Deep Democracy and Community Wisdom
A wise person has perspective. They can see the big picture without losing sight of the small. They can see the part without losing sight of the whole. They understand the partnerships of day and night, good and bad, the known and the unknown. They have observed how it all fits together, including their own limitations and immense ignorance - and that realization makes them humble, insightful and flexible. They are free to creatively see and respond to what's actually around them.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference." This famous "Serenity Prayer" arises out of, and nurtures, wisdom.
Can communities be wise? Interestingly, a community of people (whether a group, a company, a town or a nation) is better equipped to be wise than an individual. This is true despite the fact most of the communities we live in or with are clearly foolish, small-minded, unconscious and/or destructive. Truly wise communities (some of which operate on millennia-old traditions) are seldom seen or publicized by our civilization, preoccupied as it is with bustling off to its own demise.
As individuals, we are inherently more limited than a community. Although we can consult books and friends and critics, in the end we are limited to our own single perspective. We are, alas, only one person, looking at the world from one place, one history, one pattern of knowing.
A community, on the other hand, can see things through many eyes, many histories, many ways of knowing. The question is whether it dismisses or creatively utilizes and integrates that diversity.
Communities are wise to the extent they use diversity well. The wisest know that every viewpoint represents a part of the truth, and that it is through the cooperative, creative interplay of viewpoints that the wisest, most comprehensive and powerful truths emerge. So they engage in that interplay, that dialogue - a creative controversy or consensus process that winds its way to wise public judgment.
The best government is that government which enables communities to do this - to nurture and utilize their wisdom and resources - especially their diversity - in such a way that they require less and less government.
A community that can manage itself in a wise and sustainable manner is one that has mastered democracy. They know they can't depend on leaders (from dictators to saviours, from representatives to experts) to do things for them. They know that democratic citizens and leaders work best in partnership with each other, co-creating each other's power. They know that leaders must be seen as living extensions of their own will and wisdom, which must be kept active. They know that passive "followership" abandons leaders, deprives them of the wisdom and creativity of the community, and opens them up to the corruptions of alienated power.
A democratic community grows beyond dependence and paternalism. In a sense, the more democratic a society is, the more it has "come of age." Movements for democracy might even be seen as the maturation process of a culture. A mature society knows how to handle itself in dynamic context with others, drawing on its inner resources (its diverse members) and relating responsively and creatively with its environment.
The more it knows how to nurture and use the rich diversity of individual views and capabilities within it, the more wise (and democratic) a society will be. It will resist small-minded leadership and even the dictatorship of the majority. It will cherish dissent as a wise individual cherishes doubt - as a door to deeper understanding.
However, as we all know, it is not easy to do something creative with diverse opinions and experiences. It's much easier to settle for lowest-common-denominator agreements, press for (or give in to) one-sided decisions, or enforce thoughtless compliance. But a wise, democratic society knows that such approaches inevitably overlook important factors and result in poor decisions. A public rush to judgment is comparable to an individual jumping to conclusions. In the long run, it only makes things worse.
So a major activity of a democratic community is developing the skills, procedures, and attitudes needed for people to jointly create with their diversity. As more people become artists with these democratic tools, the community's thinking becomes more wise, their collective behavior more intelligent and successful.
In this process, communities leave domination and fragmentation (alienated individualism) behind. Those dysfunctional approaches arise from a false dichotomy between the individual and the group. In fact, individuality and community are two facets of the same thing - our alive humanity. Individuals and communities can only be whole and healthy when they nurture each other. This is the lesson of deep democracy.
Through building creative partnerships among empowered, deeply unique individuals and groups, deep democracy enables real community wisdom to emerge. Peace, justice and fruitful, sustainable lives are natural concomitants of this process.
Just as a healthy body contains a deep wisdom that enables it to heal itself and to go about its daily business with energy and intelligence, so does a deeply democratic society resonate with the creative, healing wisdom of the body politic.
A note on leadership and governance:
Good leadership is not a matter of getting everyone to follow you. Good leadership is helping the group or community make the best out of each individual's contribution. A good leader organizes or catalyzes a partnership of thought and action that cultivates and harvests each member's unique contribution for collective understanding and success. The best leaders are like the best teachers and parents: They enable their groups to independently nurture and utilize their wisdom and resources.
Thus we find, as Rajesh Tandon, Coordinator of India's Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), says: "The appropriate role of the state is to create enabling conditions for civil society to manage the public affairs of the community." (Tranet #77, 7/92)
Tom Atlee is president of the Co-Intelligence Institute and author of The Tao of Democracy and many articles (co-intelligence.org). He researches, writes, and speaks about co-intelligence, wholeness, positive social visions, wise democracy, and the possibilities for conscious evolution of social systems.