I had a piece in the Irish Times last week on the We The Citizens group. It is reproduced below. There are a couple of things I would have addressed had I had the time and the presence of mind.
First, I would have addressed the question of who precisely is included in the category of citizen.
I don’t know if We The Citizens, in conducting its assemblies, had stipulated anywhere that you had to fit some sort of citizenship criteria (whether Irish, EU or otherwise) in order to participate. They may well have left the criteria open. Nonetheless there is a problem, as a couple of people pointed out, that the term citizen is exclusionary, and therefore by using citizen as a political name you are actually excluding from participation people who do not fall under the statist definition of citizen. As a result, for me to write as ‘a citizen’ meant an implicit acceptance of these parameters.
I don’t think the use of citizen as a political name has to entail excluding anyone from participation, but if you are going to use it then you should make expressly clear, which I didn’t do, that it excludes no-one. I suppose my use of it is influenced by Rancière’s notion of what constitutes democratic movement ‘a double movement of the transgression of limits: a movement to extend the equality of public man to other domains of common life, in particular all those that govern the capitalist illimitation of wealth; and also a movement to affirm the belonging of everyone and anyone to this incessantly privatized public sphere’. But then again, whether or not ‘citizen’ is effective in this way depends on how, when and where you use it.
The other thing would have been to address what the WTC research actually suggests. One thing I thought interesting was how people’s opinions on particular political issues (albeit refined and presented in advance by expert facilitators) could change substantially on account of deliberative experience within a short period of time. Whatever one might say about the scope and the function of WTC, this is a useful piece of information. It shows that the opinions currently believed to be held by members of the public are by no means the opinions they would hold if they had the chance to develop them through sustained contact with proper information.
This means there are serious questions to be posed here in terms of media influence and how people’s conception of politics, and of political problems, are shaped by their representation in the media. Even the treatment of We The Citizens can be used here as an example. Even though, as I say in the article, its media profile was strikingly high, this did not mean an uncritical acceptance.
For example, on the We The Citizens Prime Time special, the whole question of citizen discontent and participation was introduced with a series of library images of unrest in the streets, thereby presenting citizens who do not feel served by the parliamentary system as a chaotic and violent mob.
Following that, two of the ‘judges’ on the programme worked for Independent News and Media. The very fact that RTE sought those two individuals out as the interpreters of the limits of citizen participation (and their interpretations were altogether predictable), combined with the images used to prefigure the discussion, serve to illustrate how even when it comes to operating within the narrow parameters set forth by We The Citizens, there is an in-built manipulation of reflexes that serves to distort and confound public perception.