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Democracy: The process of holding tensions and polarities

Giovanni Sgobaro
October, 2018

Defining democracy

If you look up the definition of democracy, the first meaning that inevitably pops up is that of citizens exercising power through voting. This language refers to governance structures, whether at a national level or in an organization, and to a particular mode of exercising agency and participating in society. Some definitions go so far as to speak of a social state in which we all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege. [1]

A quick glance at history reminds us that this latter, aspirational meaning is not the case. We live in a world riddled by difference. These differences show up in racism, sexism, and numerous other “isms.” Hierarchies continue to exist in societies and in organizations, even in educational systems, where schools still practice tracking and ranking systems.

Living in a democratic society

The election cycle that takes place every four to five years, depending on the country, does not provide the optimal experience of democracy. As early as 1991-92 in South Africa, with the facilitation of the Mont Fleur Scenarios, colleagues from Reos Partners have had numerous opportunities to delve deeply into the institution of democracy. I was struck by a quote from a recent scenarios process around the future of democracy in Latin America: “In Latin America, the presence or absence of democracy is not abstract; it is something we feel every day on our skin.” [2] The meaning and practice of democracy influences people’s daily lives, and yet we seldom spend time exploring what it means to live in a democratic society or looking at all aspects of the system we have created over time.

Bringing democracy alive in our day-to-day experiences

“Complex systems have memory, not located at a specific place, but distributed throughout the system. Any complex system thus has a history, and the history is of cardinal importance to the behaviour of the system” —Paul Cilliers

If we consider the interconnected nature of systems and the different elements that come together to create democracies, a series of questions emerge:

  • How do we ensure we are creating a well-rounded experience of democracy for all?
  • Which sub-systems within the larger whole are being ignored?
  • Which experiences are being negated?

Another set of questions focus on the idea of entrenched memory:

  • How does the shared memory of democracy influence its practice today?
  • How is the current system recycling patterns that are at odds with a democratic experience?
  • Based on the marred history of inequality and entrenched power dynamics in many societies, what does a revitalized concept of democracy require us to change in our culture and how do we make the needed shifts?

The need to build new structures and systems raises other questions, including:

  • How much does the need for stability ensure that power structures and power dynamics stay the same?
  • How do we manage the process of change?
  • What needs and fears will people carry with them based on different memories of the existing system?

Reimagining democracy

“Working through conflict can bring about a better peace, one that honors difference. Such work makes you believe that community change is possible. Facilitating this awesome community process is everyone’s job. It’s a privilege just to try. It can be scary, but also a deep joy.” —Arnold Mindell

Whatever country we live in, democracy affects how we are in relationship with each other. For this reason, we need to pay attention to the quality of interactions and to the multiple perspectives in the system. We must work with and dive into the tensions and polarities that inevitably emerge.

At Reos Partners, we are constantly called on to mobilize people around societal challenges. With the growing disquiet in today’s world, we are also being asked to support partnerships across government, civil society, business, and communities between groups that are increasingly diverse in terms of class, race, sexuality, culture, and other factors. Often when we come together across these differences, a certain amount of unpredictability is at play. This lack of certainty contributes to fear and anxiety, which may exacerbate the polarization and make it more difficult for groups to explore the issue at hand.

To address this challenge, we use methods that allow people’s default positions to emerge, including traditionalists, bridge-builders, and leapers.

Traditionalists typically hold culture and history of how things have always been and are sometimes suspicious of change, whilst leapers are enthusiastic about change and usually are the early adopters in a system, bridge-builders hold change processes at arm’s length and like to observe and ask questions, once on-board they can make it easier for others to follow.

None of these different orientations is better than the other, however the characteristics of the group we are working with may influence our approach to change and learning. For example, in working on several projects related to equity and climate, we have adopted new ways of working with others to explore the root causes of challenges, take time to reflect, and courageously explore new approaches. Along the way, we are learning:

a) With balancing the inherent memory of systems with the capacity to envision alternative ways, systems can function through informed creativity;

b) It is necessary to decrease learning anxiety by designing processes that are engaging, personal, meaningful, and fun;

c) Ultimately, surfacing and holding the many possible tensions and polarities that are inherent in any social system allows us to see the multiple facets of the system and is the source of progress.

Given the many challenges involved in partnering in this way, perhaps we need to update the dictionary definition of democracy to embrace building bridges; holding tensions, polarities, and competing interests; and honoring difference and lived experiences in service of creating a society in which we can all dream and thrive.


[1]: Simpson, J. A., & E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Oxford University Press, 1989.

[2]: Mille Bøjer. “Transformative Scenarios Process: How stories of the future help to transform conflict in the present.” Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation, Online Edition. Berlin: Berghof Foundation. < de/publikationen/publikation/TransformativeScenariosProcess/>. First launch 10/08/2018.


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