“…ultimately, the deep problem isn’t about personalities or individual leadership; it’s about the nation as a whole. Something has gone very wrong with America, not just its economy, but its ability to function as a democratic nation. And it’s hard to see when or how that wrongness will get fixed.”— Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, in New York Review of Books, 7/12/2012
The aim of Meetings of Opposites is to produce an uncommon kind of confrontation: one where we find – by inventing it – common ground. Common ground does not arise in debate, where one side is declared the winner. Nor do we envision an entertaining point-counter-point. In a Meeting of Opposites, neither “side” is convinced of the error of their ways. But all of us in the room feel both the possibility of common ground and the urge to expand it. I will continue to devise the activities of a Meeting based on further experience, but a session of perhaps two and a half hours will consist of some of the following:
– Introductory remarks: We’re out to produce an un-customary way of talking and listening here. We are not out to “meet in the middle,” nor to arrive at a “meeting of minds.” Both of those outcomes leave in place the entrenched polarity: Dems-versus-Repubs; liberal-versus-conservative. Us-against-Them. We want to create between us a qualitatively different experience than reconcilement or compromise or even consensus. The common ground is not in the middle; it is a different space altogether. In the same physical place, either we can do Us versus Them – Opposites – or we can do this other way of being together: Meeting. We’re setting up here the scaffolding for common ground, for Meeting.
– Greet the person next to you: “I See You!” What kind of eye contact did you make: Veiled? Aggressive? What did you learn about the other person?
– Excerpts from a video on “Visual Perception” demonstrate that what we see actually before us, the shape of the room, comes from assumptions we bring to the act of perception. This raises the question: “How does the shape of the rooms we live in influence our interaction?”
– Demonstrations of the kind of conversation we live in every day, from blog posts and online discussions (The New Yorker, Reuters, Orion Magazine…). Inquiry among audience partners: “what is the substance of my experience of others?”
– Interspersed short readings, from philosophers and others, that delineate another way of being together, a room of a shape that may enable Meeting. [These are contained in a packet handout]
– Introductions of two Opposites – roadbuilder and tree-hugger; leave the statue or remove it and rename the park; … whatever local controversy has voltage. Shift seating to Opposite pairs.
– “Does everyone admire my suntan?” How I got it. Turn to your Opposite and share something of your physical status or condition, your medical prognosis, or your favorite sport.
– An exercise designed to bring participants into appropriate physical contact with each other, starting with a handshake. Then perhaps a simple arm-wrestle between partners in the audience. (“Set it up so that you don’t hurt each other, but so that you get a bodily sense of how strong or weak your partner is, and how he or she approaches the contest.”) The Opposites will demonstrate, and we’ll discuss briefly the experience of this exercise, so as to illuminate commonalities.
– An experience of physical cooperation among a larger group: Yurt Circle, Marble Channel, a “human knot” or tug-of-war; or another, depending on the size of the group.
– Presentations by the Opposites, conversation between them and the audience. Speak your Opposite’s position, then hear his critique. Notice that Debate arises automatically. Is there common ground available now beneath the debate?
– Follow-through: what further contact/communication with the Opposite will you commit to? To whom will you report results?
A series of these encounters can produce deeper levels of inquiry and wider common ground. They enhance the blood flow sustaining a city.
Henry D. McHenry Jr. firstname.lastname@example.org