Divisive Dialogues: What I learned asking 200 people to disagree in public
Dispatches from a workshop at Boom Festival 2023
The philosopher Empedocles, who lived two and a half thousand years ago, saw reality as an interplay of two opposing forces: Love and Strife. In his view, all of the elements that make up existence come from the dance between these forces, just as they permeate human relationships. A hundred years earlier, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu had written the Tao Te Ching, the most famous Taoist text. Taoism is a philosophy that teaches that reality arises through the interaction of polarities. Light implies dark, life implies death, unity implies separation. Taoism invites us to be like water, moving in harmony with these opposites while knowing that they are one and the same.
Polarisation seems to be an essential part of reality. The technology that allows you to read this is made of opposing ones and zeroes. As physicists like Carlo Rovelli argue, it may be that at the quantum level, nothing exists but through its relation to other things. Relationality implies polarity: a thing can only be a thing if it isn’t another thing.
Culturally, we often look at polarisation as something negative. It’s full of separation, anxiety, and mistrust, so we try to fix it. It’s what splits countries apart, and ends relationships. For this reason, when we look at the heated strife of the culture wars, it’s easy to see the divisiveness, but the deeper unity it implies is harder to find. It’s as if we’re looking at a landscape painting and focused on the foreground. We can see the objects; the arguments around gender, race and ideology, but not the background of greater wholeness in which these take place.
Finding a way to have cultural conversations that incorporate both division and strife, as well as deep connection and love, without sacrificing either, has been something I’ve been drawn to for years. I have little interest in reaching a false consensus on important topics, or falling into a wishy-washy relativism. I’m interested in all of it; the messiness of cultural strife and the unity beneath it. Either one by itself is achingly boring to me.
That’s why I love experimenting with facilitating conversations about polarising topics by incorporating the personal growth techniques that usually bring us into a sense of connectedness and unity. In Empedoclean terms, the topic of conversation is the strife, the techniques are the love. This was the inspiration behind a workshop I delivered recently at Boom Festival in Portugal called ‘The Polarisation Game’.
Boom or Bust
The workshop was designed to surface divisive topics and invite people to find a new way to speak about them that leads somewhere generative, instead of deeper into ideological reality tunnels. As an aside, Boom is the best festival I’ve ever been to, in terms of production and the vibe. It’s a bit like Burning Man, but in comparison Burning Man feels overly-performative and played out to me.
I was invited by one of the organisers who felt there were a lot of shadows lurking in the community that were unspoken. Divisions had arisen around topics like the covid vaccine, and clashes had happened as some wanted to enact social justice ideas they saw as essential for equality, while others viewed these as divisive, and at odds with the ethos of ‘we’re all one’ and ‘radical love’ that the festival was built on.
That’s how I found myself in front of around 200 people, wearing a jester’s hat, and asking them to join me in a trip into the collective unconscious to drag up the most knotty cultural shadows we could find. In this piece I recount what happened at that workshop, what I learned, and why I think processes like this can take us into new cultural territory. For paid subscribers, at the end I‘ve shared some specific facilitation techniques I used that I think can be applied more broadly to difficult conversations at home or at work.
Planning for Strife
As I was planning the workshop, my first thought was that it needed to have a balance of seriousness and fun. Conversations about difficult topics are easiest when we’re in a state of play and experimentation. It’s also important to embrace disagreement and polarity from the outset.
The key thing is to not take anything too personally, while still staying connected to yourself, your emotions and the emotions of the other. This is a paradoxical position; it’s the stance of the trickster. This is why its comedians and jesters who can speak truth to power like no one else; it’s part of the archetypal role. To nod to that, and imbibe a bit of that stance, I wore black and white to represent polarity, and a jester hat so that people wouldn’t take me, or any of this, overly seriously. I was a bit nervous at the start so completely forgot to mention the cap or why I was wearing it.
I began by explaining some of the science and psychology around polarising conversations, including Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory, and a Taoist framework around polarity. A key idea I wanted to land early was that polarisation is not the issue in cultural dialogue; stuckness, projection, shutting down debate are the issue. As mediator Diane Musho Hamilton and facilitator Bonnitta Roy have both shared with me in the past, polarisation shows up in every group. To make this point, I started with a game where I announced two ends of a topic, for example ‘What’s better, chocolate ice cream or vanilla ice cream?’ and invited people to gather on opposite sides of the room for each.
This is a simple but tricky exercise, because usually I run it so that there are only two poles you can go to and no middle ground. The invitation is that people don’t overthink and just go with their gut. However, there were around 200 people there and might be some who felt either too exposed, or too uncomfortable to go to one side or the other, so I also created a ‘liminal zone’ where people could opt out.
In the lead up, I had a strong urge to ask a question in this exercise around trans-issues. I think this lies at the beating heart of the cultures wars, and that these issues are so divisive because they pull on the deepest expression of polarity in the human experience. At a roadside restaurant in Spain while we were on our the way to the festival, I asked my friends what they thought about the ‘yes or no’ question I had in mind. There was a general gasp followed by ‘you can’t ask that!’ I felt a pang of social shame and back-pedalled a bit, and then later felt frustrated at myself for doing so.
If this was the reaction to the possibility of raising the topic, then wasn’t this exactly the topic to raise? The real fire that we all need to grapple with collectively in a new way? However, after thinking about it more, I realised that while that may be true, I also needed to think about the context of the workshop. The group would be too large to build enough trust between everyone there (there also wasn’t enough time), and there could be something almost coercive about dropping cultural dynamite at a workshop where people aren’t expecting to be put on the spot quite that intensely.
That said, I did want to play with polarity and gender a bit as it’s something everyone has a stake in. After the ice cream question, I asked ‘Would you rather have a male or female boss?’ and ‘Your job tells you you need to put your pronouns in your email signature, are you ok with that or not?’ The groups were often evenly split, and as the questions got more political the liminal zone grew, reaching its its peak with ‘Do you think parents have a right not to vaccinate their kids?’
After this, I asked the crowd to share the most divisive topics in the Boom community, or the wider communities they may be part of. The most common topics were vax vs anti-vax positions on covid, meat-eating vs veganism, and social justice ideology or concerns about its over-reach.
The Squid Hat
The finale of the workshop was the part I was most excited and most nervous about. I often have a hard time distinguishing those feelings in myself, but in this case I could feel them both distinctly. Excited, because it felt like a high risk, high reward endeavour. Nervous, because I was letting go of control and that often scares me, both as a facilitator and in life. Most significantly, this is where it all could have gone very wrong.
I told the group we were now going to put into practice the techniques and models we’d been exploring, and I asked for two volunteers to come up on stage and have a conversation from opposing sides of a topic. The topic? Covid Vax vs anti-Vax. The crowd let out an ‘ooohhh’. A lot of hands went up.
I chose a woman to my left, and a man to my right. They came up on stage and were given mics. I explained that the game here was for each of them to talk about their feelings around the topic one at a time. The other person was invited to listen attentively, stay curious, and be open to being emotionally impacted by the other.
It was here that I revealed the Squid Hat, which instantly became the star of the show. To be fair it’s quite an impressive hat. I told the participants that if I felt they had started trying to convince the other person of their position, instead of speaking to their direct emotional experience, they would have to wear the hat so they wouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Knowing That vs. Knowing You
It’s worth pausing here to explain some of the cognitive science behind this exercise. In part, it draws on John Vervaeke’s ‘four P’s of knowing’. These four interconnected forms of cognition are propositional (knowing that…the sky is blue), procedural (knowing how to… ride a bike etc), perspectival (knowing what it’s like to be…you, happy, tired etc) and participatory (being in a deep, reciprocal relationship with your environment).
Culture war arguments often get caught at the propositional level - knowing that. Someone might say “I know that the vaccine isn’t safe”, or “I know that the vaccine is safe.” The problem is, we don’t. We have working theories, and even though there are always facts we can fall back on, as Vervaeke has pointed out, this doesn’t usually help because we may have opposing ideas about what facts are relevant to begin with.
So to have a deeper conversation, we need to also include the other P’s. In this case, I was focusing on perspectival knowing; can we drop into a sense of ‘what it’s like to be’ the other person. Specifically, I was introducing a technique I’m developing called claymanning.
I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with reductionist and rationalist approaches to disagreement that don’t include emotions, states and cognitive science. Instead, they focus on techniques like ‘Steelmanning’, which means being able to argue against the strongest aspect of an opponent’s argument (as opposed to strawmanning, where you set up the weakest version of it, or a false version, to tear down). This does mean you have to listen to and understand the opposing argument properly, and it’s a useful technique. The problem is, steel doesn’t bend. It’s really just a rhetorical technique, and while it can be helpful, it doesn’t get to the root of what’s really going on in a divisive conversation.
To do that, we have to feel the other person. To really connect with their desires, concerns and emotions. To let them impact us while still staying connected to our own sovereignty. That’s why I like the term claymanning; clay moulds, but only up to a point. If you compress it enough, it will become dense and stop. That density point is your own perspective, desires and sovereignty. Claymanning doesn’t mean agreeing to something you don’t agree with, or melding with the other person, or pleasing them. It means allowing yourself to feel the other while you feel yourself, as well as think through their argument as well as thinking through your own. To let your defences be more malleable, but not disappear entirely.
Back to the Squid
I had touched on some of these ideas earlier in the workshop, as well as the importance of the breath as a way to self-regulate, and these two brave participants were about to put it all into practice. The woman holding the ‘anti-vax’ position began. She was Spanish, and talked about her experience during covid, particularly after the vaccines came out, of feeling judged and condescended by society.
She then started talking about covid policies and lockdowns, and I could feel a sense of disconnection rising in my chest. She was slipping into the propositional, so I slowly moved the squid had toward her. The crowd started laughing. She clocked it and I invited her to speak from her body and emotions. Admirably, she managed to do that almost instantly, and shared that what she really felt was fear. She was scared of the consequences of the vaccine itself, and scared of being ostracised by friends, family and society.
I invited the man on the opposite chair to speak for the ‘for’ position. He started by sharing his own experiences during covid. As an Italian, he had been impacted hard by the first wave. He shared some personal anecdotes about losing friendships with people who he felt had fallen into conspiratorial anti-vax thinking and become unreachable. At this point, he also started to veer toward trying to make a point around the science of vaccines, so the squid hat started coming his way.
He laughed and like the other participant, transitioned smoothly into talking about what he actually felt. He told her that identifying and tearing down conspiratorial thinking is part of his personality, and something that pre-dates covid, and admitted it could have been driving some of the intensity of his feelings. And after he shared this, he shared that he’d also felt scared. This opened a touching moment of shared humanity. They were both scared, but took different positions. We all get scared, and we have different strategies to manage our fear.
I encouraged them to ask one another a few questions about their perspective and listen mindfully. They both seemed more open and able to empathise with the other more fully, even though their positions hadn’t shifted, and hadn’t needed to. They had a hug and I wrapped up the workshop.
This was a small moment in a much bigger cultural story; one defined by a complex overlap of epidemiology, control, safety and individual liberty. Topics like covid are convoluted and heated, but they also contain a beautiful simplicity, because they always involve a dance between hope and fear, love and strife, anger and forgiveness. When the participants spoke from the core emotions underneath their positions, it was palpable and inspiring.
I asked the crowd a couple of times whether they could feel the difference and the response was immediate; we all could. When someone is speaking from a deeper level of their humanity, from the desires and feelings underneath their position without an agenda, we feel it. And in that place things are simple and human. We’re afraid. Or we’re inspired. Or we want to be seen, or held.
I was happy with how the workshop went, and I also left wanting more. I want to explore what happens when we take these conversations even deeper; when we really do the complex work of combining our emotional, implicit reality with our propositional, explicit reality. We can’t only talk about our feelings around cultural issues, lest we get lost in a sea of subjectivity and relativity which has all but destroyed the political left in many countries over the last decade. Likewise, we can’t robotically focus on facts, statistics and a self-interested form of reason and rhetoric at the expense of subjectivity as happens too often on the right. Somehow, we need to do both at once all the time. I believe it’s possible and that we can get there.
Below, paid subscribers can find a list of techniques I used in the workshop that can be applied to real-life conflict conversations. Next week I have a piece coming out on Barbie and Oppenheimer, masculine and feminine violence, and symbolic castration in popular media, so keep an eye on your inbox!