A pink summons landing on my door mat this summer meant two weeks’ Jury Service. Right on the heels of the anti-deliberative Brexit referendum, I witnessed the power of citizens’ deliberation at Caernarfon Crown Court, dealing with hideous details of ten counts of rape and the psychology of grooming.
It was an eye opener in terms of how this kind of abusive behavour could be considered an extension of ‘normal’ behaviour, rather than some isolated characteristic of a tiny proportion of us (see here for an uncomfortable analysis of 'erotised dominance'). It also made me wonder why we, as society, don’t use deliberation more to help make serious and complex decisions. Deliberation is based on the assumption that bringing together – listening to and working through - different views and experiences will result in better (more resilient, nuanced, informed) decision-making. It's not that we don't use deliberation. The first high profile demonstration of the power of deliberation was show on Channel 4 about 15 years ago, when 1000 citizens took part in a televised Citizens Jury debating the death penalty. The result? The majority turned from being pro-death penalty to anti.
Before becoming an artist full time, I spent 20 years developing and using deliberative processes to help with decisions that were complex and contested. Almost always these decisions were in situations where there were lots of uncertainties. And in my experience it always worked: From local land-use conflicts to national nuclear power decommissioning strategies to agreements between international organisations or jurors in the Caernarfon Crown court jury room. The trick seems to be to a) get as wide a range of people able to have conversations with each other at a level deeper than ‘positional’ arguing and b) reduce uncertainties (together).
The leave/remain referendum is a case study in failing to either deepen the conversation or reduce uncertainties. It illustrates just how much has been lost – in terms of knowledge of good decision making processes in the UK - in recent years. It doesn’t help that the ‘remainers’ are now labeling all Brexiters as stupid/uninformed/racist. People consistently under-estimate what we, the ‘ordinary’ people, can do when given time and responsibility: The Referendum process itself was at fault, not what people did within it. We need to give people an experience of deliberative processes, to change the attitude which is neatly summarised in this (annoying) cartoon.
So I was delighted to find two ‘immersive’ shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – Nuclear Family and Conflict in Court – exploring the power of deliberation, and giving participants an opportunity to experience it first hand. I shouldn't really have been surprised. There’s a long tradition of theatre being linked to democracy – from Greek Theatre as part of the culture of democratic discourse (not least expanding it to make heard the voices of women, foreigners, and slaves who had no place in the political institutions of the polis) to Augustus Baol’s Theatre of the Oppressed (forum and legislative theatre) in South America which inspired, in Wales, Theatr Spectacl or Cardboard Citizens in London. More recently, NO75 Unified Estonia (directed by Semper and Ojasoo), a fictious political movement created by Theatre NO99. Lasting for 44 days, it was so elaborate and convincing that a large portion of the public treated as a real political force. The project ended with Unified Estonia movement assembly, with more than 7500 participants. It was one of the largest theatre events in contemporary Europe.
The first show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe was Nuclear Family, by Irish theatre company, Sunday’s Child. Set in a basement that reminded me of the sorts of places that Jane and Louise Wilson would photograph, we the audience (about 12 of us) sat in an uncomfortable semi circle of weirdly different types of chairs facing two actors at a table. Because the two actors didn’t interact with us (resolute in looking deeply bored), and because the chairs were all odd shapes and sizes and not quite enough of them for all of us, our first task involved 12 of us working together to sort seating, and then, at the direction of the narrator, introducing ourselves to each other. It was all rather uncomfortable. Some people (including a particularly keen 10 year old American boy) were very proactive and rushing about introducing themselves, while others tried to slip silently back into the gloom. I maintained ground, repressing my 20 year old habit of organizing seating for people, and trying to be (quietly) friendly whilst attempting not to worry about how my own nuclear(ish) family was taking it (not that well, it seemed).
But quickly the atmosphere changed. We were told that we were going to relive the hours when nuclear plant security officers, Ellen and Joe, had made decisions that had led to putting tens of thousands of people’s lives at risk at a nuclear plant in Northern Ireland. This time, though, we’d be the ones that decide what they should do. The result of our deliberation was to contribute to an investigation, which was being held to help clear their names.
At key points in the play, we were to receive information – some on ipods, some written – that we were to process as a group and we’d be given some time (5 minutes perhaps?) to take a vote on what Joe and Elen should do. We should appoint a person to run things. The mother of the American boy immediately – and insistently - nominated her less-than-keen (and entirely silent) husband. No-one else said anything.
The story unfolded, and events turned a routine boring night shift into a nightmare of decisions, that ramped up over time:
- Should they let a maintenance person without authorization in?
- Should they let a wounded colleague in?
- Should they get Ellen’s boyfriend into trouble with the authorities?
- Should they get help from the police or from a friend/colleague?
- Should they close down the electrics to stop potential sabotage?
- Who should be sent to their certain death to unblock the ventilation shaft?
- Should Ellen or Joe go down to confront Ellen’s (now clearly) psychotic, gun wielding boyfriend?
We gradually started working well as a group: we started sharing out tasks between us, some listening to the recordings, others poring over letters and reports. Each time, a different person organized the discussion, or threw in an insight, or called the vote. It felt serious and urgent, and everyone was totally focused on what we were asked to do, taking responsibility for their 'bit' of the procedings.
In the end, our collective decision-making caused everyone to die. Perhaps all decisions would have lead to that outcome, but it had a powerful effect on all of us – for days, we were discussing how we could have done things differently, analysing how it had gone, how we'd worked together, soul-searching for whether our contribution had aided or hindered the process, and gaining some comfort in the fact that it was collective, not individual responsibility. The hour-long show had created an experience that was really quite remarkably like the 2 weeks' jury service. Unforgettable, and powerful illustrations of the power of deliberation.
The second show we saw at the Fringe, Conflict in Court, was by Scottlish theatre company A play, a Pie and a Pint, who create interactive courtroom fiction that draws on real-life procedures from a number of different legal traditions to create a mock court in which the audience are the jury. What a contrast: It was held in a very posh room (ballroom perhaps) in an incredibly posh hotel and the audience was largely white and middle aged. The set up was a Tory MP suing a tabloid editor for running a story that claimed he’d paid a rent boy to spend the night with him. A family man, the Tory MP claimed there is no truth in the claim, and was seeking damages. There were various twists and turns, and our job was to decide who should win. As just 12 of the (?) 300 in the audience were chosen as the jurors, it felt initially that the rest of us were let off the hook. We did, after all, have pies and pints to consume. But in the end we did get drawn in, because we couldn't help trying to work out how we'd have voted. And the process highlighted all sorts of things that are important in deliberation - the impact of value judgements, stereotypes, assumptions and of not seeing the bigger picture. Those that were taken over by these, got the 'wrong' answer, assuming the MP to be guilty (whereas the MP was revealed to be innocent by a witness at the last minute). As a family, some of us got it 'right' and some 'wrong'. We again talked through what had influenced us, what we should have looked out for, why we'd assumed various things. Meanwhile, the jury got the right answer. Another powerful lesson in citizenship.
With the world facing its most complex, contested and life-threatening decisions, we urgently need to get better at making decisions. Surely these examples illustrate that theatre has an important role in creating confidence and skills for a culture of democratic discourse. Maybe then, people will look forward to Jury service, and will demand and support other deliberative processes to inform decisions on things like immigration, energy policy, the future of the NHS, how to deal with an aging population, housing, the system of government and the role of political parties etc etc etc..... We really can't just leave it up to the politicians. For my part, I'm going to try to carry on working with these ideas in my artistic practice, bringing in more deliberation into my projects.