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The difficulty of difficult conversations

Reflection on our recent Protopia Lab workshop in Barcelona

Finally, after two years since the founding of Protopia Lab, we were able to hold our first face-to-face workshop last month in Barcelona. Below are some of my personal reflections on the workshop. I encourage you to also read the profound thoughts of our excellent facilitator Alexander Beiner about the workshop.

In short, after many years of hosting conversations about difficult and complex issues, for the first time I really felt that a group of people I brought together were able to have truly pluralistic conversations that were not predictable and boring, but exciting and often surprising. The conversations were respectful and constructive, but it wasn't a feel-good bubble, an ideological echo chamber, there was no groupthink or spiral of silence. It felt like the beginning of some really meaningful conversations.

We invited 20 people to have "difficult conversations in polarised times". The main idea we had in mind when planning the workshop was that we wanted to have truly pluralistic conversations where we are not constrained by the often ideologically narrow space of public discourse. To this end, we tried to assemble a group of people who are able to listen to people with different worldviews and are willing to challenge their own biases.

We thought that participants should bring along some minimum understanding of the dysfunctional public discourse we now suffer in the Western world, where journalism is more akin to activism than trying to truthfully describe reality, and where moralistic outrage on social media has increasingly destructive real-life political consequences. We hoped that participants would share some common ground about the dynamics that have led to the de facto shutdown of pluralistic conversation and stifle the creativity that is so much needed for solving our most pressing, deep-rooted social and ecological problems.

I had an additional goal in mind: I had the fixed idea that the workshop would be a space to talk about post-liberalism, the idea that many of the problems we are currently suffering in the Western world are actually the result of the excesses of liberalism, both culturally and economically. Liberalism is defined in different ways, but what I mean here in general terms is that in the last 40 to 50 years we have seen a constant removal of constraints in society, in our culture and economy: the sexual revolution, increased immigration, the ideology of multiculturalism, a long period of globalisation and economic liberalisation, and the rejection of old social norms of all kinds. Also the idea that people have all kinds of rights but few duties, and the loss of the belief that traditions have any value at all.

My idea of post-liberalism is really a very open space of creative thinking about the coming paradigm – not a new dogmatic space of reactionaries and resentment against liberalism, but yes, a space where the failures of liberalism are clearly named and understood.

As always, we did not know what would happen at the workshop. Each group develops its own dynamics and while we knew many of the participants and their views, there were some we knew little about.

I must confess that my goal of having all participants share a minimum of common ground and an analysis of the situation we were in was not really met. I had hoped that we would not have to debate whether or not wokeness is a problem, whether or not transgender ideology is a problem, and that we could focus mainly on creative discussion about how to get out of the multiple crises we are in and what paradigm comes next. It turned out that our group was more ideologically diverse than we had hoped, and in retrospect I'm glad it turned out that way.

If we had only had post-liberal thinkers in the room, we would have run the risk of creating another bubble where everyone more or less agrees and is happy to have their views constantly confirmed. This would run counter to our understanding of human evolutionary reality, that we are all biased in our thinking, and it would run counter to the Protopia Lab's idea of looking at the world from many different perspectives.

We managed to bring together a group of people who are able to really listen to people with very different views. This was not a group of followers of mainstream thinking, but everyone had experiences that demonstrated their ability to challenge conventional wisdom or ideologies.

However, when people with very different worldviews come together, it takes time to develop a minimum level of trust, clarify misunderstandings and explore differences in assumptions. A two-day workshop is not enough to achieve all this.

Alexander did a great job of facilitating the conversations with this heterodox group, creating a space that led to very exciting moments and meaningful connections, but we both know that this was just the beginning.

The goal of such a workshop and the goal in general in society should not be that we all end up agreeing on ideas, policies and world views. People are different. We have different moral intuitions, different experiences and different interests because we do not have the same life circumstances.

It is important that we stop seeing those with whom we fundamentally disagree as our enemies and start seeing them as opponents who have the right to defend their positions in public discourse. The positions are rejected, but not the legitimacy of their defence.

Moreover, the underlying assumption is clearly that we can find better solutions to our societal problems if we become aware of our own cognitive biases and open ourselves to other worldviews. John Stuart Mill said: "He who knows only his own side of the matter knows little of the matter".

Judging by these premises, our workshop was a great success. All participants seemed to really listen to the others and try to understand their ideas. No one considered the other person in the room as their enemy. It was a space of free thinking where the boundaries of what can be said were refreshingly wide. We discussed the value of hierarchies and borders. We asked whether the sexual revolution was a good thing and what the weakening of institutions like the family means for the well-being of our society. The discussions were nuanced and creative, and we could have gone on much longer and deeper.

However, our discussion also created confusion and at times discomfort, especially among some participants who identify more strongly with the progressive worldview. And as the workshop progressed, it became clearer that there were underlying tensions and misunderstandings that could have been clarified and ideally resolved with more time available.

What follows is based in part on what people said during the workshop and on their feedback and in part these are my personal interpretations of these tensions.

Some participants expressed their concern that instead of addressing polarisation, the way we were discussing was in reality contributing to polarisation and that some attendees were practicing “othering”. Othering is when a group or a person distinguishes themselves from another group by describing the other group as different and alien.

There were indeed some people in the group who were critical of "the woke" and of "wokeness". In fact, some of those present have suffered badly in recent years from being cancelled after speaking out critically against identity politics or what is now mostly referred to as "wokeness". We didn’t continuously talk about wokeness, but obviously the workshop had much to do with it and those affected felt that it was the right place to share their experiences and their critical analysis about the phenomenon.

Those who felt that "othering" was being practised here did not reject the negative experiences of those who had been cancelled, but they felt that the workshop was precisely not about continuing the spiral of polarisation through harsh criticism. I suppose they expected a more compassionate approach instead. There was also a sense that the criticism of wokeness was the result of bitterness expressed by middle-aged white men and that when we talk about wokeness we should have some woke people in the room.

Alexander and I tried to unpack some of these tensions during the workshop but have not come close to getting to the bottom. I think there is still a lot to unpack here.

Most important is the question of what are the causes of social divisions in Western societies and what is Protopia Lab's role in addressing these problems. Then there is the question of what axis of polarisation we are talking about and to what extent this corresponds or not with the perceived polarisation in our workshop. And finally, it is about what kind of diversity is useful for a workshop like ours.

I think that the tensions and discomfort that some participants felt were actually a good thing and a sign that something was happening in the room. Being honest about what you perceive as a problem is a step in the right direction. It is the lack of honest and sometimes tough discourse that contributes to driving our societies apart.

The people in the room belong, roughly speaking, to the same social class. We all live in large metropolises, have an academic education and are socialised in a liberal-progressive culture with a cosmopolitan world view. In recent years, some of us have begun to question developments in our own culture and social class and have come to conclusions that involve a profound critique of where Western civilisation is heading. When we criticise this culture, we are not criticising some other side, but we are criticising our own culture, the one that has brought us to where we are now. Each of us who spoke out against wokeness at the workshop knows many people who defend this ideology, personally and often very closely. Some of us deal with them on a daily basis.

I suspect that of the participants 10 years ago, only one would have described themselves as conservative. Now there are at most four participants who would do so. These are all former progressives/liberals disillusioned with late liberalism and its negative effects. Perhaps five others among us now integrate elements of the traditional worldview, i.e. conservative thinking, into their general worldview, but do not describe themselves as conservative, but somewhere in the limbo between ideologies. Four more, in my estimation, have some sympathy for the traditional worldview but would never vote conservative and would clearly describe themselves as progressive. Six participants are completely progressive in their worldview. Overall, I am very sure, we had a progressive-liberal bias at the workshop.

The polarisation dynamic in Western societies is taking place between a largely progressive-liberal, academic elite living in big cities and metropolises and the working class often living in smaller towns and cities and representing a more traditional worldview. The political polarisation and the rise of reactionary far-right populism is a rebellion against the effects of globalisation, high immigration and fast cultural changes (gender, sex, diversity, identity politics, etc.) which they feel have been imposed on them. People with traditional values feel that these big and fast changes have too many downsides: a fragmented society with weakened shared norms, institutions and values.

When we talk critically about our own side, as we did at our workshop, I think it is the kind of self-critical attitude that is necessary if we are to counter polarisation effectively. If we want to find solutions to the problems of social division, we need to understand the root causes of the problems. If we only promote being nice to each other this won’t be possible.

Of course, it is often the case that we mischaracterise "the other side", that we "strawman" them. For example, I think this is often the case when the educated elites talk about the working class. However, I think that those who believe that this was the case in our workshop have misinterpreted the situation. The critique about wokeness in our group did not arise from resentment against anyone. In fact, we – and I include myself here – do not perceive the woke as our enemies. We believe that totalitarian movements result from certain political, social and technological circumstances that interact with our evolutionary human nature. As was argued at the workshop, wokeness is only one of the phenomena. For example, those involved in the systematic exclusion of the so-called "unvaccinated" (against Covid) from public life in many countries in 2021 were not the same people as those who fiercely defend transgender ideology or critical race theory. In other words: We are talking about a phenomenon where the people who engage in illiberal extremism change when the issues change. We are talking about a cultural problem not about a group of people.

The purpose of the Protopia Lab is not the same as that of, for example, the organisation More in Common which aims to change the dynamics of increasingly fragmented societies "through uniting people across the lines of division and strengthening people’s sense of shared belonging and identity". I’m sure that More in Common does a good job in bringing people across divides to meet and talk to each other. However, it lacks the kind of self-critical analysis of the prevailing progressive-liberal paradigm that I believe is necessary if we are to contribute to real improvements.

I suspect that at least some of the tension at our workshop stems from the fact that some participants do not yet have a full understanding of the destructive cultural dynamics in Western societies. I do not blame them for this. The pervasive narratives in our broken information ecology reinforce the dominant paradigm. Few people, for example, have any idea of the destructive effects of transgender ideology, especially on children, because the mainstream media in most European countries rarely report on it. The same applies to the side effects of Covid vaccines and many other important issues about which there is no pluralistic public discourse.

Of course, everything I’m saying here is also influenced by my own biases and blind spots, and I am happy to be challenged by participants (or others) who disagree with my thinking.

What I’m quite sure of, however, is that it is worth having these difficult conversations, even if they are not only difficult but painful at times. And while I think it's worth having more perspectives in the room, I don't think we've been missing the "woke" perspective. Rather, perhaps we need to become more diverse in terms of social class. Wokism is the extremist version of today's mainstream progressive worldview, which was shared by several people in the room, just not in its extremist version. I've seen enough workshops and conferences where dogmatists tried to impose their ideology on the rest of the group – most recently at a conference I organised in Paris in 2018. There was a hostile atmosphere where people were afraid to speak honestly. These experiences are not worth repeating.

This workshop was a success because of the openness and willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue that the participants brought. During the event, some participants asked for tools to fight polarisation. Indeed, what we did at the workshop was the tool: difficult, meaningful conversations.

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