What We Need is Some Culture: Part 3

January 11, 2017

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Developing a Democratic Praxis

[Editor’s note: This post is Part III of an essay by Michael Johnson–Developing a Democratic Praxis. In it he focuses on the key educational factors necessary for building cultures of “small ‘d’ democracy” in communities and regions across the country. In Part I he argues that culture is a powerful factor in political and economic dynamics, but currently almost all strategic thinking focuses just on structures and systems. In Part II he outlines an alternative cultural/structural strategy for cooperative/solidarity economic and other democratic movements for deep change. His essay has been submitted to The Next System’s essay contest. An overview of the whole essay is on his blog.]

Building deeper and more resilient local democratic cultures through ongoing civic/popular education programs

Here I will be laying out what I consider to be the core elements and principle guidelines for civic/popular programs for democratic praxis. First, some definitions.

The Center for Civic Education provides this short description of “civic education:”

Civic Education in a democracy is education in self government. Democratic self government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others… Membership implies participation, but not participation for participation’s sake. Citizen participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership. [36]

The Popular Education News provided this brief description of popular education from Bob Hale’s College for Social Justice : Participants’ Handbook:

“The idea of popular education (often described as “education for critical consciousness”) as a teaching methodology came from a Brazilian educator and writer named Paulo Freire, who was writing in the context of literacy education for poor and politically disempowered people in his country. It’s different from formal education (in schools, for example) and informal education (learning by living) in that it is a process which aims to empower people who feel marginalized socially and politically to take control of their own learning and to effect social change.” [37]

Image Removed
Image adapted from original art by Joshua Kahn Russell, via Beautiful Trouble

For me the meaning and significance of praxis is more complicated and needs a more elaboration. In a word, praxis is people acting together as committed thinkers and actors. This is the primary objective of the civic/popular education component of a cultural/structural strategy for cooperative/solidarity economics and other democratic change movements.

In Wikipedia we find two references that are particularly useful. First, praxis as a learning process:

Praxis may be described as a form of critical thinking and comprises the combination of reflection and action. Praxis can be viewed as a progression of cognitive and physical actions:

  • taking the action
  • considering the impacts of the action
  • analyzing the results of the action by reflecting upon it
  • altering and revising conceptions and planning following reflection
  • implementing these plans in further actions.

This is how democracy, at its best, works.

Second, for Hannah Arendt praxis was essential to human life and democracy. This speaks to the depth of culture’s central role in political and economic life:

For Arendt, praxis is the highest and most important level of the active life…which she sees as the true realization of human freedom. According to Arendt, our capacity to analyze ideas, wrestle with them, and engage in active praxis is what makes us uniquely human.

…by viewing action as a mode of human togetherness, Arendt is able to develop a conception of participatory democracy which stands in direct contrast to the bureaucratized and elitist forms of politics so characteristic of the modern epoch. [38]

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry for Arendt expands on her thinking on “action:”

The birth of every individual is thus the promise of a new beginning: to act means to be able to disclose one’s self and to do the unanticipated; and it is entirely in keeping with this conception that most of the concrete examples of action in the modern age that Arendt discusses are cases of revolutions and popular uprisings. Her claim is that “revolutions are the only political events which confront us directly and inevitably with the problem of beginning,” (OR, 21) since they represent the attempt to found a new political space, a space where freedom can appear as a worldly reality. The favorite example for Arendt is the American Revolution…

Other examples of this kind of original beginning follow. Then:

In all these cases individual men and women had the courage to interrupt their routine activities, to step forward from their private lives in order to create a public space where freedom could appear, and to act in such a way that the memory of their deeds could become a source of inspiration for the future. In doing so, according to Arendt, they rediscovered the truth known to the ancient Greeks that action is the supreme blessing of human life, that which bestows significance to the lives of individuals. [39] (Emphasis added.)

The job of the civic/popular education component is precisely to create and sustain these kinds of public spaces in our communities and regions across our land—a deep scaling across from which we can begin to explore how to scale-up effectively. So a framework for the pedagogy of such local programs is vital.

A. Some core elements for civic/popular education programs
1. The governing principles: intellectual humility and empathic listening

Democracy is more than a cherished way of life. It holds out the promise of a highly functional way of self-governance. [40] That promise, however, demands submission to reality. One governing fact of life is that human beings are not able to know anything for sure except the fact we can’t know anything for sure. So the promise of democracy demands a loving but unmitigated assault on egotism. This gives us the first governing principle for its praxis: intellectual humility.

Another governing fact gives us empathic listening, the second governing principle of a democratic praxis: that in all of our diversity each one of us is inseparably connected with all others as a species, a culture, a society, a community, a family. Peter Senge, beginning with the problematic and moving to empowered mutuality, spells out the implications of this fact:

  • We are unable to talk productively about complex issues because we are unable to listen.
  • Listening requires opening ourselves.
  • Opening our minds ultimately means opening our hearts.
  • When a true opening of the heart develops collectively…people learn to embrace a level of uncertainty from which most of us normally retreat.

He goes on:

But this embrace arises from a collective strength that we have all but ceased to imagine, let alone develop: the strength of a creative human community grounded in a genuine sense of connectedness and possibility, rather than one based on fear and dogma.  [41] (Emphasis added.)

In the 2016 elections we were (or should have been) whopped upside the head with the discovery that these two principles had little purchase value across the political spectrum. Closer to nil than usual. We are now left with what might be the most important time and opportunity for committing ourselves to a long haul exploration for how to work our way through what has been and still is our country’s most intractable and multi-leveled set of intersecting conflicts: race, class, and gender. What follows is an invitation to one sound starting point for beginning to figure out how to deepen our local democratic cultures and lay the groundwork for scaling them across many communities and regions.

A democratic governing process demands that we fiercely resist believing for the sake of thinking or feeling “I am right and that makes me good.” [42] Rather, we believe in order to ground ourselves in values, ideas, and practices that strongly suggest they can enable us to make our worlds work well. Nothing more than that. These understandings of the nature and function of belief leaves us open to both taking decisive action while fully embracing our severe limitations for knowing reality. Therefore, it relies completely on good systems of accountability and a strong buy-in by people that critical performance feedback is essential for achieving accountability. [43] This is at the core of the democratic praxis: collectively we act, then reflect on the consequences of our actions, and judge how we need to adapt our next round of actions to the tasks, needs, and desires at hand. This is praxis, also known as experiential learning. It is how we grow-up. More importantly, it is how we transform ourselves beyond the limitations of early cultural conditioning and training.

Humberto Maturano, who describes himself as a cultural biologist, grasps this very clearly:

Human beings, precisely because we exist in language, can modify any situation if we reflect; the problem is that thinking is an act of uncertainty. Stop and say “maybe things are not as I think they are.” The moment you do this you see yourself from the outside… An animal, which does not live in language like us, can not reflect. [44]

Since we are inseparably connected to all that is, a functional democracy will demand that we avoid and even fiercely resist “going it alone.” All our knowing, believing, and doing is utterly of one piece with the polycentric cultural network of communities we are an integral part of and which we embody within our person. [45] We cannot be otherwise. Since intake is inseparable from output, empathic listening is politically essential. We are here with who we are here with, and in the time and place in which we were born. All of that is mostly out of our control. All of this is both a blessing and a royal pain in the ass. But we need to make it work because that’s the life we are.

All of this is excruciatingly difficult to carry out. All of us have basic needs for boundaries and supportive connections; for opportunities to fly and learning to accept our own and everybody else’s limitations; for navigating the bewildering complexity of living during the times of great change and major cultural shifts. We need each other to make the best of it because we are all in it together. And that calls for moving as far as we can towards unrelenting commitments to negotiate whatever walls we run into. It calls for us to create deeper forms of personal and collective democracy that can make this possible. To pull ourselves up by our bootstraps as well as drawing on our long tradition of small ‘d’ democracy. To draw on our skillful means and fierce dispositions for intellectual humility, empathic listening, and our willingness for taking decisive action when we know we don’t know enough to ever act “right,” and never will.

2. Some essential practices and dispositions

The most lethal dynamic within any relationship or set of relationships is non-negotiable negativity. That is, the willingness to indulge in name-calling, ridicule, insults, backstabbing, vengeance, jealousy, envy, hurting and punishing in any way out of some form of moral righteousness that decides the other is personally, socially, politically, or morally detestable or reprehensible in some form or other. This stance demands your capitulation to my certitude and righteousness. It involves rendering oneself blind and deaf, at least in a given situation, to the possibilities that conflicting parties who have failed to negotiate a difference of whatever size can accept this outcome as legitimate even though not desirable.

Non-negotiable negativity is one of the most embedded behaviors in our culture and most cultures. [46] It is a constant threat throughout the life of every kind of human grouping. It has been seething across our political landscape for decades on both the left and right, from both elites and plain folk. It became something of a deluge during our 2016 primaries and election, and continues to this day.

To do its work democratic dialog has to manage, contain, block, minimize, and deter it as a matter of the highest priority. Transforming it into something positive is by far the best strategy. That is also the most challenging. Try being reasonable with a truckload of envy!

The Ganas intentional community in New York City was founded in 1980 as an experiential research project to

  • gain some deep understanding of this dynamic,
  • evolve effective ways of dealing with intense negativity before it becomes non-negotiable, and
  • enable its members to learn how to work with this kind of negativity constructively through democratic dialog and interpersonal problem solving. [47]

As a member of the Ganas intentional community I have been immersed in this research and the practices we have developed (and are still developing) over the past 36 years. The core of our approach has been succinctly summarized in two short guides, which we call the “Pink Paper” and “Purple Paper.” [48] Both are fully grounded in intellectual humility and empathic listening. The latter is formally titled A Fairly Simple Procedure for Learning to Exchange Information.  Well, there isn’t anything “fairly simple” to learn and embody it as it challenges so much of our embedded culture, but it is a thorough collection of the essential small learnings that go into “learning to exchange information.”

The former, the “Pink Paper,” is a guide for implementing these learnings in actual negotiations of differences. I have drawn on the last part of it to identify what I think constitutes the basic guidelines of a democratic praxis. That part is titled Motivation and Frame of Reference Needed to Implement This Process. Below in the third section of my paper I present the “Pink Paper’s” specific four-fold process for working with a wide-range of face-to-face negotiations.

Guides are maps, not reality. Without empathic listening they are mere words and concepts, not usable tools. As you read these guidelines imagine how they come into play during the democratic dialogs you have been in. Use your own past and current experiences to see how such guidelines might give insight to the kinds of difficulties you struggle with in trying to make democratic dialogs work better.  Also, how they could be used to shape civic/popular learning processes. Do not let the words and ideas lie inert on their pages. If we are to develop small ‘d’ democratic cultures, we must bring those words and ideas to life and integrate them into our personalities, group processes, and organizational systems. This is the essential work of civic/popular democratic education programs.

I have organized the basic guidelines into a list of six (6) and maintained the second person format of the original so you can feel the guidelines are speaking to you.

a. A primary purpose of democratic dialog is to find out more of what the others think about your ideas and perceptions.

Democratic dialog can hardly work unless the participants’ primary purpose in expressing differences of perception, memory, opinions, or preferences is to find out more of what the others think about your ideas and perceptions. It’s important for a participant presenting a proposal or argument to express themselves spontaneously, clearly and as briefly as she can — in order to get responses as clearly and as often as possible.

There are two important corollaries to this guideline:

  •  A major shift in learning to participating effectively in democratic dialog is to give higher priority to hearing and understanding than to being heard and understood. For example, in all kinds of conversation all of us often experience that we are being misunderstood, unheard, or threatened. This is often accompanied with a strong feeling that the others would agree with me if they just understood me. In a democratic dialog it is crucial for participants to develop the habit of making a counter-assumption while keeping a sense of humor:

that the other participants probably think that you don’t understand them — and that they are sure that if you did you’d realize that they’re right.

There is nothing fool-proof about making this counter-assumption. However, acting on it very often steers the whole dialog more toward wanting to hear each other rather than digging into our opposing experiences.

  • Wanting to find what you can agree with in everything said to you is a powerful disposition to develop. This goes as far as both discovering what you can enjoy and value in every speaker you interact with. This can play a dynamic role in a group or community’s practice to grow and sustain itself, especially with regards to our deeply embedded conflicts around race, class, and gender.

b. Avoid investing too heavily in what you’ve said or plan to say — or in proving it or defending it to the others.

That is, try not to fall in love with your own ideas or you might use them to push other people’s reality out of your consciousness. Really want all the new information you can get. Heavy investment in our own stuff will tend to pull us into verbal contests designed to fight for dominance or control. This moves ultimately toward intimidating others and shutting them up. This drive is embedded in all of us, and groups desiring to develop a deeply democratic culture will constantly struggle with this dynamic. Every instance of genuinely working with this problem in a group’s life will be the best opportunity for coming to understanding it as a phenomenon in itself,  and developing best practices for dealing with it every time it manifests.

Now here is one of the grand challenges you will encounter in any dialog, but especially in a democratic dialog that is worth its salt:

If the idea is to avoid getting invested in opposing or arguing with anything from the outset, then you need to learn to do this regardless of the speaker’s intentions, reputation, tone or style. And to do this regardless of the kind of feedback, criticisms, disagreements, statements and responses, or disapprovals are involved.

This is really hard learning; real post-graduate work. But to the degree that you and any democratic group can keep moving toward habituating and integrating this capacity, the more powerful you and it will become.

(Suggestion:  Go back to Section one of this third part and re-read the five points Peter Senge made regarding empathic listening. It speaks directly to this grand challenge in democratic learning.)


c. Remember: if you are wrong and they are right, you will know more and do better than before.

This guideline is truly radical. It turns almost all of our thinking about self-empowerment on its head. It’s where democracy truly rams into ego. We gain power when we discover where we are wrong, and can then begin seeing a different way of working through a problem. I can’t think of a more cogent way to show the functional value of democracy. Consider the contrary: if they’re wrong and you are acknowledged to be right, you’ll probably get an ego boost, but usually nothing very useful has happened to you. (Of course, this does include enjoying the pleasure you can experience in having made a useful contribution to the whole group or community.)

d. You can afford to let go in interaction and allow mistakes as long as you want to hear responses and profit from them.

Oh! The risk of “letting it all hang out.” This requires developing the confidence that you can be able to use public mistakes as a source of learning and empowerment. A lifelong process that requires a group committed to both being as truthful as possible and to supporting this kind of experiential learning for all its participants. In addition, democratic groups and systems must habituate ways of sustaining and developing that kind of support. This is consistently the most difficult challenge small ‘d’ democracy struggles with.

Both as individuals, groups, and organizations we need take in new ideas wherever and however we can in order to test and evaluate them. We may, in the end, reject them. Or, should they prove useful, accept/modify them and make them our own. To do this we must continually cultivate a disposition to want to change our minds and our feelings — every time we’re lucky enough to hear something better than what you had before. I cannot imagine anything more transformative, and therefore more threatening to our fierce holds on our personal and collective sense of self, identity, and value. Next to non-negotiable negativity, this may be one of the most difficult and persistent dynamics that works against any form of dialog.

e. When you check to be sure you were heard accurately, want to believe that they have understood.

Being understood is often scary. Accepting it involves letting go of the “fight” energy you may have raised to be heard and to persuade successfully. The converse is equally important: when others are checking to find out if they have been heard, want to be corrected until they are satisfied you do understand.

f. Want to hear and tell the truth.

Rather obvious, yes, but it is absolutely bottom line. You cannot prevent yourself from distorting your perception or memory. You and all others do this without end because one can only take in a very tiny slice of reality. You and others will do this often to make a point and win the day. You have to be gentle with yourself when this is pointed out. And nonjudgmental with others when you feel you have to point this out to them. Often it takes a lot of energy to do this. Importantly, you have to contribute your attention, energy, wisdom and compassion as you can when your group is struggling with this problem.

The corollary here is intellectual humility, plain and simple. Aim at better reality perception and accurate memory, but know you will never be sure of your own accuracy.

3. A four-fold method

Moving from blame and righteousness to asking-to-understand

The “Pink Paper” also includes some specific instructions when someone says something you

  • disagree with, dislike, or feel threatened by, or
  • when you feel threatened by their direct responses to you.

These conundrums occur over and over for all of us. The quality of any group’s ability to dialog democratically hinges on its capacity to persistently work though these conundrums, or live with them. It is important to see that the whole thrust of this method for asking-to-understand is to be a powerful alternative to both aggressive reactions and withdrawal when that is a passively aggressive move. Asking-to-understand somebody is an affirmative, strong action as is agreeing to disagree. It has to be a pedagogical core for any civic/popular education program.

The method is framed as directions to a single person who is genuinely struggling with a way to get beyond whatever is disturbing her with all the good faith she can muster. Sometimes the one struggling represents just her own concern; sometimes, the concerns of other participants; sometimes her concern is something she is picking up that is not yet at all evident to the group as a whole. The issue at hand can be significant but not necessarily vital; or it can be profoundly important to whole group.

a. The four-fold method recommends that you briefly do the following until you and the other participant(s) agree that you understand each other as well as you’re going to:

  • repeat what you think they’ve said and say how you think they feel;
  • if they think you are inaccurate, listen to their corrections & try again;
  • keep trying until they agree that you’ve heard & understood them.

b. When you feel unheard, misunderstood, threatened,

  • ask the other participant(s) to say what they think you said or did and how they think you feel about it.
  • if you think them inaccurate — correct them and listen to them as they try again until they hear you in your context.

c. If you have heard each other and still disagree:

  • set aside your own thinking;
  • don’t argue—just look for what you can agree with;
  • keep repeating what you hear to check your accuracy; and
  • ask the following questions of anyone present:
    • what do you think about the issue?
    • how did you arrive at that?
    • how do you feel about it?

d. If you still feel threatened, angry, and/or aggressive about people’s statements or their responses to your statements, ask the following questions of yourself (speak them & your answers aloud, if possible):

  • what bad things might happen?
  • what am I angry about?
  • what non-aggressive action is possible?

When you are sure you’ve heard the answers to these questions, to the other’s satisfaction, respond and ask them to repeat your response until you are sure you were heard or understood.
4. Some other sources

For sure the Ganas approach to democratic dialog and interpersonal problem-solving isn’t the only approach. For example, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation is a network of more than 2300 “innovators who bring people together across divides to tackle today’s toughest challenges. NCDD serves as a gathering place, a resource clearinghouse, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this extraordinary community.” [49] They describe their website as “a clearinghouse for literally thousands of resources and best practices, and our highly participatory national and regional conferences have brought together more nearly 3,000 practitioners, community leaders, public administrators, researchers, activists, teachers and students since 2002. We keep in touch monthly with 38,000 people involved in public engagement and conflict resolution work.”

I am personally impressed with the work Be Present, Inc. [50] Their “Be Present Empowerment model” is “a platform for leadership learning, dialogue and practice. The BPEM supports people to explore how history and social contexts of race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, age, sexual orientation, religion, culture, physical ability, and socio-economic backgrounds are encoded within themselves and then are externalized through behaviors. It supports the analysis of how these behaviors are manifested in relationships, communities and institutions – all of which comprise the systems in which we live.” [51]

This is just a beginning of the innovators and resources that are available for building civic/popular education projects and carrying out pedagogical research.


[36] Margaret Stimmann Branson, The Role of Civic Education, CENTER FOR CIVIC EDUCATION (September 1998), http://civiced.org/papers/articles_role.html

[37] Ibid. supra Note 7.

[38] Praxis, WIKIPEDIA (November 30, 2016), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praxis_(process)

[39] Ibid, supra Note 27. See section, “4.1 Action, Freedom, and Plurality.” (I would also note that the idea “action is the supreme blessing of human life” is very related to what I am talking about whenever I refer to “personal and collective empowerment.”)

[40] For sure it is not the only one, and not the one felt most relevant by many groups.

[41] Peter Senge, Foreword, ADAM KAHANE, SOLVING TOUGH PROBLEMS: AN OPEN WAY OF TALKING LISTENING, AND CREATING NEW REALITIES x-xi (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler Publishers, Inc., 2004.)

[42] This does not rule out people in a society that governs itself democratically holding an absolute faith in a moral principle or supreme being. This is a personal right. My statement means that these kinds of beliefs and convictions cannot over-rule the agreed upon democratic process for making governing decisions.

[43] I am drawing an extremely sharp distinction between one’s behavior (performance) and one’s person or being.

[44] Carlos Rold, Humberto Maturana and Ximena Dávila: The era of co-inspiration and collaboration (interview), SOMOS (July 2013),  http://www.revistasomos.cl/2013/08/humberto-maturana-y-ximena-davila-la-era-de-la-co-inspiracion-y-la-colaboracion/.

[45] This in no way minimizes the need for individual initiative, even when that moves one to stand as a lone wolf trying to bring her collective to see and seriously consider a vital fact, dynamic, or issue she is in touch with. That is, the “Billy Beane” factor.

[46] Non-negotiable negativity is a state of mind in which we get stuck in an unforgiving attitude and a desire to punish another for what we have perceived as a serious wrongdoing to ourselves. For one or several of numerous and sometimes complex reasons we tend to resist any effort to work out a solution or to reach a point of forgiveness in other ways.

[47] Ibid., supra Note 11. Also, David Sheen, Community as Crucible: a video interview with George Caneda of the Ganas Community, http://www.geo.coop/story/ganas-community-crucible. Another video on Ganas is Ganas Intentional Community, http://solidaritynyc.org/#/videos/ganas-intentional-community, which features me as the spokesperson.

[48] Mildred Gordon and the Ganas Community, The Pink Paper, http://www.ganas.org/resources/PinkPaper.pdf; The Purple Paper, http://www.ganas.org/resources/PurplePaper.pdf

[49] The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, http://ncdd.org/.

[50] Be Present, Inc., http://www.bepresent.org/.

[51] Ibid, http://www.bepresent.org/empowermentmodel.html .

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.


Tags: new economy, participative democracy, solidarity economics