Posted by: Gwyneth Llewelyn | May 29, 2010

The Thin Line

Gwyn Reporter

This term, the CSDF has put on its manifesto one item that surprisingly never was really needed: the open discussion about freedom of expression in the CDS, and the need for independent (e.g. not Government-sponsored or -controlled) media.

You might recall that our Constitution automatically guarantees freedom of expression through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19). What this mostly means is that we don’t need “special” laws to guarantee that right; we automatically have it. Freedom of expression doesn’t automatically mean that one has the “right” to be heard or to make their opinions heard, and that others are “forced” to listen to what you say; it just means rather the reverse: nobody can prevent you from emitting opinions.

To make sure that this right is effectively guaranteed and used, the CDS has a lot of public places where people can assemble and discuss anything they wish. And, of course, we also have the forums, which are read by half the population. The forums are a service provided by Government to its citizens, and they’re moderated by the Scientific Council. They’re the closest thing we have to “public mass-media”: a fully open discussion place, where anyone can present their opinions and discuss them.

The nature of forums means that some bickering and drama are inevitable — and that’s a huge reason why so many avoid the CDS forums. In these days of political correctness in all our actions and words, the CDS is not exempt from the trend, and several express the idea (usually outside the forums…) that we ought to be more polite and less aggressive in the way we post on the forums… because, of course, respecting others and refraining from personal attacks are part of the forum guidelines as well.

This leads to some unexpected results. Some public officials refuse to openly discuss questions asked on the forums, because they feel (probably correctly so!) that these are not the appropriate venue to make public statements about delicate issues. But this is a two-pronged approach. On one hand, one has to admit that some things shouldn’t be endlessly dragged into the mud, “just for the sake of freedom of speech”. On the other hand, how can we deal with the plain refusal of public officers to discuss anything openly in the forums? Remember, we cannot force anyone to use the forums (or any other medium) to discuss what they don’t want to discuss… that’s not how it works. We can certainly make demands — and expect people to take them at political value — but not force anyone.

And finally, there is the issue of “backbenching”. Backbenching (or lobbying, if you prefer) is part of any political discussion: it means trying to settle on compromises in private discussions first, and present an uniform opinion to the public, subscribed by several people, reaching a consensus. These are also quite important for a smoothly-running democracy. It’s actually quite often that the real work at the RA (or other Government bodies) is done in private first, trying to reach a consensus, and only then discussed publicly, when the issue has already been made more “palatable” to all members who will vote upon it. Sometimes the consensus is reached publicly on the forums. Often it comes from less formal meetings, like the Town Hall meetings, or Stui’s Office Hours. Sometimes the RA just pushes the discussion into committees which will try to reach an agreement before something is actually voted upon. All these less formal meetings are great to get a smaller group to discuss things and reach a conclusion about which everybody is happy.

But sometimes this mechanism gets abused. Instead of openly discussing some fundamental issues, because of the potential drama, these are discussed hidden from the public, settled well in advance, and the issue is presented as a fait accompli — “you’ll have to agree with this, it’s something discussed by some of us, and we already have reached the best possible conclusion”. Questions about how it was discussed, and who participated in the discussion, are felt to be rude, or simply a way to “stall” the decisions.

And often people feel that things are “written in stone”: once a decision was made, under particular circumstances, it is expected that it doesn’t change again. Well, circumstances change all the time. People change. The CDS changes. SL changes. RL changes. So much changes, in fact, and change is constant, that it feels awkward not to be “allowed” (in the sense of politeness) to re-discuss something that had been discussed in the past again. The ability to question past decisions and do better next time is also fundamental for a good, smoothly-running democracy.

So we walk a thin line here. We have to keep a balance between politeness and drama. We need to have a balance between how much is discussed in public (always better, even if does take longer) or in private (which might speed up the process and gather a quick consensus). We need to know what to expect of public officers of Government: how open should they be with their knowledge? How much should they be expected to reveal? And we also have to trade-off the right to constantly discuss and re-analyse old issues with the endless time it takes to discuss them.

Finally, in our democracy, private initiative is more important than Government-sponsored initiatives. We should not forget that we don’t work to keep the Government happy: it’s the Government that works to keep us all happy. This means that even if having public forums and formal or informal Government-sponsored meetings are good steps ahead, we should be careful not to have everything placed in the hands of Government, no matter how benign it seems, or how positively we feel towards their current membership. We need to make sure that the Government does not “control” all media and all opportunities for citizens to discuss, specially when extreme opinions are being vented. Other arrangements are certainly possible, and the CSDF’s members elected for the 13th term are launching a few initiatives — private ones — in order to address some of the limitations we have with the current media where citizens express their freedom of opinion. We hope that at least some of them make sense and enrich our community by giving them more choices.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gwyneth Llewelyn, Wizard Gynoid. Wizard Gynoid said: How come I've never heard of the CDS (Confederation of Democratic Simulators)? […]

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