— some thoughts for the Dissent Conversation
by vivian Hutchinson
June 2021 22 min read download as Masterclass PDF
A HEALTHY COMMUNITY is one that is safe for dissent. Not only is it safe, but dissent is welcomed as part of the process of fostering genuine engagement, commitment and creativity in all our community activities.
The choice of dissent as one of our main topics of community conversation provides us with an important re-framing of dissent as a community competency. The dissent we welcome here is understood and respected as a critical component in the art of community-building.
This dissent challenges us to re-examine our prevailing ideas about what makes up the health and strength of our communities. It is not necessarily found in unanimity. The cohesion of our communities may be only as good as the authenticity of our invitation to dissent.
You know that you are in a healthy community when there is a nay-sayer in the room and it is no problem whatsoever. This is because, in such a community, it is obviously safe for a diversity of opinions to be expressed.
The nay-sayer might not feel compatible with other people, and probably not comfortable to whatever status quo they are bringing into question. But the nay-sayer is not a disruption to our harmony.
The plain fact of it is this: harmony cannot happen if we are all singing the same note.
Dissent is the difference between cult and culture. A cult has an authoritarian mind-set that has already settled into its own form of “right” and “wrong” thinking. A dissenter within a cult can often face the threat of emotional or even physical consequences if they don’t tow the line.
But a culture is something different. It is a much messier and rowdy place. It doesn’t bury disagreements under a sentimental call for us to “just get along”. A healthy culture knows how to welcome the doubts and criticisms and questions and ongoing inquiries – because they are also the natural expressions of friendship, family and community.
The dissent is welcomed, because it is still part of the “We”.
Real dissent takes courage ... but so too does an authentic engagement with disagreement. This courage-on-both-sides is the basis of how we are able to live together and still agree to disagree.
This courage enables us to grow fierce friendships –where the act of saying “No” is greeted with the respect and curiosity that it deserves.
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I AM UNDER NO illusion that we are living within such a healthy culture. My experience as an active citizen has seen too many times when my dissent has been written off as trouble-making. My willingness to stand for a different point of view has too often been pushed to the margins, or has been aggressively met with some form of bullying.
Of course I would have preferred to see my own activism genuinely welcomed as an embrace of diversity, or as a contribution to creativity and solution-building in our communities. But we are not living or working in such a culture.
I have worked with many government departments, and political leaders, and local council bureaucrats, and I have often found that active citizenship was considered an unwelcome form of criticism. Our community action was seen as direct feedback on their competency as professionals, and their ability to manage our problems.
There have been many calls over the years for community groups to engage in better partnerships with government and local authorities. While these partnerships may have led to funding contracts and formal Memorandums of Understanding ... we still have a long way to go before we have a genuinely shared understanding about how to deal with dissent.
Yet, amidst all this, I would have to concede that the community and voluntary sector itself does not have a better track record of embracing disagreement.
I have been involved with many businesses, foundations, sports groups, spiritual associations, marae committees, political parties and pressure groups – and they all have come with plenty of examples of toxic power and control issues, and policies of “right” and “wrong” thinking.
In this sector – often known as “civil” society – I have experienced no less a culture of bullying and the uncivil silencing of dissent.
While this has often left me bruised and frustrated, it hasn’t made me cynical. Instead, it tells me that a real conversation about dissent is well overdue.
We’ve got to talk about it, and begin to learn the social skills and capacities for becoming fiercer friends with one another. Having the Dissent Conversation may prove to be critical in dealing with the major challenges of our time.
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ONE OF MY MENTORS on the subject of dissent was the former New Zealand Governor-General, Sir Paul Reeves (1932—2011). In the early days of his career, he served as the Vicar of Okato in coastal Taranaki. He was a long-time friend of Aunty Marj, and with his whakapapa links to the Puketapu hapu of Te Atiawa, he was the first Governor-General to be appointed of Māori descent.
Paul Reeves was a passionate advocate for the importance of common ground, and the need to grow trust between people so that dissent can breathe.
He saw common ground as not just a place where people are “nice” to one another – but were able to focus on the values and principles which underpin our mutual well-being.
The leadership task here is to grow this common ground because, without this space, our communities just polarise into tribes of “right” and “wrong” thinking.
The cultural anthropologist Dame Anne Salmond spoke about the importance of Sir Paul’s leadership in developing this common ground when she gave the first Reeves Memorial Lecture at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Auckland in 2012.
Her talk was entitled Beyond the Binary – Shifting New Zealand’s Mindset, and she called for our nation to move on from the “black and white” binary thinking that dominates so much of our public life.
Anne Salmond argued that, in this binary mind-set, our views are abstracted and purified of any qualities they might have in common, and are opposed to each other. When we think like this, we cancel out the possibilities of a middle ground.
She proposed that the logic behind the middle ground is neither utopian nor sentimental. Instead, it is a logic that affirms that life is about negotiation and exchange, and it recognises that such engagements often fail:
“ Genuine differences do exist between Maori and Pakeha, men and women, Left and Right - but so do networks of interlocking relations, shared values and mutual dependency. Rather than excluding the middle ground, the challenge is to get the networks of relations across it working in ways that are mutually positive and creative, not hostile and destructive. This, I think, is the task that Sir Paul set himself, and why his life mattered so much to us all." – Dame Anne Salmond
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AS A COMMUNITY ACTIVIST, I have learned that there is a subtle yet important distinction between the concepts of the middle ground, and the common ground. They are both critical tools to have in dealing with conflicts and disagreements, but they differ in the depth of their long-term impact.
The middle ground is often where politicians and mediators try to settle disputes by forging a compromise. When a middle ground negotiation is done well, it is usually something that everyone can live with. The settlement might lead to a pragmatic and an immediate resolution of a disagreement, but it may not stand the test of time.
The problem with the middle ground is that it often involves the sort of deal-making that addresses the symptoms of a conflict, rather than the underlying causes. This deal-making is still embedded in the same binary thinking that Anne Salmond was addressing in her lecture. It is the place for bi-partisan bargaining. It is the transactional space between this position, and that.
Finding common ground is different because it is not focused on winning or losing, or creating a “deal”. It is about stepping out of this oppositional thinking and choosing to discover the places where we have common purpose. It is the place where we seek to resolve problems by focusing on the values and principles that different parties bring to a conflict.
Finding common ground involves growing a level of trust that enables the stories of those values and principles to be shared and heard. It tries to build connections at the living level of culture. It is usually a much slower process, and for some communities, it might even involve the work of generations.
Common ground is made possible by a genuine curiosity about the things we share, and where we agree. It starts with these connections, and then builds bridges. And it is also a place where completely fresh solutions can emerge – solutions which many of the “usual suspects” may not have thought of yet.
Imagine two circles that overlap. The area they share is the common ground, and the place where we can build our connections and bridges. The non-overlapping areas are where our differences reside, and our disagreements are hatched.
We can choose to focus on these disagreements and use them as wedge issues to reinforce our separate identities and drive the circles further apart. But if we really do want to live together, then we need to focus on the values and principles that we share.
Conversation is one of the main tools for finding this common ground. For the active citizen, these conversations are warrior work – not a warrior in terms of combat and violence, or winning and losing – but a warrior in terms of the courage and bravery, the skill, the teamwork and the persistence needed to change our usual ways of talking and thinking together.
The conversation we need is not about making an argument, or closing a deal. The point of the conversation is not even about saying something, or being heard.
The origin of the word “conversation” does not mention speaking or listening. The word comes from Latin roots that mean “an act of living with or keeping company with.”
In this context, the point of a common ground conversation is to develop a connection. The conversation itself is the creative act of figuring out where our circles overlap.
PAUL REEVES WAS a supporter of my work in the 1990s with The Jobs Research Trust and The Jobs Letter. He also encouraged our network of community employment trusts to get involved with the Anglican-led Hikoi for Hope in 1998.
This was a time when many elements of New Zealand’s social and community services were starting to find themselves at breaking point. The neo-liberal revolution after 1984 had taken over the policies of both our main political parties. The consequence was that the incomes for the richest New Zealanders doubled, while the incomes of the poorest barely rose at all.
Policy changes meant that welfare benefits to the poorest New Zealanders were cut in 1991, Housing New Zealand tenants were forced onto market-based rentals, and a new Employment Contracts Act led to an increasing casualisation of the national workforce. In this precarious climate, more and more New Zealanders found themselves struggling to make ends meet.
The Anglican Church decided to focus their concerns about this by staging the Hikoi of Hope in the Spring of 1998. It was a call for a national conversation on the basic issues now polarising our communities: how to address poverty, create real jobs, build affordable housing, organise a health system we can trust, and guarantee access to education.
The month-long Hikoi had teams marching on Parliament from Cape Reinga at the top of the country and from Stewart Island in the South. It is estimated that over 80,000 people joined the protest at sometime during the month. Each evening when the Hikoi stopped, public meetings were held so that local people could share their stories on the social and economic concerns of their own communities.
At Parliament Grounds, over 10,000 people gathered for the final day of the Hikoi, making it one of the largest gatherings ever held at Parliament. The marchers were greeted with a karanga from Aunty Marj who welcomed the protestors onto what she considered to be the marae of Parliament Grounds.
It was both surprising and troubling to see Sir Paul Reeves, our former Governor-General, standing on the back of a truck as he invited the crowd to join him in chanting, “Enough is Enough!”
BUT IN THE TWENTY or so years since that national protest, we have learned that “Enough” has not proven anywhere near enough. The gap between rich and poor has not been fundamentally challenged by either Labour-led or National-led governments, and the deterioration in our economic and social landscape has basically become the “new normal” of New Zealand life.
It has also become much more of a struggle to get ordinary citizens involved in thinking and working together on the basic issues of well-being within a decent society.
Incivility itself has become a strategy of political advancement, while continuing to feed the oppositional appetites of the mainstream media.
This binary mind-set has been amplified by the new and more personal social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The new media has ironically become a commodification and parody of both “friendship” and “community”.
The algorithms that drive the attention economy behind their “news-feeds” cleverly reflect and reinforce our existing personal, family and affiliation networks and the information filters that come with them.
The impact of these supposedly “connecting” technologies is that there is less diversity in the voices we are hearing — and consequently, less common ground from which we can address our complex issues.
This is a mindscape that ends up brewing a very toxic mix of both isolation and fundamentalism. The same coarseness and indecency that we are quick to point out and reject in many political leaders is a perfect reflection of the lack of empathy that is being deliberately fostered and fermented within our own thinking.
SO MANY OF OUR CURRENT community and national issues just feel too big, too complex, and too stuck to ever be effectively addressed by our political system.
It is a very real question of our planetary age: when faced with the big issues such as a global pandemic, the climate emergency, the collapse of eco-systems, unresolved questions of racial justice, and continued income inequality ... can a liberal democracy ever really undertake these challenges?
Is the current shape of our democracy fit for purpose? Or are we just destined to deteriorate into an authoritarian future that is incubated within the frustrations and desperations of political deadlock?
I don’t think so. I just think we haven’t been investing in one of our most under-appreciated resources: the common-sense and contribution of everyday citizens.
Nor have we been investing in bringing citizens into a useful dialogue on our most pressing issues – the very challenges we all share that are big, complex, and currently stuck.
One strategy for inviting this participation can be found in the concept of a Citizens Assembly, which is a gathering of ordinary people commissioned by the state to consider issues of national importance.
The Citizens Assembly is not made up of politically appointed experts, or representatives of sector groups. The membership is a random selection of strangers drawn from the electoral roll, and they are chosen in such a way that reflects the age, class, regional and ethnic differences of the nation.
It is an approach towards decision-making that dates back to the early Greeks who invented democracy in the sixth century BC. The Citizens Assembly is not a replacement for an elected House of Representatives, but it is a way that we can add a completely fresh voice to the conversations that our nation needs to be having. It is based on the notion that a deeper deliberation, and not just voting, should be the primary source of legitimacy for our laws and policies.
As the journalist and political adviser Sonia Sodha wrote in The Observer:
"What’s so attractive about Citizens Assemblies is that they enable people from different backgrounds and perspectives to find common ground. They undermine the patronising but fashionable idea we’ve become two cultural tribes who no longer know how to talk to each other. And in the right circumstances they can profoundly shift the national debate." – Sonia Sodha
In 2016, the Irish Government established a Citizens' Assembly (An Tionól Saoránach) as a strategy for deliberating on some of their most complex and polarising political questions – such as abortion, constitutional reform, issues arising from an ageing population, and climate change.
There were 99 people chosen as members of the Assembly, and their commitment was to attend the Assembly for one weekend meeting each month over a year. There was no payment for their participation, although travel expenses were reimbursed.
The Citizens Assembly met at a Dublin hotel, and listened to expert presentations, and to the stories of people impacted by the problems. They had debates and roundtable discussions, and convened plenary sessions. These meetings were all livestreamed on the internet. Finally, they compiled a report of conclusions, and voted on their recommendations.
At the beginning of 2018, the Assembly stunned the Irish nation by proposing a series of exceptionally liberal changes to the abortion regime. The Government was expected to bow under political pressure and water down the proposals ... but instead, the politicians (including some prominent socially conservative figures) produced a response that was broadly in line with the Assembly.
This profound national turn-around on the abortion issue followed an earlier Citizens Assembly which was part of the Irish Constitutional Convention. These deliberations had led directly to a transformative Irish referendum on same-sex marriage.
As Brett Henning, the co-founder of the Sortition Foundation, observed:
"Both Assemblies opened up the political space for dramatic change – and, interestingly, politicians happily stepped into those spaces, basking in the legitimacy for their stance provided by these Assemblies populated by ‘everyday people’." – Brett Henning
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OTHER COUNTRIES have been recently exploring establishing their own Citizens Assemblies, with interesting initiatives in Spain, Belgium, Japan and Canada.
A Citizens’ Assembly in Scotland has proposed the idea of establishing a permanent assembly at the Scottish Parliament. This would be a “second chamber” for the consideration of legislation and review of government initiatives. Advocates say that this “House of Citizens” would represent a “shining example of trust in our communities” when compared to a fully-appointed House of Lords.
A New Zealand version of these Assemblies could lead to a fresh national conversation on the challenges most affecting our nation. It could prove to be a useful way to break the partisan gridlock created by funders and advisors and vested interest groups who have successfully captured so much of our everyday political process.
Imagine a national conference centre, like the one at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, turned over to a Citizens Assembly for one weekend in every month. The proceedings could be broadcast live on TV and the internet in the same way that we now follow the debates in Parliament.
And if it was to be held at Te Papa, these conversations could be informed by the taonga and artefacts and artworks that we have preserved from our past, and can speak to us of our connections and our best intentions for the future.
Imagine the marae, on the top floor of that Wellington waterfront building, becoming the national common ground upon which a Citizens Assembly can have its more courageous conversations.
Such an Assembly might also forge and demonstrate a more healthy culture where the Dissent Conversation is made welcome. Our disagreements would not be there to ignite the political polarisation around an issue, or to sell newspapers, or to feed the click-bait, or signal virtues to a tribalised electorate.
Instead, our dissent would be more deeply called onto the marae of our common ground. And this could be the beginning of us thinking together and discovering where we might possibly agree on the things we need to do.
Notes and Links
vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012). He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.
First published online in June 2021
This paper Fierce Friendship is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca
Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide
The Hon Rt Rev Sir Paul Alfred Reeves, ONZ, GCMG, GCVO, CF, QSO (1932 - 2011) was Archbishop and Primate of New Zealand from 1980 to 1985 and the Governor-General of New Zealand from 1985 to 1990. For more, listen to Paul Reeves interviewed on Ideas National Radio 8th May 2011 at www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ideas/20110508
“Beyond the Binary - Shifting New Zealand’s Mindset” by Dame Anne Salmond, the first Bishop Sir Paul Reeves Memorial Lecture 2012, delivered at the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Parnell, Auckland on Friday 17th August 2012. A video of this presentation is at vimeo.com/49300122. The Radio New Zealand Reeves Lecture page is at www.radionz.co.nz/national/lecturesandforums/reeves
imagining of this as two circles ... thanks to ideas by David Maxfield in his 2012 article “Finding Common Ground When You Know You're Right” at www.vitalsmarts.com/crucialskills/2012/12/finding-common-ground-when-you-know-youre-right/
the origin of the word “conversation” is from 1300AD Anglo-French conversacion, from Latin conversatio, from conversari to associate with, society, intercourse, (Miriam-Webster and dictionary.com)
The Jobs Letter was produced every 2-3 weeks from 1994-2006 by The Jobs Research Trust. It was edited by vivian Hutchinson and Dave Owens, and offered “essential information on an essential issue”, covering the areas of unemployment, job creation, the future of work and related education and economic concerns. All back issues of The Jobs Letter are archived online at www.jobsletter.org.nz
The Jobs Letter was also one of the first community sector websites to be established in New Zealand (before the advent of social media technologies). For this work, the Jobs Research Trust was awarded the Premier prize in the Internet category of the 1999 Media Peace Awards, organised by The New Zealand Peace Foundation.
The 1998 Hikoi of Hope .... for more on the march and its five planks see www.jobsletter.org.nz/jbl08500.htm; also interview with Stephanie McIntyre by Steven Robinson Jan/Feb 1999 in Share International tinyurl.com/3hzayrb
vivian Hutchinson on the Hikoi of Hope ... see “Walking for Change” speech given at Parawhenua Marae, Northland on 2nd September 1998 at tinyurl.com/8345162
Photopage: Hikoi of Hope — HIKOI OF HOPE 1998 — (top) David Williams, Dave Owens and vivian Hutchinson at the start of the Hikoi of Hope at Cape Reinga, in the Far North. (middle above ) Hikoi marchers in Whangarei, Northland and New Plymouth, Taranaki, Anglican bishops leading marchers into Parliament Grounds. photographs by vivian Hutchinson (middle below) Hikoi marchers being greeted by Sir Paul Reeves outside the Beehive building, and Aunty Marj welcoming marchers onto Parliament Grounds. photographs TVNZ (bottom) Hikoi of Hope marchers at Parliament 1st October 1998.
Photopage: Peace — 2016 PEACE WALK TO PARIHAKA — A 3-day Taranaki anti-racism hikoi from the New Plymouth District Council to Parihaka Pa, led by New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd. (top) Peace hikoi on way to Parihaka with Mounga Taranaki. photograph by Glenn Jeffrey. (top middle) Walkers on way to Parihaka, Parihaka roadsign. photographs by Taranaki Daily News (middle left) front page of Taranaki Daily News Saturday 18 June 2016 (middle right) Community Conversations held at town halls during the hikoi run by Community Taranaki. photographs by vivian Hutchinson (lower middle) Race Relations commissioner Dame Susan Devoy greets Wharehoka Wano during the powhiri Parihaka. photo Andy Jackson / Taranaki Daily News (lower middle right) Peace hikoi organiser Glen Bennett (bottom) Peace hikoi arrives at Parihaka Pa, led by children. Friday 17th June 2016 photograph RNZ / Robin Martin.
Photopage: Waitara — PEACE FOR PEKAPEKA / WAITARA LAND RIGHTS 2016-2018 — (top left) Pekapeka stake in ground, next to the Carrington surveyor statue, outside New Plymouth Courthouse 2016. photograph by vivian Hutchinson (top left) Return the Stolen Land Billboard with Taranaki Troubles graphics courtesy of Cliff Whiting (top middle) Peace for Pekapeka hikoi from Te Kohia Pā to Owae Marae photographs (left) by Jane Dove Juneau and (right) Taranaki Daily News (middle and bottom) Submissions to the Māori Affairs Select Committee Waitara Lands Bill hearings at Novotel Hotel, New Plymouth, and at Owae Marae, Waitara photographs by RNZ / Robin Martin and Taranaki Daily News (bottom left) Watching the Seabirds at Waitara paper by vivian Hutchinson, July 2016.
The Citizens Assembly ... see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizens%27_assembly
“How can we break the Brexit deadlock? Ask ancient Athens” by James Bridle, The Guardian 25 December 2018 www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/25/break-brexit-deadlock-ancient-athens-sortition
“A Citizens Assembly can sort Brexit mess” by Sonia Sodha The Observer 3 March 2018 www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/mar/03/brexit-citizensassembly-compromise
BBC Radio 4 Programme on Deliberative democracy by Sonia Sodha 10 March 2019 www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0002z9g
The Sortition Foundation campaigns for a world free from partisan politicking, “... where representative random samples of everyday people make decisions in informed and deliberative Citizens Assemblies.” www.sortitionfoundation.org
“How 99 strangers in a Dublin hotel broke Ireland's abortion deadlock” by Patrick Chalmers, The Guardian 8th March 2018 www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/08/how-99-strangers-in-a-dublin-hotel-broke-irelands-abortion-deadlock
Doing Politics Differently Report of the Citizens Assembly of Scotland (2020) https://citizensassembly.theapsgroup.scot/report/
“Revealed: Support for 'House of Citizens' second chamber at Holyrood to keep MSPs in check” by Scott Macnab, The Scotsman, 12th December 2020 www.scotsman.com/news/politics/revealed-support-house-citizens-second-chamber-holyrood-keep-msps-check-3065227
ISBN 978-1-92-717638-2 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en