Constructive Synergy in the Age of Misery: Deliberative Democracy and Creative Non-Fiction

Constructive Synergy in the Age of Misery: Deliberative Democracy and Creative Non-Fiction

By: Philippine League of Sociology Students—UPLB Chapter

This piece presents a critical summary of  “Deliberation and Interruption: Active Citizenship in the 2016 Elections” – a forum co-presented by the University of the Philippines-Los Banos Department of Social Sciences, Sociology-Anthropology-Psychology Division, Social Science 1 Cluster, the Philippine Sociological Society and the Philippine League of Sociology Students-UPLB.

On April 12 2016, Dr. Nicole Curato of the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance (University of Canberra) delivered a lecture to some 300+ students and faculty members of the University of the Philippines Los Baños. In her lecture, she introduced the concept of deliberative democracy and its potential as a normative standard for the exercise of democracy in modern society. Making her way into Philippine setting, she presented a series of narratives she co-wrote with Patricia Evangelista for Rappler entitled “The Imagined President”. It is from these narratives that she sought to demonstrate how deliberation and interruption can be tools for active citizenship.

Restructuring democracy: Focusing on participation and effacing traditional constraints
How democracy is practiced in the Philippines has always been framed in the context of elections. The exercise of our democratic rights is tied with us queuing in voting precincts and choosing the candidate we deem worthy. Deliberative democracy seeks to break this traditional pattern and invites citizens to extend participation beyond elections and into everyday affairs—a shift from a vote-centric to a talk-centric form of democracy.

Conjoined genius: Sociology and creative non-fiction on challenging conventions
There are myriads of difficult issues that could rise up when we talk about free speech in light of deliberative democracy. While we are encouraged to actively participate and utilize much of the newer avenues for communication, the weight and consequences of our speech and actions are becoming heavier as well as the internet extends it impacts to the public sphere and as fragmentation increases. We can now affect how media platforms are regulated. We now share the power in making demands and questioning media output. We continuously affect and are affected by legal frameworks that dictate the degree of freedom of communication. The issue of fairness, representation and accuracy matter now more than ever. The goals of functional democracy, discursive rationality and understanding and compromise amidst our varying views and principles necessitate that the kind of communication we should practice is attuned to a particular standard. As Dahlgren wrote, it certainly is that “dialogue is preferable to violence, and good dialogue is preferable to poor dialogue” especially in terms of political discussion.

Indubitably, sociology as a discipline is already a powerful force in itself. The approach in producing “The Imagined President” is probably unfamiliar to those who have followed the traditional use and understanding of sociology in terms of research and analysis, but the authors showed that sociology is both a science of society and an art form. Sociologists have entered the art scene and have created works of art that challenge power and empowers lay people to revisit taken for granted assumptions regarding society. This was done in this case through an interplay between sociology and creative non-fiction writing which produced a material that is engaging and makes the platform for the exchange and production of ideas available for more actors or participants especially in a popular online platform. Moreover, the methodology used in producing the material showcases the scientific rigor of qualitative research. We feel that it has always been unacceptable how quantitative research is given more attention and credit.

The imagined president: Our reflection as a nation
Dr. Nicole Curato shared excerpts on the narratives displaying the idealized and demonized versions of the leading five presidential candidates.  The discussion of the idealized and demonized portrayals of the candidates shed a light on their contradicting attributes: good and evil, clean and dirty, noble and shameful. Just as how the presidential candidates are illustrated through the narratives, it also reflects the conflicting and contradicting views that the public holds about these candidates. Accepting the truths that these narratives, which are the reflections of the public’s collective sentiments about the candidates, is one example of how we can critically analyze the presidential candidates. This opens our minds to multi-dimensional thinking instead of being restricted and boxed in our own perspectives and beliefs.

Considering and critically debating with the multi-faceted views of diverse groups of people is a good practice of deliberative democracy. At first, it may offend and threaten us as we engage with people whose views diverge from ours. This might be a negative notion for some, but this is an opportunity to fruitfully sharpen our own opinions and ideologies in order to create a critical and a more informed choice.


Furthering democracy and consensus: Towards an unwavering discourse and persistent deliberation
Deliberative democracy posits that opposing political parties must reasonably deliberate on matters concerning politics until they arrive at a consensus that is satisfactory and beneficial to all. The concept advocates for discourse, for critical discussions among the public. However, there are pitfalls in casting democracy as both means and end particularly with the latter. If we abide by Habermas’ theory, the end is a rational consensus borne from discourse—free and undisrupted communication.

But first, what is the process through which actors can arrive at a consensus? When can we say that we have saturated all possible points for discussion? When can we proudly surmise that emergent discourse is the product of active, strenuous discourse? The issue of what channels to utilize to invoke the involvement of the public sphere in its entirety is still unaccounted for. The Internet, as pointed by Dr. Curato, has revolutionized political participation and communication in unprecedented ways. It has mainstreamed political discourse by providing various outlets that are easily accessible to the general public . Social networking sites seemed to have become effective avenues for discourse. The Imagined President series, as an example, is based predominantly on the public’s perceptions of the presidential bets. It was a representation of how the candidates were portrayed online. The series was a fusion of the social sciences and the humanities—rigorous data collection of online posts, ads, pictures, and campaign materials whilst coming up with a masterpiece of creative non-fiction. With this kind of output available online, everyone has more access to details about the candidates and freely discuss his or her stand. Still, the mere existence of the Internet is no guarantee of overarching political participation.

Second, there is also the question of what benchmarks signify our arrival at the ultimate “end”. How long does the process of deliberation have to take place? If deliberative democracy aims for an inclusive decision-making process, it must entail a lengthy discussion. However, in a country ridden by various political and social ills, there is a very real need to effect change, and quickly. There is also the issue of consolidation. Who will facilitate the discourse? Who will act as mediators? There is a tendency to rely on the widely recognized “experts”, who have the credibility and backing of resources. Reliance on these experts may defeat the purpose of discourse; it gives premium to rationality that disregards the viability of other communicative modes in making democracy work. By committing this, we fail to include rich information and insights as to what various social agents think. This perspective has the tendency of failing to recognize the power relations embedded in the process of communication. For democracy to work, we must be sensitive in recognizing and challenging power-laden social constructions in order to have a better hand in the process of deliberation.

Lastly, is not the very notion that democracy can solidify, that it can stagnate, a restriction on democracy itself? The very purpose of discourse should be non-stop deliberation. Social problems will always crop up from within and without; there is a constant need for continuous adaptation to, and resolution to possible problems and issues. There is a need to answer all of the above questions about consensus formation with respect to discourse before we can arrive at a comprehensive conception of the limits and promise of deliberative democracy.

The presentation may be downloaded here.

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