University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Faculty of Education Research Students' Association (FERSA) Lunchtime Seminars 2014-2015 > Deliberative Democracy and Illiteracy: Exploring a Theoretical Gap

Deliberative Democracy and Illiteracy: Exploring a Theoretical Gap

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I wish to demonstrate that literacy is not necessary for participation in a deliberative democracy. First, I examine the existing literature and demonstrate how the necessity of literacy has either been assumed or left entirely unquestioned. I argue that this is a significant gap with major conceptual and normative significance since several democracies have very high illiteracy rates. I reflect upon the overwhelming focus on ideal theory as a method of conceptual and normative analysis in political philosophy, and its inability to provide guidance in cases that depart radically from the ideal. Next, I examine hypothetical reasons that might be offered against the possibility of illiterate citizens participating meaningfully in the deliberative democratic process. I discuss what it means to be informed, by examining the informational requirements that central principles of deliberative democracy impose upon citizens. Then, I highlight the role of non-literary sources and informal political conversation and argue that, while deliberative democrats are correct in criticizing them for their weak deliberative quality, they ought to recognize the informational role that such sites play in the deliberative system. Finally, I examine how scepticism towards the possibility of deliberative democracy in semi-literate societies is rooted in biases against non-western experiences of the public sphere and political communication. Deliberative democracy can operate, imperfectly perhaps, even in such unfavourable conditions. I suggest that this conclusion ought to re-orient the way in which we discuss the ‘necessity’ of education in a democracy.

This talk is part of the Faculty of Education Research Students' Association (FERSA) Lunchtime Seminars 2014-2015 series.

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