Democratic Dispositions

Dispositions are distinct from knowledge, opinions, perceptions and even skills. Disposition is a person’s inclination, propensity or attitude toward life and the ways in which they are likely to react in different situations. While dispositions do not predict someone’s actions, dispositions are essential qualities that make us who we are as people. Democracy—based upon rule of law, reason and negotiation—requires citizenry to possess key dispositions that allow them to maintain a society based upon trust, generosity and tolerance.


At Meta-Culture we are acutely conscious of the contemporary critique of logic, reason, empiricism, and science itself, that the reaction against modern capitalist values has engendered. This along with anger at the polluting ways and materialism of large corporations and the hypocrisy and injustice perpetrated by American foreign policy has made many yearn for a simpler, respectful, kind, tolerant, just and wholly egalitarian world. Simultaneously, sympathy toward colonized and indigenous cultures has prompted many to elevate traditional ways of knowing such as emotion, intuition and myth over what is seen as clinical and imperialistic science.

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Humans have traditionally relied upon instinct, intuition, emotion and myth to make sense of their world. However, in the work that we do with communities and groups in conflict, we have found that a discourse based primarily upon emotion, anger or grievance rarely creates harmonious and sustainable co-existence. On the other hand, narrow subjectivity is more likely to create a superficial tolerance and, at worst, can give rise to subjective thinking and decision making where the most aggressive or stubborn emerge winners. This kind of a conversation does not, as is often hoped, lead to kinder discourse or a world where love, generosity, compassion and empathy can reign. Rather when emotion takes precedence over reason and evidence, authoritarians and their ideologies, be they Fascists or Fundamentalists of any stripe, gain credibility and fill the void surrendered by reason, evidence, and deliberate process. Suffice to say, subjective ways, while sometimes capable of giving us useful and satisfying insights do not create a basis for negotiation between differing and competing peoples, world views, and interests. Reason and scientific thinking when applied rigorously, in contrast, provide a common baseline from which to evaluate ideas and make decisions.

Democratic dispositions include:


Humans tend to make decisions or resolve disputes by appealing to sentiment or through the exercise of power. By enfranchising even those with less power, democracy attempts to create a level playing field, where advantages of wealth, strength or status are constrained.  This still leaves the problem of how to make contentious decisions about who gets what and how much through a system that is seen as equitable and fair.

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While some ancient societies, including the Indians, Chinese and the Greeks, have a documented reputation for developing the arts of philosophy and rhetoric, it is only in the past couple of centuries that government itself was designed around the skills and practice of argument, logic and reason. Decisions founded on robust reasoning and empirical evidence that is sensitive to the emotional needs of people has the advantage of being based on firmer ground than those solely made on the basis of emotion and sentiment. In the imperfect world of human discourse and decision-making, reason is one of the few ways of achieving equitability and fairness.


The ability to advocate for oneself and one’s own group is vital in a democracy, but this can deteriorate into aggressive selfishness that precludes any consideration of the needs of others. Most systems of social and political order are based on self-interest (defined as taking care of one’s self and one’s group).

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Democracy alone requires that sometimes compromises need to be made that disadvantage one’s own interests. This disposition requires the ability to recognize the needs of others as legitimate and to empathize with those unlike us, and willingness to, if necessary, disadvantage oneself in helping meet their needs. Likewise, individuals and groups can struggle with deferring gratification, especially if they feel their needs are legitimate or that they have the power to force their demands on others. Deferring gratification is a mature characteristic developed through discipline and conscious cultivation. In oppressive environments with limited rights, demanding instant results can be tactically advantageous as there are few other avenues for meeting one’s interests. In democracies, groups’ willingness to defer immediate gratification incentivizes others to participate in an interdependent manner.


Most people, individuals and groups tend to want things to go their way, so it is not surprising that the strong, the rich and the powerful have almost always been inclined towards autocratic and unilateral decision making. A democracy is unusual in that the system is designed to prevent unilateral decision making by the powerful or the majority by submitting it to testing through debate, deliberation and negotiation. This is counter-intuitive to the human urge for immediate and complete gratification and hence a vital disposition to cultivate.


poster3Traditional societies often have a culture of bargaining (“haggling,” “horse trading,” or “splitting the difference”), which often yields winners, losers, and/or mechanical and unsatisfactory solutions. Democracies cannot afford perpetual losers, even if they are marginalized groups or minorities. All citizens need to know that their interests are legitimate and can be advocated for and, at least partly, satisfied. Negotiation inclines us towards collaborating in joint problem solving and pursuing agreements that allow for mutual gains.


This disposition inclines us to view democracy as a process that allows for open ended decision-making based upon deliberation and negotiation, not guaranteed to deliver pre-determined results. Much anger and disappointment stems from expecting democracy to deliver everything whether it be well-paying, satisfying jobs; complete physical and emotional safety; unstinting respect; total freedom and happiness for everyone. Democracy is not a cure for all ills of society or the planet. Democracy is merely a system of self-government that, when implemented with efficiency and integrity, is an inclusive and effective process for deliberation and decision making. The quality of decisions made is solely dependent upon the people and their responsible representatives.


poster4Through most of human history, those in power shared information only with inner circles, leaving ordinary people living in relative ignorance. Starting with the printing press in 1440 and accelerated by the development of public schooling, the telegraph, telephone, radio, TV and the internet, the communication revolution took information out of the hands of the elite and opened up the possibility of mass learning.

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It ushered in a tsunami of information so that the problem now is no longer scarcity but uncontrolled plenty. This surfeit of information has not increased our ability to process and make sense of it all -it can even blur our ability to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate information. Indeed, many of us may indeed end up occupying self-selected information bubbles that reinforce our own views and exclude views that challenge and offend us.
Information is as useful as our ability to interpret it. This requires trained and experienced people, journalists, mentors, teachers and experts who can help the rest of us make sense of what we take in. It takes hard work and tremendous effort to engage in deep and broad learning, and there is much danger to ourselves and society when we presume that a google search makes our opinions as legitimate as those of someone who has spent thousands of hours in rigorous study or work.


Technological connection, makes it possible to ‘democratize’ connection with large and distant groups of people. It also provides physical and psychological distance, giving us the opportunity to ‘disappear’ when uncomfortable. This ability to ‘disappear’ gives immediate ‘safety’ and relieves us of the need to deal with the ‘messiness’ of human relationships.

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However, without this messiness we can fail to develop the skills necessary to fully communicate, engage, understand, negotiate, resolve conflict and build relationships. Moreover, these are abilities that are critical to a citizenry in a healthy and functioning democracy. Skills and dispositions necessary for complex human connection develop through intimate communication and engagement that takes enormous energy and time. Highly individualistic people without sufficient opportunities or time for relationship building can create a self-centered society bereft of vital human skills necessary for a functioning democracy.