen Habermas used to write about the “ideal speech situation,” a situation in which everyone was free to participate, free from any kind of coercion, and likely to be taken as seriously as anyone else. Such a situation is ideal, not necessarily realizable, because in the real world some of us are more advantaged than others. In a world that lacks full social justice, some people may have fewer opportunities to participate and to articulate their views as persuasively as others. Some people won’t be taken seriously simply because of gender, race, and social status. The outcome of such deliberations will likely not reflect the views of those marginalized from the discussion. Social justice seems to be a precondition for deliberative democracy.

But at the same time, I’d argue that deliberation shouldn’t wait for perfect social justice. Somehow even the least-advantaged people in a room can be the most powerful speakers. Such was the case in the first nationwide deliberative poll I observed, in Great Britain, where a woman with learning disabilities called the Tory leader on the carpet for his attempt to get rid of the “right to silence” (which is like our fifth amendment), saying that this would be dangerous for people like herself who might accidentally incriminate themselves. The Tory leader tried to placate her but the hundreds of other participants in the room kept yelling out, “answer her question.” Even with her halting words, she had used a deliberative democratic setting to call for social justice. So deliberative democracy shouldn’t wait for its own ideal conditions. The ideal of deliberation itself brings with it a way to help realize it.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.