Protopia and The Future of Heterodoxy
Why difficult conversations need to stay difficult
In case you missed our final Rebel Wisdom post, this Substack is now called The Bigger Picture. Read more here.
I’m worried things are getting out of hand. I’m in Barcelona, sitting in a circle of twenty people: peace builders, a local government official, philosophers, a university lecturer, NGO activists and artists. We’ve gathered to find new ways to have conversations that move beyond identity politics.
Everyone here has a different point of view, but what brings us together is a belief that the cultural conversation has broken down about the most pressing issues, from climate change to wealth inequality. This is The Protopia Lab: the brainchild of Micha Narberhaus, a friend and long-time environmental and civil society thought-leader who asked me to facilitate these workshops.
It’s late October and the weather outside is unseasonably warm, but the sweat running down my back is coming from my mounting anxiety. Right now, the circle is going around introducing themselves. I’m listening to a philosopher talk about her experience of resigning as a university lecturer to avoid her inevitable dismissal, after a concerted attack by social justice activists around a controversial book she wrote on gender issues. Quitting was a decision that helped her gain control of the situation, but she was still forced into it after months of psychological harassment and bullying. The next person who shares is similarly angry about the inciting role of what he terms ‘wokeness’ in the shutting down of nuanced conversation, a perspective shared by about half the group.
But not the other half. As I listen, I’m aware of a shift in the body language of the person sitting beside me. He shared earlier in the circle, so I know he’s holding a different perspective. Working in local government in Spain, his outlook is both more European and more generally left-leaning and intersectional. There are others like him; several work in NGO’s, and there’s a strong climate focus in this group, with some working for house-hold name climate charities.
The call to action for this two day gathering was that “us-versus-them activism is sending us down the spiral of polarisation and tribalism. The current path might lead to violence and destruction instead of laying the foundation for a better system. How can we instead harness and foster our astonishing human capacity to cooperate?”
More specifically, our invitation was to invite participants into “a space for open dialogue, learning and innovation on how to redevelop trust within our polarised societies, create ways to cooperate effectively across humanity and upgrade our civilisation to help prevent its collapse.” This is underpinned by the idea of Protopia itself, which means changing the world through gradual improvement, rather than the inevitable damage we do when we summon the dreaded scourge of the 20th Century: Utopia.
As the facilitator, I wanted to make sure I was creating a container that would deliver on this. One large and flexible enough to hold all of our perspectives, without collapsing us into false agreement, chaos, or meaningless grey areas. It’s one of the toughest facilitation challenges I’ve had, and I was feeling excited and grateful. We tried to hold conversations like this at Rebel Wisdom many times with varying degrees of success; often we just agreed with one another too much because we had so many shared reference points.
This felt different, and I think a reason why can be explained by the mediator Diane Musho Hamilton. I’ve learned a lot from her about difficult conversations, and one of her key ideas is that they always include a balance between sameness and difference. Sameness creates safety and opens us up to one another. Difference creates dynamism, creativity and a bit of danger. The people who had gathered for Protopia Lab were quite different from one another.
Because of that, facilitating that opening circle I already had a feeling that others would echo over the next two days: there aren’t many conversations like this happening right now. This piece explores what I learned over those two days in October, and what I think the workshop can tell us about the potential future of cultural heterodoxy.
Intersectionality vs Heterodoxy
After the opening sharings, the room is buzzing with catharsis and discomfort. This is the kind of conversation Micha and I hoped for, and we want to lean into this complexity as much as possible. At the same time, I want to avoid creating the very same projections we’re here to wrestle our way past. As Tyson Yunkaporta once told me, you can endlessly point to the extremes of any side of the culture wars as proof that they’re mad and can’t be reasoned with. Spend five minutes on Twitter and you’ll find an outrageous post by a progressive 19 year old in Portland, and something equally outrageous posted by a 54 year old conservative in London.
With this in mind, before we moved to the next part of the workshop I wanted to make sure we didn’t fall into the trap that heterodox conversation so often does: flipping the script and caricaturing the ‘other side’. The room we were in had masks hanging on the walls from many cultures. They were beautiful and all very different. A strange elephant, a Japanese Kabuki face, an angular African mask. I pointed out to the group that Micha and I didn’t put these here, they were just part of the venue. But it was a welcome coincidence, because the English and Spanish words for person both come from the latin persona, which was the name for masks worn by actors. The word we so often use to identify ourselves is based on what we’re presenting to the outside.
Implicit in the idea of a mask is that there’s a person beneath it who is different to what’s being presented. But at the same time, our masks transform us. As psychoanalysts and many mystical traditions teach, the core essence of the person beneath the mask can often be hidden and need to be recovered for growth and healing.
Our masks are the personality structures we build to adapt to our environment, temperament and many other factors, but they don’t necessarily represent our deepest needs, our unconscious desires and feelings. When we’re discussing polarised issues, we are often doing it from and to one another’s masks and get inevitably get stuck. What brings us into generative, creative, compassionate conversations is when we can find ways to speak to who's beneath.
When we do, we come into contact with a complex, dynamic, contradictory human being instead of a set of ideas and ideological positions. That brings us to a meeting of essence, that place where the real deep down you lives. The you that was free as a child, the you that can express anything in any way without shame or guilt. Some spiritual traditions teach that this core deep down essence brings us into a sense of unity with one another. While I think this is true, I’m not actually sure how useful it is as a frame for navigating difficult conversations. ‘We’re all one’ can quickly become ‘we all have to agree’, and we were eager not to send that message during the Protopia Lab. Instead, we wanted to host real, open, complex conversations. That meant playing with difference as well as sameness, even when it felt uncomfortable.
With that in mind, I invite everyone to get up and stand behind their chairs. We now have a circle of empty chairs, and I ask everyone to imagine that there’s another group meeting right now to discuss the problem of power and privilege in the climate change space. Maybe some of them see it as deplorable to even discuss what we’re going to be discussing over the next two days. Maybe they feel just as strongly that some conversations do need to be shut down as some of the people in our group feel that they shouldn’t be. I ask that we stay aware of this ‘ghost group’ over the next two days, and aware that we’re all wearing masks, because otherwise we risk falling into unhelpful projections.
Heterodoxy vs Intersectionality
It’s worth pausing here to ask why so many in this group had such a concern around ‘wokeness’, and why so much of the blame for our polarised societies have been laid at its feet by heterodox thinkers from 2016 onwards. Another way to frame this is with the idea of intersectionality that it comes from - the concept that people experience discrimination and abuse when multiple categories of social identity interact with each other.
During the break, a few people came up to me privately and said they felt concerned that progressive or intersectional ideas were being caricatured and oversimplified, and I found myself agreeing. But my feelings around this were complicated, because to find the signal in the noise around all these competing positions we have to disentangle the point they’re making from the tactics people are using to make them, such as public harassment and censorship, which I do disagree with.
It also made me reflect on how accurate it actually is that intersectionality is to blame for the breakdown of the cultural conversation? Throughout the workshop I began to think it might be the wrong question to ask.
The concept of being ‘woke’, which began as a way to stay awake to the very real, sometimes obvious, but often subtle nature of systemic oppression in society. In particular, it arose from critical theorists who were pointing to the ways in which systems of power disproportionately disadvantage minorities and anyone whose identity doesn’t fit into the dominant narrative of their culture. This perspective has its roots in postmodern theories around power, as well as social constructivism; the idea that truth is socially constructed, and because of that, our social norms aren’t set in stone. Instead, they are made up by the stories we tell.
These critical theories are pointing to something very real. In the UK where I live, according to a UK government website ‘Black people are over four times more likely to be stopped and searched by police as the national average, and seven times more likely than white people.’ Only 4% of FTSE350 CEOs are women. The richest 10% of the global population currently have 52% of the income. There are visceral, deeply rooted inequalities in developed societies.
Social Justice Capture
So what is the right question to ask about the role of intersectional ideas in our increasing polarisation? It might be in how these ideas and theories have been adopted by Western societies.
In many ways, the more intersectionality-critical participants of the Protopia Lab had experienced what happens when any ideology is adopted and twisted by an institution. One participant was a lecturer in a college in the US with a primarily BIPOC student body. He’s a very compassionate, funny and intelligent man, and had been towing a fine line between deep listening and placing firm boundaries around any institutional adoption of a worldview that critiqued ‘whiteness’ or white people, on the grounds that it was immoral and harmful. The day we began the workshop, he was in the middle of a process around this with the school administration and unsure whether or not his career would survive it (it did).
I find it most useful to look at the institutional adoption of intersectionality to make sense of polarisation, because it shows us how it’s become a tool wielded by the very power structures it seeks to deconstruct. Civil rights activist Audre Lorde highlights this dynamic best in her essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’ in which she writes “What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.”
Corporate woke-washing allows powerful institutions to claim to be fixing systemic issues while in fact maintaining strict narrative control. Ironically, this means that only the most narrow parameters of conversation are allowed not just around critiques of intersectionality, but around intersectional ideas themselves. Only corporate-safe versions of both are allowed. Like a casino, the house always wins. And this narrow frame of acceptable thought doesn’t stop in HR departments or news rooms. It has spread through society, splitting friend groups and families. No doubt some American readers will have experienced this over the Thanksgiving holiday and its famous family arguments.
A key critique that maybe two thirds of the participants agreed with throughout the Protopia Lab is that, as social justice ideologies are entering workplaces, media and government, they are presented as a tightly controlled orthodoxy that can’t be challenged, instead of an idea that can transform the system. Change is tightly controlled, and any deviance from orthodoxy is punished by reducing the offender’s social and economic status.
Where the Poles Meet
Interestingly, this dynamic might actually hold the seeds of a new synthesis between multiple sides of the culture wars. It has to do with two overlapping stories about how power functions. The dominant story for many elite institutions today is the idea that we live in a system in which inequality, racism, sexism and other forms of oppression are all encompassing and almost impossible to escape. Ibram X Kendi, author of ‘How to be Antiracist’ captures this world-view when he writes:
“Our world is suffering from metastatic cancer. Stage 4. Racism has spread to nearly every part of the body politic, intersecting with bigotry of all kinds, justifying all kinds of inequities by victim blaming; heightening exploitation and misplaced hate; spurring mass shootings, arms races, and demagogues who polarize nations, shutting down essential organs of democracy; and threatening the life of human society with nuclear war and climate change.”
In this model, the single oppressive force of racism explains much of what’s wrong with the world. On the other end of the political and cultural spectrum we are seeing a strong backlash to this worldview, and its adoption by systems of power. One example is the rise of the Reactionaries, also known as the New Right or postmodern right. Writing about this phenomenon in Vanity Fair, James Pogue explains that “it is not a part of the conservative movement as most people in America would understand it. It’s better described as a tangled set of frameworks for critiquing the systems of power and propaganda that most people reading this probably think of as ‘the way the world is.’ And one point shapes all of it: It is a project to overthrow the thrust of progress, at least such as liberals understand the word.”
Alex Kaschuta is one of the leading podcasters covering this phenomenon, and I spoke to her a few months ago for a section of my book exploring this wider social dynamic. She explained that even though the ‘Reactionaries’ are really a disparate movement with many different viewpoints, what unites everyone is a push back against what they see as the authoritarian creed of ‘wokeness’ and how it’s been adopted by elite institutions like universities, the media and tech companies. The most influential reactionary thinker is a blogger and programmer called Curtis Yarvin. His idea of ‘The Cathedral’ is perhaps one of the key tenants of this group.
“‘The cathedral is just a short way to say “journalism plus academia”—in other words, the intellectual institutions at the center of modern society, just as the Church was the intellectual institution at the center of medieval society.…all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure…it always agrees with itself. Still more puzzlingly, its doctrine is not static; it evolves; this doctrine has a predictable direction of evolution, and the whole structure moves together.”
Here’s where it gets interesting. For both Yarvin and Kendi, the establishment has been captured by an all-encompassing form of oppression. It’s an oppression that surrounds us, affects our thoughts, and traps us. And for both of them, even though they’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the solution is to deconstruct it. To tear it apart from the very core and build something new.
Both are reviving, knowingly or not, an ancient myth; one that has deep roots in cultures all around the world. By looking back to this myth and listening to what it has to say, we might find the seeds of a new cultural synthesis.
Religion and Transcendence
The myth is one of incarceration and transcendence. Both Yarvin and Kendi are pointing to how we are trapped by our own power games, and we need to find a way to get beyond them. In some way, we have to escape the Matrix of our own flawed conceptions. More than two millennia ago, the pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Empedocles argued that we are utterly, hopelessly incapable of doing that alone.
They taught that only an encounter with the sacred will do, and that encounter often brings us into opposition to the power structures of society. As Peter Kingsley has pointed out, this is a key part of the prophetic tradition in the west, by which we come into contact with that sacred reality. As he points out, prophets in ancient Greece were often called howlers. They howled to channel the grief and fury that comes up with the disconnect between our social games and the true nature of reality. Interestingly, the Allen Ginsberg poem that introduced the concept of Moloch that I explored most recently in Nazi Elves and Cockney Orcs is called Howl.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that some of the most vibrant conversations during the Protopia Lab were around religion, and the role of the ‘god shaped hole’ in the West in our cultural fragmentation. Reflecting on this, I think it may be because religion gives us ways to go beyond our own masks. To move past the game to something real, permanent and certain. To a reality that isn’t changed by the pronouns we use or the colour of our skin, but is universal and solid and real.
Religions help us to go beyond our social games. To attune ourselves to a reality beyond what we can see, and what we say to one another. One of the most powerful aspects of Christianity, according to Rene Girard, is that it interrupts the social dynamics of blame and retribution that drive culture wars. It can help us move beyond the cycle by which we scapegoat the other, projecting the unresolved sins of the collective onto one group or person.
The more I’ve reflected on the conversations that came up during the Protopia Lab, the more I’ve found it useful to see cultural polarisation through a lens of cycles of blame and retribution. Unresolved rage, unresolved needs, unresolved hopes. Over all, what I feel in these kinds of conversations is a collective urge for the unspoken to be spoken.
One of the most useful frames for navigating that for me has been Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow, those hidden aspects of ourselves that warp how we see other people. In conversations we had at the workshop around gender and relationships, I was reminded that progressivism has a shadow around traditionalism, and is often allergic to the idea that there are fixed truths and immutable realities. Conversely, traditional liberals and conservatives have shadows around social constructivism in general, and are allergic to arguments that appeal to lived experience rather than propositions and what they perceive to be immutable facts.
Wrestling Cultural Shadows
And while we’re wrestling and arguing through our personal political and social shadows, we’re doing it within our cultural frame and its collective shadows. Full of taboos, unspoken histories, abuse, violence, misogyny, racism, greed. But can we heal these collective shadows? Could we do it in workshops like the Protopia Lab? There are a number of group processes that try. One is Thomas Hübl’s ‘Global Social Witnessing’ which he describes on his website:
“Our realization is that collective traumas are at the root of most conflicts, mostly unrecognized and often unconscious. Adequate healing and peace-building is possible only if this is included…this requires the ability to gain a precise and comprehensive picture of what is happening. We call this process of insight, Global Social Witnessing….it’s an awareness that the social body is developing through us.”
Integrating collective shadows first involves acknowledging the pain that caused them, and then processing them with great compassion and patience. The conflicts we were exploring in the Protopia Lab were usually battles over the way we perceive, over who could say what. But as one participant from Northern Ireland noted, these dynamics take on a different quality when the stakes are life or death.
With that in mind, perhaps we can learn from processes that seek to work with cultural and personal shadows in more serious conflicts, and apply it to working through the culture wars.
To see what that is, we can look at what I think is the leading edge of conflict resolution right now: the work being done by Leor Roseman, a researcher at Imperial’s psychedelic research centre, bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in Ayahuasca ceremonies designed to facilitate conflict resolution. Working with Palestinian peace activist Sami Awad and a team of Brasilian facilitators, Roseman recently observed Isralis and Palestinians who drink Ayahuasca together in order to ask what role these ceremonies could play in conflict resolution. The first part of the study, “Relational Processes in Ayahuasca Groups of Palestinians and Israelis,” was published in 2021.
The next phase of the study hasn’t yet been published, and involved taking three mixed groups to Spain for ceremonies focused more explicitly on processing the conflict. In an interview for my book, Roseman told me that during this second phase in Spain, everyone had a shared feeling that they were on the cutting edge of conflict resolution and healing.
“One thing many people experienced was this feeling that ‘we are the peace’,” he explained. “There was this magical moment in the ceremony. A realisation and we are living the peace that we are wishing for. You know, it's already happening here for a moment in the circle.”
As I mentioned above, there was a quality here of a transcendent experience uniting people beyond their masks. Beyond politics. Beyond war. But that wasn’t the whole story. At other times, the unity circle was ruptured. A Palestinian participant might start singing in Arabic, which activated an Israeli. A traumatic memory of the conflict arose for someone and was projected onto another participant, which would create a tension and chaos to be processed and worked through by the group. By all accounts it was wild, chaotic, beautiful, healing and sometimes dissatisfying. Listening to Roseman, I had the sense that maybe that’s what this work truly has to be. And it formed part of a conviction that the Protopia Lab would also lead me to: there are no shortcuts to overcoming our cultural stuckness.
The Future of Heterodoxy
Near the end of the workshop, I completely messed up a quote by Iain McGilchrist. I ended up saying something along the lines of ‘what we need is not an either/or, or a yes/and perspective, but an either or and yes and’. And?
The point I was trying to make is that a theme I saw emerging in the group was that finding new ways to speak to each other about polarised topics will likely involve a bigger frame than we find in most of our cultural institutions. A frame that can hold the idea that sometimes the truth is relative, and sometimes it is fixed. Sometimes there is a right answer. Sometimes there isn’t, and sometimes both of those are true at once. Sometimes there’s a fixed, inescapable truth. Sometimes that truth is a culturally-conditioned lie.
Empathy alone won’t get us here. Connecting to the deeper emotional and spiritual truth of another doesn’t mean bypassing disagreement into a false sense of sameness. It means recognising, understanding and embodying their perspective and why they’re using the tactic they’re using, even if we disagree with it.
At the same time, even with all the empathy in the world we might find that our needs may genuinely be conflict, and our different desires completely irreconcilable. Sometimes, there’s no way for every idea to win. This goes against a trend in some of the communities I’m part of, from spiritual groups to the ‘sensemaking web’, that we should be moving toward what Forest Landry has called ‘omni-win’ situations. It may be a noble goal, but practically I think it’s a fantasy. To me, it’s a left-brain metaphysics that ignores that the very idea that omni-win implies ‘omni-lose’ and they will always ‘go-with’ one another.
Instead, I’ve become interested in integrating polarisation in new ways. Empedocles suggested that the elements that make up reality are controlled by two forces. Love, which brings things together. And Hate, which brings things apart. Both are needed; they are the very foundations of reality. We see a similar wisdom reflected in Taoism, in which harmony and disharmony, white and black, hot and cold ‘go with’ one another. They are two sides of the same coin. I believe it’s some of the most important wisdom there is.
Is this a call for unfettered hatred in our cultural conversations? No. It’s a call for recognising that we can’t pick and choose harmony over disharmony. We have the choice not just to tolerate, but honour and respect disharmony. It’s part of the creative force of reality itself. And practically, it’s a part of all of our lives. I’m not aware of a single relationship or society that hasn’t been spurred to compromise, change or grow in the face of disharmony.
Giving disharmony space allows us to be OK with the truth that in life you win some, you lose some. Sometimes you learn, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re just wrong. Sometimes you get canceled, and sometimes you’re the one canceling. Life is consistently unfair, and we’re all hypocrites.
Polarisation is not something to be overcome, but to be worked with, and none of us know exactly how to do that. For paid subscribers, I’m putting out a piece soon delving into what practices, techniques and models we used during the Lab, what worked and what didn’t. It will include reflections on Jonathan Haight’s moral foundations theory, Sara Ness’ ‘Context, Content, Concern’ model, art therapy and more. You can also check out Micha Narberhaus’ write-up on his reflections here.
What I do feel fairly sure of is that there’s no magical place where we’ll all agree and sing Kumbaya around a fire. This idea is often implicit in spiritual and activist communities, and it needs to be challenged. Often, the concept of emergence is used in the sensemaking web as a stand-in: if we get together and communicate in a new way, something will emerge that transcends us and helps us move beyond our predicaments. I call this ‘meta-bypassing’.
Instead what we could do, and what I would like to explore more deeply in processes like the Protopia Lab, is to find ways to drop into the humility of our own shadows and work through them together. Traveling into those dark places in our psyches that we project out onto the world around us because we don’t know how to allow them within ourselves. It’s there that the real transformation begins, and the road toward it is full of twists and turns we can only navigate together.
This is very good. You're speaking to one of the primary conundrums that plagues spiritual philosophies, and humans in general: There is an underlying oneness that binds us together, and we need to access that state of consciousness to gain perspective and see the bigger picture. And yet duality, or polarity, seems to be a fundamental condition of materiality. We can have beautiful, transcendant experiences of oneness that open us up to deeper possibilities, but at some point we all have to come back to earth and be in the messiness of spiraling layers of separation, subatomic particles constantly under the forces of attraction and repulsion.
The Jesuit mystic (and paleontologist) Teilhard de Chardin had the insight that evolution occurs when organisms separate and differentiate (forces of repulsion) then, once they have evolved into separate lines, are attracted together in symbiotic relationships to form more complex forms of life. Sometimes the force pulling things together is pure attraction, sometimes it's outside pressure such as constrained resources. But both are necessary. If the original single celled organisms hadn't differentiated into different types of archaea and bacteria, we wouldn't have the complex cells that comprise our bodies.
To me, as an animist paganish meditating psychedelic-loving sincere Christian, Love is not so much the force of attraction as the Presence that holds it all together, with hope and faith in the ultimate good of all things; it understands that repulsion and attraction are both necessary aspects that propel growth and evolution while allowing everything to hang together. Christ is the power of love and the power of integration. Which doesn't mean I thin every one needs to follow him, it's just one example of how faith can be useful.
We can see two people on opposing sides as combatants struggling in a tug of war, pulling a rope til one side gives in, or the whole thing snaps. Or we can see them like the bridge and tuning pegs on a guitar, holding a necessary tension. Apply a clever set of fingers, and now you're making music. If we understand that difference is necessary, and that there will always be a give and take of power needed, maybe can we learn to have fun with it, to see one another as lovers and partners in an unfolding dance of evolution and creation. It will take a lot of trust-building and willingness to risk.
I started reading this and, part way through, thought I should send it to my father, only to find that he'd already emailed it to me. The two of us are regularly in conversation with each other about the "culture war" as it's called. Despite both being Christians, people from outside of our relationship would say that he's on one side of the cultural argument (right, conservative, "anti-woke") and I'm on the other (left, progressive, "woke"). That we both felt the need to share this with the other speaks to its power to move the conversation forward.
I was a bit dumbfounded by how you managed to bring so many concepts together under the banner of one essay: intersectionality, social constructivism, Christianity, psychedelic therapy, Taoism, Ibram X Kendi, Curtis Yarvin, Allen Ginsberg, Carl Jung. At one point, I thought out-loud, "Just bring Noam Chomsky into this and we're all set."
I was joking, but now I'm serious. I think it might be helpful to bring the world's most famous libertarian-socialist/anarcho-syndicalist into the conversation. We need to think about the language we use in these conversations, how we use words like "woke," "left," "right," and so on to create meaning—and also how our institutions use them to do the same. It might also benefit us to look to people like Chomsky who don't fit into our established boxes for insight on how to think outside of them.
Most of all though, I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of something you highlighted here:
"Sometimes you learn, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you’re just wrong. Sometimes you get canceled, and sometimes you’re the one canceling. Life is consistently unfair, and we’re all hypocrites."