The Necessary Art of Difficult Conversations

beyond polarization?

PROTOPIA AND THE FUTURE OF HETERODOXY is an intriguingly titled recent Substack article from the illustrious Alexander Beiner.  It's a report on his facilitation of the first face-to-face event from Protopia Lab held in Barcelona in October. 

Protopia Lab was created by Micha Narberhaus (read his report on the event here) to cultivate conversations that grow past entrenched ideologies and cultural polarization.  They have a special emphasis on combatting the us-vs-them sensibility that sabotages many forms of essential activism in the Age of the Metacrisis.

What the heck is a protopia?  The term protopia (attributed to futurist Kevin Kelly) commits to a much better world -- rather than the impossible fantasy of a utopia or the intolerable slide into dystopian nightmares.
Although many philosophers have remarked on the perverse symbiosis between idealistic visions & shitty social outcomes, that doesn't mean we should cynically abandon the need to improve the world.  What we need is a pragmatic commitment of moral energy to the complex creative task of securing a world in which ongoing multidimensional improvement is possible. 

That sounds good.  Or at least better

At the Protopia Lab event, Alexander Beiner had a chance to observe and reflect on the participants.  They seemed to be justifiably divided in their attitudes about so-called "woke" activism.  Beiner's sociopolitical take seems to lay the blame not so much on intersectionalism but rather on its capture by mainstream corporate, academic, governmental and journalistic institutions.  When it becomes part of the master's toolkit then it will start to serve conventional Game A incentives.

That's interesting and worth reading in more detail in his article.  His primary conclusion, however, is something else entirely:

We need to get way better at disagreeing.

Progress toward protopian futures is currently being sabotaged by uninspected, idealistic & excessively prosocial attitudes.  Empathy, cooperation and consensus-building are not enough -- we've got to make room for deep friction. 

"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..."

Both are needed.

It is a strong call for respecting disharmony.  Gaining more skill in exploring and communicating difficult feelings associated with deep disagreements may be an essential inoculation against the epidemic of pseudo-spiritual sociability that forecloses the transformational vitality of emergent spaces. 

Are homogenous positivity and the mysticism of an emerging consensus may be undermining the very energy, authenticity and understanding required by world-improvers?  It is a question worth pondering.  Better worlds require better collaboration -- which may depend upon a sweetspot between sameness and difference. 

Maybe we do talk too casually and idealistically about overcoming polarization.  What would change if we had a more transcend-and-include attitude about deep disagreements?

Sounds difficult.  And it is. 


Check out Hanzi Freinacht's exploration of the difference between protopia, utopia & eutopia.  
Words by
emerge is convening a field of metamodern praxis