Could mediation transform democracy?

Mediation is commonly conceived as a mechanism for resolving disputes that would otherwise be settled through the courts. However, could mediation potentially be used for reaching agreement on other social issues—including those that would be decided by the executive or parliament? A recent interesting article by Richard Schmitt in the Journal of Social Philosophy explores this possibility.

Democratic decision-making is generally associated with the electoral process. Recent discussions have also explored the prospects of deliberative democracy, where elections are supplemented or even replaced by joint deliberation among citizens. Schmitt argues that mediation represents a third possible type of decision-making mechanism that has been neglected in the literature on democratic theory and practice.

Schmitt discusses some examples of groups that rely on mediation to make collective decisions. His main example is the Society of Friends (or Quakers). The Quakers, Schmitt notes, ‘have developed techniques over several centuries which allow groups to deliberate together without the conversation degenerating into bitterness and shouting, instead reaching agreements that meet no opposition’ (233).

At a Quaker business meeting, as Schmitt describes it, members sit quietly until moved to speak. They say their piece, but do not seek to defend their perspective against others. They merely offer it for consideration by the group. Members also do not criticise the viewpoints offered by others. ‘The focus’, Schmitt observes, ‘is not on “giving reasons”’ as is so often the case in deliberative democracy (234).

Members do not raise their voices, interrupt or try to win an argument. Instead, they silently consider what they have heard. At some point, an attempt is made to articulate the consensus of the meeting. Members may suggest amendments to this formulation. At the end, if nobody objects, the consensus will be adopted, not because everyone necessarily agrees, but because ‘no one is deeply troubled by it’ (234).

It is often assumed that unanimity is not possible in democratic decisions. Majority rule is always needed. However, Schmitt argues that the example of the Quakers shows this to be false. It is possible to achieve unanimity, even if not everyone agrees on everything, if the right kind of decision-making process is followed. This also requires, of course, that participants follow shared ground rules in good faith.

The process followed by the Quakers, as Schmitt observes, has much in common with mediation. It avoids rights-based discussions or positional bargaining. Instead, it allows participants to articulate their viewpoints without interruption, then encourages them to reach an outcome everybody can live with. The aim is not for someone to win, like in  court, but for everyone to walk away with something they can accept.

One shortcoming of Schmitt’s article is that his discussion of mediation is a bit out of date. For example, he describes the mediator as a ‘professional neutral’ without acknowledging the current lively debates about whether mediator neutrality is desirable or possible (237). Nonetheless, he captures some of the key features of mediation, such as the role of ground rules and the focus on exploration and option generation, showing their potential application to group decisions.

Mediation generally involves a relatively small number of parties. However, Schmitt argues that it can be applied to larger social groups. He discusses some examples of this, such as an effort by the Centers for Disease Control to reach consensus among 110 stakeholders from organisations with different views on HIV/AIDS. The mediators divided the stakeholders into teams and guided them through a facilitative process. This was successful in producing areas of consensus across the whole group.

Schmitt raises and responds to a possible objection to mediation as a democratic process. The worry is that mediation may be undemocratic, because it involves small groups making decisions on behalf of the whole community (243). Schmitt argues this is not necessarily a problem, provided that the small groups are representative, well informed and transparent. The general public can give feedback and views to the stakeholders directly involved in the mediation.

Schmitt’s response to this challenge, in my view, overlooks another, more radical possibility. What if we think of society not as one big group, but as a collection of many, overlapping smaller groups? If these smaller groups adopted mediation as a way of seeking consensus on specific issues, then one might expect areas of consensus to emerge organically in the community as a whole. (I explore this kind of possibility in my own current work on small justice.)

Could mediation transform democracy? Does it offer a genuine alternative to the electoral process and existing forms of political deliberation? The prospect of mediated outcomes taking over political discourse may seem far fetched in the current political environment with its partisanship, bargaining and rancour. However, mediators have always been innovators and risk-takers. It seems fitting that they could also be the ones to reshape democracy as we know it.

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