Why Democracy Cafe? Why now, more than ever?
Here is an interview with our founder Christopher Phillips on why Democracy Cafe — known far and wide for its flagship Socrates Cafe and other burgeoning inquiry initiatives — is more vital than ever if open societies are to have a long and flourishing shelf life, and closed societies are going to have a prayer of a chance of opening up.
As Christopher has been stressing since he began these inclusive inquiry initiatives in 1996, at a time of great polarization, inclusive participatory societies thrive on face to face give-and-takes — democratizing — in which everyone matters and counts and has a genuine chance of being heeded and heard in the civic sphere, in which equal consideration is given to a bracing variety of perspectives, in which every interlocutor has a chance to reveal her unique expertise and stores of wisdom.
So we’ve established hundreds of such inquiry groups, not just all throughout the U.S., but the world over — from Australia to Syria, Poland to Japan, in supremely open and consummately closed societies that have individuals who aspire for democratic individuals and with whom our mission resonates.
As we come to recognize and appreciate that we all, each and every one of us, at every age and state and station, have unique expertise, stores of wisdom, we do away with those pernicious forms of pretentiousness, elitist expertise, that can creates stilted hierarchies and bring down the curtain on democratizing — which is all about embracing and considering differing stances, perspectives and approaches, without anyone or one approach having a monopoly on ‘the truth’ — and democracies (just ask the Greeks of old, they’d tell you, if they could, that this is h triggered their demise).
What do we at Democracy Cafe do really well, and that sets us apart?
We inquire. Into questions as timeless as they are timely and pertinent to one and all. And we utilize a tried and true method of inquiry — the Socrates Cafe method — that has a heart-shaped ethos of egalitarian exploration.
We promote and model ‘thinking in colors’ — in the questions we frame to explore, and the way we go about answering them. For instance: We don’t ask, which is more important in a democracy, security or safety? Rather, we ask: What kinds of safety and security enhance an open society, and what kinds can bring down the curtain? Nor do we ask yes and no, black and white questions that lead to simplistic answer (and argument ad nauseum) — questions like: Is it okay to lie? But rather, we’ll explore: When is honesty is the best policy, and when are there exceptions to this?
We don’t argue, we don’t debate, we don’t seek to persuade others. Instead, we explore, interrogate, investigate — and seek to persuade ourselves (that’s right, we focus on supporting our views via ‘self-persuasion,’ rather than patronizing proselytizing and sermonizing). In doing so, we become more connected to others — including if not especially those who look at the world quite differently than we do — more bonded to ourselves, to our universe.
We tap into, early and often, our childlike but by no means childish questioning nature, so we can ‘child’ at every age and stage.
Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, takes part as equals. Everyone. That’s what true ‘democratizing’ is all about. So, whether you are 5 or 95, whether you have multiple PhDs or have never set foot in the hallowed halls, each of you has a wealth of experiences and beautiful stores of wisdom to share from which the rest of us can benefit and become potentially transformed
We listen to one another with all our being, with all our heart and mind. Because what the world needs now is a world of heartfelt, empathetic listeners.
And in doing so, we transform our inner and outer worlds, which are interlaced in every way.
And we are inspired to act in the world with a greater sense of autonomy and keener social conscience (the two are not at opposite ends of the continuum, but are entwined in every way).
We are genuinely inclusive. We don’t just tolerate but embrace the equal consideration of a plurality of perspectives. And we have no political agenda except to create more open societies in which we all give equal consideration and scrutiny to a bracing variety of points of view — with the aim of evolving who we are and who we can be, on individual, local, national and global scales.
We don’t force artificial consensus, we don’t force thoughtfulness or reasonableness or civility down people’s throats — rather, these are both a natural outcome of the kinds of inquiries we promote, and of the ethos that is entwined with them, and such qualities are embedded within the explorations themselves.
And what are the takeaways for you personally, as an organizer and/or participant?
You learn to listen better – heaven knows, what the world needs now are more adept and astute listeners.
You learn to more concisely and discursively formulate your opinions.
You gain more chutzpah in sharing your convictions — and how you arrived at them — with diverse others who are invited to scrutinize them (and you are invited and encouraged to do the same when they proffer theirs).
You feel more connected — to yourself, to your fellow actual and aspiring citizens, to society on local and regional, national and global scales.
Launched over twenty years ago by our founder Christopher Phillips, during the impeachment proceedings of then-President Bill Clinton, Socrates Café and its kindred initiatives is an oasis of reasonableness, empathy, understanding, in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization around the world.
From Montana to Mumbai, Portland to Tokyo, Sydney to the Twin Cities, hundreds of groups now convene far and wide in public places and spaces, including cyberspace, but also in bricks and mortar locales like schools, churches, community centers, nursing homes, prisons, shelters for homeless families, libraries. Oh, and we have a popular Socrates Cafe podcast, so be sure to check it out. And Chris and company blog pretty regularly on a number of places: here, here, and here (and sometimes here, and we also have Facebook pages here, here, here, and here — not to mention a YouTube channel.
Those who take part in Socrates Cafés — and Philosophers’ Club for kids (here’s a version in Spanish) — share the sensibility of the fifth century BC philosopher Socrates that continual close encounters with others of a philosophical kind, engaging in impassioned yet thoughtful exchanges of ideas and ideals, is a portal to sculpting what the Greeks of old called Arête —all-around excellence, of a sort that is an individual and collective pursuit rolled into one.
We don’t believe ‘civil discourse’ is enough. Heck, almost anyone can ‘behave’ for short bursts of time as they discuss ‘hot topics’. We reject the model of rhetoric, argument, debate, persuasion, and instead embrace the model of rigorous methodical inquiry that can lead to the novel and unfamiliar, forging bonds of connectedness because of the inquiry itself.
What the world needs now are kinds of inquiries — inquiries the Socrates Cafe way — that encourage and cultivate reasonableness, thoughtfulness, imaginativeness, empathy. And in ways that connect all of us, that tease out all of our stores of wisdom, and celebrate them, at every age and stage of life — in ways that lead to greater self discovery, and discovery of novel possibilities for who we might become, on individual and more global scales.
As motley people break philosophical bread together on a regular basis, close connections are often forged among the strangest bedfellows. If you were a fly on the wall at one of these gatherings, you’d see that Socrates Café-goers in action are an inquisitive, open, curious, and playful bunch —childlike, in a word. Socrates Cafes embrace the central theme of Socratizing; the idea that we learn more when we question, and question — methodically, purposefully, inquisitively, imaginatively — with others. This is how we best ‘child‘ as individuals and as a society.
When Christopher Phillips began these groups in 1996, as impeachment proceedings were underway for then-President Bill Clinton, he did so after asking himself what he could do, at a time of great jadedness and polarization, that would in some modest way further the deeds of those noble souls who had come before him and, as William James put it, “suffered and laid down their lives” to better the lot of humankind? His epiphany was to be a philosopher in the mold of Socrates, and to inquire with anyone and everyone shared with him the aspiration of becoming more empathetic people and more critical and creative thinkers and doers.
Today, there are hundreds of ongoing gatherings around the globe coordinated by hundreds of dedicated volunteers who are deeply committed to making ours a more participatory and inclusive world. We encourage you to facilitate your own Socrates Café, click here for information on how to start one.
As one participant wrote:
“Thank you…thank you…thank you for all the time, energy and agonizing frustration you obviously overcame in creating a wonderful piece of liberating art…a life’s visa for those seeking freedom from the asylums of self-ignorance.”