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Fostering dialogue amidst decline in public discourse civility, shrinking democratic space

By Sushant Kumar* 

The people of India, and indeed much of the world, are living through deeply troubling times, marked by rising inequality, and declining social cohesion. There is a considerable decline in the civility of our public discourse and trust in democratic institutions. All these things, when put together, constitute a grave threat to our collective national vision of realizing our constitutional values, and most of all to the idea of fraternity. As an engaged citizen deeply concerned about declining civility and increasing polarization, I have often pondered what I can do to address this pressing issue. To find an answer to this dilemma, I turned to Dialogues on Democracy & Development (DoD), which has been instrumental in fostering civil discourse and bringing people together for meaningful conversations around democracy in India for the last one year.

What can we do about it? - The Ineffectiveness of Social Media Venting:

“Ohh, have you seen how India has fared on the Freedom of Press index? It’s going rock bottom man!” said a frustrated friend. The next thing I see, he is putting this information on his Instagram story. Apart from his 2-3 hundred followers knowing this fact, what’s the impact it is going to have? Every day, I come across several such posts on social media which are nothing but people venting their frustration at the state of affairs, especially the youth. In the face of these challenges, it is crucial to acknowledge the limitations of venting frustration solely on social media platforms. While social media has provided a platform for voices to be heard, it often perpetuates echo chambers and reinforces preexisting beliefs. Venting frustration without engaging in constructive dialogue can further deepen divisions and hinder progress toward a more inclusive and cohesive society.
Studies have shown that excessive use of social media can contribute to increased polarization and a decreased willingness to engage in meaningful conversations with those holding opposing views. According to a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 64% of social media users in India reported witnessing hateful or abusive content on these platforms. Social media inhibits, most of the time, unproductive discourse and undermines efforts to bridge ideological gaps. That’s the reason I appeal to the youth - Participate in dialogue, Practice dialogue, & Propagate dialogue, outside the echo chambers of social media.

The Role of Dialogue:

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, DoD has championed the cause of fostering dialogue as a means to strengthen democracy in India. Dialogue provides a platform for individuals with diverse perspectives to come together, engage in respectful conversations, and bridge ideological gaps. By creating safe spaces for dialogue between people of different ideologies, DoD has encouraged citizens to move beyond echo chambers and engage in meaningful conversations with those who hold different viewpoints.
The latest report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) highlights the importance of inclusive and participatory processes for a healthy democracy. Dialogue fosters inclusivity by allowing marginalized voices to be heard and considered. Through dialogue, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of different perspectives, challenge their own biases, and work towards common goals.

Dialogues on Democracy & Development:

Working alongside Dr. Anjor Bhaskar has been a transformative experience for me. Together, we have had the opportunity to knock on the doors of government institutions, civil society organizations, universities, and colleges, fostering partnerships and collaborations. Within one year, we conducted nearly 20 workshops across several states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat. We also developed booklets that can act as resource material for those wishing to conduct similar workshops. We have also been engaged with developing curricula and training modules for social audit and accountability teams in NIRD and other training institutions, which also feeds into our larger interest in policy implementation, and in democracy and development.
Through our work, we have brought together individuals from all walks of life, facilitating conversations that transcend divisive boundaries. As a student of education, this has given me the opportunity to apply learnings from my classroom into practice. During my course in MA Education, I learnt theories about learning, pedagogy and assessment. All of these have been helpful in developing content for the workshops as well as in contributing to curriculum development for various institutions and training programmes.
It has been a rewarding and inspiring experience to witness the power of dialogue. We have seen individuals, initially at odds with each other, come together, listen empathetically, and find common ground. These dialogues have helped break down stereotypes, dispel misconceptions, and foster mutual respect. By nurturing dialogue, we have been able to create an environment where individuals can engage in constructive debates on key developmental issues and challenges while upholding the principles of democracy.

Conclusion:

The declining civility in our discourse and the increasing polarization in India pose significant challenges to our democracy. However, taking action through initiatives like DoD can make a profound difference. The V-Dem report's data on the decline of liberal aspects of democracy and social cohesion globally underscores the urgency of the situation. Venting frustrations on social media alone is not effective and may perpetuate divisions. It is through open and respectful conversations, as promoted by Dialogues on Democracy & Development (DoD), that we can ensure the preservation and strengthening of India's democratic values for future generations.

References:

  1. Sunstein, C. R. (2017). #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. Princeton University Press.
  2. Barberá, P. (2015). Birds of the Same Feather Tweet Together: Bayesian Ideal Point Estimation Using Twitter Data. Political Analysis, 23(1), 76-91.
  3. Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2016). Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(S1), 298-320.
  4. "The Role of Social Media in Polarized Politics: Evidence from the United States" by Bakshy et al. (2015)
  5. "The Spread of True and False News Online" by Vosoughi et al. (2018)
  6. "Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Campaign" by Guess et al. (2018)
---
Co-founder, Dialogues on Democracy and Development

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