Original Proposal

Meetings of Opposites

(the original Proposal and Report)


Political polarization is only one symptom of the national disease which afflicts us.  From obesity to heart disease to chronic stress, we live with the consequences of the failure to relate to each other authentically, even to perceive and understand what authentic encounter might be.  Can we see the organic causes of the physiological ailments as arising from a single organ system – the organ of relationship?  Many medical doctors would answer with at least a qualified yes.  Certainly the psychiatrist is trained in a kind of dialogue designed to allow the truth to set us free.  What is this truth?  Will we be cured if only we become aware of repressed memories?  That may work for some neuroses;  but what of the scream of anomy, of the person living in dread of meaninglessness, feeling under his feet the vortex, the vacuum?  The image of that horror has recently sold for more money than any painting in history.  How are we to restore the common ground we may walk on with our fellows? 

In desperation we may choose Republican or Democrat to position ourselves in the political order – which is really nothing but an organized and taunting disorder, in which even Independents find themselves swamped.  Such a choice, attended with organizational meetings, voter registration drives, door-to-door canvassing, all the machinery of political action, may provide temporary respite from the responsibility of meeting our fellow mortals as fellow mortals – alive once only, in this moment only confronting each other as each other and not as abstract representatives of some coherent position, some generalization about experience or morality or truth.  Political polarization is only one of the traps which await us on the quest of the savage, the unmediated, the real, the ground of civilization.  We must have money, and we must have images; but idolatry kills. 

I imagine here a project not of reform but of renewal.  It is William Blake’s project, as it is Martin Buber’s and Jesus’.  Of course given the debased currency of what passes for religion nowadays, their endeavor cannot but look fatuous.  And I must take care to distinguish this project from a religious revival, where enthusiasm masquerades as religion.  The prophet is without honor in his own country, and so must make another country to live in.  Here is Buber, on the kinds of being-together which we fall into as denizens of contemporary culture.  He is distinguishing different “countries”:

There is genuine dialogue – no matter whether spoken or silent – where each of the participants really has in mind the other or others in their present and particular being and turns to them with the intention of establishing a living mutual relation between himself and them. [This kind of dialogue is Meeting.]

And there is monologue disguised as dialogue, in which two or more men, meeting in space, speak each with himself in strangely tortuous and circuitous ways and yet imagine they have escaped the torment of being thrown back on their own resources.  [This kind of “dialogue” is]  a debate in which the thoughts are not expressed in the way in which they existed in the mind but in the speaking are so pointed that they may strike home in the sharpest way, and moreover without the men that are spoken to being regarded in any way present as persons:  a conversation characterized by the need neither to communicate something, nor to learn something, nor to influence someone, nor to come into connection with someone, but solely to have one’s own self-reliance confirmed by marking the impression that is made, or if it has become unsteady to have it strengthened. 

(Between Man and Man, trans. Ronald Gregor-Smith)

This latter country, the experience of debate, is for us a “land of Abstraction where specters of the dead wander” (Blake’s phrase).  From it no fruitful interchange and no human progress and can proceed, for there are no real people in it.  I must explain that sentence, the above passage, and the sense we all feel of desperation for genuine intercourse, more fully.  But most importantly we must here and now be confronted bodily, physiologically, by living real-time  examples of the true meeting Buber intends here, so that we have not explanation but sustenance, not an abstraction but an actual country to live in.  There’s a big difference between succumbing to the emptiness of “The American People” and living as an American person.

In the current climate we may have no choice but to start with debates, with abstract and pre-formulated and striking position statements made by representatives rather than by persons.  But I’d try to set the conversation up in a particular way, to elicit an outcome and response unlike what usually proceeds from a debate, with one side to be declared the winner.  Nor do I envision an entertaining point-counter-point.  We’ve been working as opposites – warring – for so long that our polity and the planet are suffering grievous harm.  I want to see if we can produce from our encounters Meetings of Opposites.  Not that either “side” would be convinced; but that all of us in the room feel the possibility of common ground and the urge  to expand it.  The central premise is the possibility of actual meeting, occurring not between positions or talking points, but between individual present persons who intend to make common ground between themselves.  “When will the action of thinking endure, include and refer to the presence of the living man facing us?”  Buber asks.  Common ground is a matter of living together, not of agreement in opinions. 


This project came out of a long-standing conversation with Madeline Cantwell at Orion Magazine about how we can open up the closed circle of our initiates – the choir we’re preaching to with our environmental writing, poetry and photography.  But I’m hoping not only to remove obstacles to support for environmental causes, but to renew the substance of our polity, our stake in each other.  The remedy for positionality is not more positionality.  It is meeting.

A First Attempt

In the first encounter, on May 12, 2012, I sought to get two of the most vocal Opposites – Bill McKibben and Patrick J. Michaels – into a room together. The problem then would be how to get them actually to work on creating common ground rather than (or in addition to) sniping at each other;  and to involve the audience (students at Upward Bound and some of their parents) in that game, rather than as spectators at a prize fight.  In the event McKibben couldn’t arrange to come;  so his “side” was taken by a Skype presentation of the Climate Reality Project’s slide show on portents of climate change, delivered by Dr. Frederic Joyce of Utica, New York.   (I invited also several of my acquaintances here to join in the audience on a Saturday morning; only one came.)  I tried to set up for us all the personal space as primary context by asking the Opposites to name and say a little something about their children;  and I tried to demonstrate with Michaels the difference between a formal and empty handshake without true contact and a grip that included our persons in a real meeting.  And soon after the Skype connection was established, Michaels asked Joyce, upon learning that he was a heart surgeon, about a condition he’s been diagnosed with, asking for and receiving with grace a personal answer.  But these momentary interventions were too small, swamped by the Opposites’ mighty and culturally appropriate commitment to their respective messages.  What follows is the report I sent in a letter to each of them describing my experience of their interaction, and responding to their experiences of it.

“First, I apologize to both of you for the format of this first Meeting – I’m afraid it produced precious little Meeting, and, if your emails post-event are evidence, not much true Opposition either.  As I said at the outset, and might have reemphasized if I’d been cleverer, this was an experiment, the first try to be adjusted when the results were in. And it suffered from just the defects Joyce pointed out – not being present in the room, he was at a distinct disadvantage, at least as far as a full and fair hearing was the object. No slide show in existence, I think, could compete with the impassioned presence of a speaker engaged with an audience.    Mr. Michaels, it seems you were gunning for a fight with the “hotheads” of climate apocalypse, perhaps particularly Al Gore, and taking that animus into the meeting, you performed splendidly, and not only as a debater.  And I failed to allow for the possibility that Joyce might have interacted with your show as it was going on;  he had no chance to respond to the challenge of your presentation at the end.

“What we ended up with – in the room, at least – was about 99% debate (i.e., monologue)  and 1% meeting – though the kids in the audience did get the encounter as a personal event (one said ‘that doctor was just being nice to talk to us on his work day, and the other dude shot him down.’)  Thus my luck in scheduling the event for this audience bore unexpected fruit.  But instead of confronting that monological juggernaut, the inexorable debate, and using it to get on the meeting wavelength, we all politely ignored the assertive-combative aspect between you.  The conversation was thwarted, then, not only by the one-side-then-the-other format with no chance for reply, nor by the limited time we had together with that particular audience,  but by what I’d call the expectations built into our colloquy before it even starts, patterns of response that reinstall themselves again and again as we speak with each other.  When debate arises, do we automatically shunt it off into the arena of Us-versus-Them, so we can ignore it and persist in our comfortable opinions?

“So I was grateful and relieved to find both your emails waiting for me Sunday, because one of the pernicious patterns that uses us is deflection:  “well, that didn’t work so well;  let’s move on.”  We give up on each other too soon.   But it seems you are both willing to stay engaged at least for a while after the first confrontation, for the sake of something that might show up afterwards.  I don’t know how long you’re willing to extend this exchange, but I’m hoping you will both bear with me for a while longer.

“Another pattern that led to a dead end is winner/loser:  looking for which arguments and presentation sound better, persuade better, look better, on some scale of evaluation.  Not that evaluation is not needed;  but maybe it can’t substitute for our realest need:  to acknowledge and harness our personal being-together here and now.  I don’t know if anyone heard me ask at a certain point in Michaels’ presentation if Dr. Joyce was still present by Skype – or if anyone but me heard Michaels’ response that “it doesn’t matter.”  Why wouldn’t it matter?  Because this was a battle of slide-shows, not an engagement of persons?  How come it automatically turned into that?

“A third was bailiwick guarding (forgive my impromptu tags):  Is the concerned citizen less able to discern the truth than the academic scientist?  How should we deal with disparities in background and preparation?  Is dismissing the other side as “unqualified” or “factually deficient” dispositive?  Depends on what we were trying to achieve.

“A fourth is all the varieties of ad hominem attack. We can accuse each other of riding one gravy train or another, but why would different people find different sources of funding for their activities?  It is to be noted that Michaels and Cato waived a substantial honorarium for this appearance.  One of the questions I wish I’d had time to delve into further is the difference between “conservative” and “libertarian” labels, which Michaels emphasized. But even if the label clarified the matter of influence on the discussant’s positions, why should a pigeonhole take the place of a person?  In a curious way the ad hominem attack – the argument to the man – masquerades as actual encounter between men.  Who is wrong, who is to blame?, instead of Who are you?

“All of these patterns – call them skewers – supplant that being-for-one-another, that sense of membership, that includes opposite positions as the left and right legs, the members of a walking body.  The meat on the skewer is a severed muscle.  I hope we might begin, after the positions are strongly stated and after the issues of format and fairness are aired, to ask each other some different questions:

  • Why does what appears as evidence appear so?
  • Who are our children?  How are they more than biological results?
  • What facts of existence on the planet do we share, as mortal beings?

Our challenge is not to win a debate.  It is to walk uphill together. To enable that musculature, we need this phenomenon of meeting.  If I’d had you in the room together, I might have proposed arm-wrestling, a muscular confrontation.  That and eye contact might have raised the meeting percentage.

“Of course, I need to find other meeting-inducing questions;  and to guard against the easy notion that it’s one question or another, or some format, that will induce that turning towards the other which Buber calls the “basic movement,”  the “essential action” of the life of dialogue.  I like Burke’s maxim, which I hadn’t heard before – “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest virtue.”   Magnanimity may contribute to Meeting. But if opposition is true friendship, as Blake said, he must have meant that true opposition is friendship.  I don’t think we’d see you two as exactly friends, yet;  but maybe that’s because we haven’t achieved true opposition, between you and among us.

“I am betting that if in these Meetings we can bring together the living persons who inhabit the positions, so that they can turn to each other and step up to address each other, we will find ourselves with them in a wholly new arena, where the contest becomes a real dialogue, not of one position against another, nor of one individuality against another, but creation of a space for a spontaneous and unpredictable conversation.  This arena of the essential movement – turning to each other to establish a living mutual relation – is a space which maintains itself only so long as the participants hold it up, but it is one whose resonance among us, if my bet pays off, will renew our polity along with our schooling.  Our gratitude for each other will then transcend the magnanimity with which it began.

“Thanks for your engaged listening as I think about what I’m doing, and for your generosity in standing up as the first Opposites.  As you reflect on the experience, please let me know if you think of other or better ways to make Meeting out of Opposites.  We may owe you much more than polite thanks.”

So I may lose my bet.  Indeed, it is likely, given the hegemony of Us-Against-Them.  But I am making the bet anyway, as I have nothing to lose except my self-image as a teacher and my insulation from my society – and I can learn from either of those outcomes.

Henry McHenry Jr.,  May 2012

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