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The Role of Dialogue in Democracy, Inclusion and Community

with Ceasar McDowell, professor of the Practice of Civic Design at MIT

Living Buddhism: Thank you for speaking with us, Ceasar. Can you share about the work that you do?

Ceasar McDowell: Thank you for having me. One of the challenges we are facing in this country is that we are now living among the most demographically complex set of people who have ever lived together. As society becomes more demographically complex, it is also becoming more fractured and conflict-ridden.

Much of my work has been around helping others understand that marginalized communities hold important knowledge that will help in building more equitable societies. The question is how do we create the spaces for dialogues to happen to build these kinds of communities? The reality is that we have neither the infrastructure nor processes that can support the kinds of dialogues that need to take place for a true democracy to work.

What is your definition of democracy?

Ceasar: Democracy exists when people who are interdependent struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them in order to realize a future that is an equitable improvement of the past. What is important about that is we need to be willing to engage with those different than us and put ourselves in the struggle around examining our own traditions and interests. I believe we have a hard time doing that.

This is in line with Daisaku Ikeda’s philosophy of dialogue to bring humanity together. How did you encounter the works of Mr. Ikeda?

Ceasar: I was invited to a special community group where we discussed the works of Ikeda. What resonated with me the most was Ikeda’s belief in the generative nature of the human spirit. Whenever I read his works, I feel that peace is possible, and I learn about the generative nature of our spirit to tend to things in a loving and caring way. This can put us on a better path.

I’m working together with the Ikeda Center’s young leaders group on what I call the question campaign about America’s path forward. There are all kinds of things happening in our country. But my belief is that in all of these issues, young people are asking the same question: What is the future of this place, and what is my place in that future?

Through allowing people to share their varying experiences on the same topic, we can broaden the way that the public sees each other. The challenge with this country is that every public conversation is mediated by interest. There is hardly a space for conversations to be had that are not mediated by interests, so we are trying to create that space.

What do you think is the fundamental issue in people being unable to dialogue with each other and move forward together?

Ceasar: I think there are two kinds of conversations. There is one in which both parties want to be in the conversation. The other kind of conversation, in which both parties are not wanting to engage, calls into question how vulnerable one is willing to be even if that feeling is not reciprocated. The important thing to remember, though, is that the dialogue may still have an impact on someone even if they first reject it. Those dialogues create dissonance within an individual. Some individuals may need 100 interactions that create dissonance for them to move, but without that, nothing changes.

What should we keep in mind as we work toward creating a more just society?

Ceasar: We are all a work in progress. I think we also need to know that change takes time. Part of what we don’t know how to do very well is be in the space of transition. We have great ways of talking about what we can do, we have great ways of talking about what we are not doing, we have great ways of talking about action, but we have been challenged to talk about this space in transition where we are trying to create the future we want while upholding the thing that we are trying to change. We have to be able to do both of those things at the same time.

Our charge is to embrace the demographic complexity that is our new reality and make a commitment to build the infrastructure and processes that will support the public to “struggle with the traditions that bind them and the interests that separate them in order to realize a future that is an equitable improvement of the past.”

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