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Deliberation and respect

Jürg Steiner*

There is agreement in the normative literature that mutual respect in the sense of reciprocity is a key element of good deliberation. This holds both for speakers and listeners. As Jane Mansbridge puts it, “participants should treat one another with mutual respect and equal concern. They should listen to each other and give reasons to one another that they think the others can comprehend and accept.” Such mutual respect requires, in the words of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, “an effort to appreciate the moral force of the position with whom we disagree.” There is controversy, however, about the exact definition of respect and whether respect should be extended to all arguments or whether there are arguments that are so distasteful that they do not merit any respect. Habermas takes the position that all arguments should be considered and that good reasoning will allow to cut distasteful arguments from further discussion. This Habermasian position is forcefully articulated by Christian F. Rostboll who shares with Habermas a background in critical theory of the Frankfurt School. For Rostboll

A basic assumption underlying deliberative democracy, as I see it, is that no one has privileged access to truth or to the true interests of others. The only way to arrive at judgments that have the presumption of being right on their side is through public process of deliberation where everyone is free and able to participate.

Contra this position, Italo Testa, another theorist, writes already in the title of his paper of “Limits of Respect in Public Dialogue.” He argues that not anything goes in political debate:

Respect for the legitimacy of values, beliefs, and preferences should not be conferred a priori, as unconditional and un-retractable. Were it so, we would have as a consequence that anything goes: there would be no way to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims, and dialogue would defeat itself and its validity structure … there will always be some views that we won’t hold as respectable: and this is not a bad thing in itself.

Testa makes the distinction between respect for arguments and respect for persons making the arguments. He is of the opinion that there are not only arguments but also persons that do not merit respect. For this claim, he gives the following illustration, “let’s take the case of a political context where we need to listen to the opinion of an expert about how to dispose of refuse. If we later discover that the expert was not impartial as he had not publicly revealed having shares in a firm specializing in waste disposal in just the way that he proposes, then a personal attack would be rather reasonable.” From this illustration Testa concludes that “there can be occurrences where the moral authority of the claimer is relevant to judge the degree of credibility … this is what happens in the refuse case, where the alleged hidden agenda justifies the doubt that this person may not be an objective arguer.” Testa continues, however, that the lack of moral authority of a speaker has no impact on the legitimacy of his or her arguments if the two elements are not related. In this case, we should not say, “since you are not worthy of respect, then your argument is not either.” Testa uses the concept of respect in a complex way with respect for arguments and persons being intertwined in a multi facet way.

James Bohman and Henry S. Richardson, two other theorists, also see limits to respect in political debate. To be sure, they hope “that citizens will civilly engage with one another on the basis of the reasons that each actually accepts … ideally, deliberative civility demands that one is willing to consider anyone’s arguments.” They acknowledge, however, the “difficulties about being civil to the uncivil.” They wonder whether one has “to listen to Ann Coulter’s rants or Al Franken’s satirical riffs,” the former at the extreme right wing, the latter at the extreme left wing of the American political spectrum. Bohman and Richardson conclude that “sometimes, indeed, the pursuit of justice requires engaging with others uncivilly.”

For Kasper Hansen arguments challenging equality and freedom of expression should be banned from deliberation “because otherwise the theory violates its own theoretical foundation as an unconstrained deliberation, which would limit the opinions voiced during the deliberative process … it seems impossible to question equality or freedom of expression without questioning the entire concept of deliberative democracy.”

A controversy concerns the question whether religious arguments have a place in deliberation. The prevailing view among theorists is that arguments based on religious doctrine can certainly be introduced in a deliberative discourse but that such arguments must be translated into secular terms. John Rawls, for example, writes that religious arguments “may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons … are presented.” Stephen Carter, among others, challenges this position in postulating that “our political culture cannot be truly deliberative unless we let ourselves be tested by religiously grounded moral beliefs.” Jürgen Habermas has initially sided with Rawls, but has recently softened his position in worrying that religious citizens may be forced to publicly state reasons which do not conform to their true religious convictions. Therefore, in his later writings, he is less opposed that religious people use a religious vocabulary to justify their arguments. Thus, this controversy about the validity of religious arguments in deliberation has quite fluid borders.

Another controversy concerns the question of what exactly is meant by the concept of respect. The classical definition is that the exchange of arguments should take place in a calm, polite and non-confrontational manner. André Bächtiger forcefully puts forward the argument that this definition is “overly respectful” in a negative way. Seeing respect in this tame and domesticated way was always a target of easy critique and, according to the reading of Bächtiger, does anyhow not correspond to what Habermas means by respect. Bächtiger considers “questioning, disputing, and insisting as core but frequently overlooked and undervalued elements of a desirable and effective deliberative process. Questioning refers to a process of critical interrogation and cross-examination; disputing refers to a process of argumentative challenges and counterchallenges; insisting refers to a sustained process of questioning and disputing, inducing a thorough and rigid inquiry of the matter under consideration.” In this way, deliberation gets an “adversarial and confrontational” character. Bächtiger, cautions, however, “that a questioner or challenger cannot stay confrontational and adversarial throughout the process. He or she must strike a careful balance between confrontational and respectful acts.”

If such a balance is struck, Bächtiger sees the following beneficial effects: “Questioning, disputing and insisting can unearth new facts and tacit assumptions as well as unravel inconsistencies and holes in the argumentation ….truthfulness can emerge out of a critical and thorough process of inquiry … questioning, disputing and insisting allows disadvantaged groups to unravel dominant frames and demonstrate that there are different ways of seeing things …. Sustained critical interrogation and argumentation can unravel new dimensions of the topic under discussion, elicit reasons from other participants, and set in motion a process of reflection, foster respect and eventual preference change.”

With such a balance between confrontational and non-confrontational speech acts as postulated by Bächtiger, I wonder whether the concept of respect should not be even further expanded. If one critically questions and disputes the arguments of others and is open to their own critical questions and disputations, this means that one takes them seriously and therefore encounters them with respect. The concept of respect then has the key connotation that one takes other actors seriously as discussion partners.

Benefits of adversary debates for the quality of deliberation are also stressed by Bernard Manin, for whom “it is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity”. For Manin, “the benefits of deliberation critically depend on the confrontation of opposing arguments”. He fears, however, that in everyday life such debates will not sufficiently occur because “one cannot expect adversarial debates to arise spontaneously … as people tend to avoid the psychic discomfort of face-to-face disagreement.” Therefore, “on a practical level, adversary debates on issues of public concern need to be actively promoted.” For such promotion Manin makes the following very specific suggestion:

Citizens’ organizations, foundations, debating societies or other voluntary groups should organize these debates. Such voluntary groups would gradually establish their civic reputation and commitment to public interest. The key point is that these debates should be left to private – although not for profit – initiative … on this principle, speakers should primarily be policy experts, group leaders, activists, moral authorities. Politicians may be involved too, but on the condition that they comply in their interventions with the principle of relevant reasons, i.e. that they talk solely about the issue under consideration, to the exclusion of other items in their parties’ platforms. Most importantly, the jobs and careers of speakers should not be on the line in such debates.

The difficulty of empirically investigating respect in political discussions is that sometimes respect may not be meant truthfully but is used strategically to further one’s interests. Respect then becomes flattery. If in a parliamentary debate one member calls another “my much respected friend” this often may be pure flattery. Jean de La Fontaine has famously exposed such flattery in his fable “le corbeau et le renard” (crow and fox). Although crows are not known as great singers, the fox expressed great respect for the singing skills of the crow, who sat high up on a tree. In order to show off his skills, the crow began to sing, letting drop the cheese in his beak. By then it was too late for the crow to realize that he had fallen for a shrewd trick of the fox who only was eager to get the cheese. The crow would have been better off knowing that the respect offered by the fox was nothing but strategic flattery. To distinguish flattery from true respect may be as difficult in politics as it was for the crow.

Let me begin the empirical part of the paper with our investigation of parliamentary debates in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and the US. We distinguished respect toward the demands of others, respect toward counterarguments, and respect toward groups to be helped. Each speech act by a member of parliament was coded with our Discourse Quality Index (DQI) for all three aspects on a scale from no respect to explicit respect. There was great variation in the level of respect. An illustration of high respect comes from a debate in the Swiss Council of States on amending the constitution with a language article. In the committee stage, German speaking René Rhinow made the proposal to establish in the amendment the abstract principle of freedom of language analogous to other freedoms like freedom of religion. He withdrew his proposal in the plenary session in deference to the opposition of many French speakers, and in doing so he referred to the importance of peaceful relations among the language groups. From a deliberative perspective, it is important that Rhinow was willing to listen with respect to the arguments of the French speakers that to establish the principle of freedom of language in the constitution may lead to German speaking schools in the French speaking regions, violating the long held principle of territoriality for school issues. There was no bargain in the sense that Rhinow would have gotten something for withdrawing his proposal. It was simply respect for the arguments of his colleagues from the French speaking regions that Rhinow withdraw his proposal. An extreme example of low respect occurred in an abortion debate in the German Bundestag when Claus Jäger interrupted another member of parliament, shouting: “For this you deserve a slap in the face.” With this rude remark Jäger lacked any respect for the argument of his parliamentary colleague. In this way, he signaled that the argument had no merits at all so that it was not worth while to consider it in any serious way. To get an overall picture of the degree of respect in these parliamentary debates, we constructed a summary index of respect ranging from 0 to 9 with 9 expressing the highest level of respect. We found an interesting difference for this element of deliberation between plenary sessions and committee meetings. Committee meetings were more deliberative than plenary sessions. The mean on our index with regard to respect for all speech acts was 3.67 for committee meetings and 3.36 for plenary sessions. There seems to be trade-off going on among the various deliberative elements. Behind close doors in committee meetings, justification of arguments are less elaborate and references to the common good less frequent than in plenary sessions, but respect is higher in committee meetings than in plenary sessions.In their study of plenary debates in the European Parliament, Dionysia Tamvaki and Christopher Lord also looked at respect, using our Discourse Quality Index (DQI). 25 percent of all speech acts showed no respect for demands and arguments of other participants, 20 percent were neutral, and 55 percent revealed implicit or explicit respect. In the plenary sessions of our national parliaments, the corresponding figures are 26 percent for no respect, 60 percent neutral and 14 percent for implicit or explicit respect. Thus, debates at the European level were much more respectful than at the national level. Tamvaki and Lord also stress that compared with the national level, relatively few speech acts at the European level were neutral indicating that “genuine engagement in the discussion characterizes EP deliberative politics.” Why these differences between the European and national levels? The necessity of simultaneous translation in the European Parliament may have led to more careful listening and as a consequence to a higher level of respect. It may also be considered that the European Parliament is still a fragile institution with not much power so that the debates are more civilized than in the old established and more power oriented national parliaments.

When we move from parliamentary debates to discussions among ordinary citizens, James S. Fishkin, Robert C. Luskin, Ian O’Flynn, and David Russell undertook a study where respect seems particularly difficult to be obtained, namely between Catholics and Protestants in deeply divided Northern Ireland. In the Omagh District, a random sample of both Catholic and Protestant parents were gathered to discuss local school issues. The method of investigation was Deliberative Polling. Those agreeing to attend, had to fill out a questionnaire and were also sent balanced briefing documents conveying relevant factual information, outlining the various options for delivering education, and sketching the arguments for and against each option. The discussion took place in randomly assigned groups of about ten participants each led by trained neutral moderators. Participants were encouraged to be respectful with each other. After the discussions, participants completed an augmented version of the same questionnaire as on first contact. The research question was whether, in what direction and to what extent opinions changed from the pre-experimental questionnaire to the post-experimental one. The result was that “the participants acquired much more positive views of the other community and of inter-community relations.” For example, for the item of how trustworthy the other side is, Protestants moved on a scale from 0 to1 from .646 to .751, Catholics from .621 to .709. This study is of particular interest because it gives a dynamic aspect in asking how respect can be changed. If encouraged to be respectful, respect indeed increases, even in such a deeply divided society as Northern Ireland. For Fishkin and his collaborators, “these results are all the more impressive in light of the modesty of this intervention. The Deliberate Polling entailed just a few days to a few weeks of heightened learning and casual discussions in the interval between the initial interviews and the deliberations, and just one day of organized deliberation in heterogeneous discussion groups – this in a context marked by decades of tension and inter-group hostility, at times scarred by intense violence. In this light, the changes in policy attitudes related to inter-group relations and in attitudes toward the other group are striking.”

Elzbieta Wesolowska also did quasi-experiments on school matters with parents of school children. Her study was done in Poland and dealt with the issue of sexual education in schools. With regard to the aspect of respect, she found some instances of mutual respect, especially when a group was composed only of women who could share common experiences of sexuality and motherhood. The topic did lend itself, however, also to strongly disrespectful behavior. The most glaring example is a very Catholic man, who in his very first statement presented his stance in the following way:

I would request from school … and not only request but simply demand that teachers should present human sexuality from the Catholic Church perspective …Otherwise I would not allow for any kind of teaching.

Wesolowska comments that “his expectation that other disputants should accept the Catholic Church perspective as the sole guidance for their children’s education is contradictory to the reciprocity principle.” When this speaker “heard arguments undermining the legitimacy of his point of view, he attacked the others with rough and offensive words. Those attacked tried to avoid the discussion at first. However, finally, the discussion became so laden with emotion that all participants engaged in a fierce exchange of words.” This is indeed an episode of very low respect ending in a shouting match. For the deliberative model, the behavior of this very Catholic man is a great challenge.

Julien Talpin did a qualitative ethnographic study of a real life experience of citizen involvement in policy decisions. The model was Alegre in Brazil where citizens were involved in the budgeting process. Talpin studied three European communities where this experience was replicated, Morsang-sur-Orge in the Paris banlieu, the eleventh district in Rome and Seville in Spain. In these three communities ordinary citizens were given the opportunity to be involved in the ordinary budget process and, within an upper limit, to allocate money to the different programs of the community. Talpin could observe altogether 124 such meetings, and he did also interviews with organizers and participants. From a deliberative perspective, a negative finding is that many citizens dropped out “being disappointed by the narrowness of the power they were given or the manipulations orchestrated by elected officials.” There was also low reciprocity; discussions consisted mainly of monologues without many reactions by other participants. As Talpin puts it: “Most of the people voice arguments, diagnose problems and evoke possible solutions in a monological way. Personal interventions do not answer each other and hardly ever end up in a constructive exchange of arguments and counterarguments.” Based on his observations and interviews, Talpin sees the main reason for the low reciprocity in the reluctance of ordinary citizens to express disagreements: “The public expression of disagreement is a difficult move. Most of the people consider their opinions to be private matters, which do not need to be discussed, justified and eventually modified after a discussion with strangers. It seems that there is, in most public arenas, a strong cultural force pushing people to respect the opinions of others, therefore refusing to contradict or convince them.”

Finally, there are some relevant results in the current context of how religious actors in Switzerland express arguments on abortion and immigration. As we remember from earlier in the paper, there is controversy among theorists whether religiously expressed arguments have a place in deliberation. André Bächtiger et al. of our research group have investigated for national referenda on abortion and immigration to what extent religious groups and individual religious actors presented their arguments in secular or religious terms. Their results are that “religious actors in the Swiss context use far less religious arguments than one might commonly surmise. When going public, religious actors largely abide by the secular norms of public discourse.”

Based on the empirical studies, the normatively relevant question is now how deliberatively minded actors should deal with disrespect. As we have seen in the first part of the paper, there is great controversy among theorists in this respect. Some theorists argue that good reasoning can handle disrespectful arguments, while other theorists are of the opinion that some arguments are so distasteful that they should not be addressed at all. I side with the latter position having found some arguments that are so disrespectful that in my view they should not be considered at all. I offer two examples from the empirical part of the paper. When during an abortion debate in the German Bundestag, Claus Jäger interrupted a female member that for her argument she deserves a slap in the face, this is such a distasteful way to express a disagreement that the female member rightly did not react to. Although Jäger did not mean the slap in the face in a literal way, he still violated the human dignity of his parliamentary colleague. He implied that it would be better that she had not spoken up, thus denying her equal status and freedom of expression. This is exactly what Kasper Hansen has in mind when he argues that challenging equality and freedom of expression of another discussant is not acceptable because it undermines the very foundation of deliberation. The second example I draw from the Polish experiments on sex education in schools where a fiercely Catholic man made the following statement: “I would request from school … and not only request but simply demand that teachers should present human sexuality from the Catholic Church perspective … Otherwise I would not allow for any kind of teaching.” In my view, such a statement should not be acceptable in a good deliberative discourse because it does not leave any space for reciprocity. The man says in effect that either you do the teaching my way or you don’t do it all, and I am closed to all other alternatives. Such language should not be tolerated. Other participants should take it on themselves to tell the man to adapt a more open position; otherwise it would be pointless for him to continue to participate in the discussion.

Having set limits on language allowed in deliberative discourse, these limits do not imply that language should always be overly polite. On the contrary, I like a spirited discussion where arguments are put forward in a forceful way. In my view, it is proper to characterize other arguments in negative terms if this is one’s opinion. For example, if an argument appears to a listener as incoherent and logically flawed, this listener should say so and ask for clarifications. Such a critical reaction does not imply a lack of respect. On the contrary, it shows that the argument of the other is taken seriously and that one wishes to understand it fully. With this position, I support the idea of Bernard Manin that in civil society adversary debates should be organized where disagreements are not suppressed but forcefully articulated and discussed. Good deliberation should be respectful but at the same time lively and spirited.

It remains the question of religious arguments in deliberative discourse. Here the issue is not the usage of disrespectful language. The issue is rather that religious arguments refer as justification to holy persons, texts or symbols that other religious groups or non-religious people may not be willing to accept as justification. Let us take as example a political discussion on a bill whether in divorce proceedings adultery should be taken as a negative element, for example for financial matters or child custody. A participant in the discussion may answer this issue in the affirmative with the sole justification that the Ten Commandments treat adultery as sin. Should this statement be considered as valid justification from a deliberative perspective? I do not think so. I would, however, still allow that this religiously based argument be put forward in a deliberative discourse. It should be treated with respect and not be a priori dismissed out of hand. Other participants should help the author of this argument to put it in secular terms, for example in terms of fairness and social justice. The author may, however, resist such translation into secular terms, insisting that the only base for his or her judgment is the Ten Commandments. Under these conditions, in the interest of civility, other participants should not push further because this may put the religiously oriented participant in an uncomfortable position. Other participants are now entitled not to enter the substance of the argument with regard to the Ten Commandments. As a consequence, the religiously oriented actor is still a participant but probably with less weight. It is an entirely different matter if other participants, even a majority, take the Ten Commandments as basis for their judgment. I would not consider such a discussion as deliberative because it is based on a doctrinal assumption that cannot be put in question. In my view, in good deliberation all assumptions must be open to be challenged. The research of Bächtiger et al. shows that many religious actors are willing and able to translate their religious arguments in secular terms. This means that in the real world of politics religiously oriented people may very well participate as full members in a deliberative discourse if they are only willing not to base their arguments on religious doctrine.