Imagine you are walking along a road and see a nondescript building with a bright street sign outside saying, “Important Conversations that Can Change Your Life.”
“Hmm,” you think to yourself. “That’s too important to pass by.” So, you walk through the brick archway and enter a short, dimly lit corridor. At the end of the passageway you find yourself facing two closed doors. You have a choice of two rooms to walk into, each containing two very different sets of circumstances.
On the black door to your right, the sign says “Binary Confrontation: Hostile environment where people attack and shame each other. Nothing to learn here.”
The white door on the left says, “Engaged Presence: Exciting exchange of ideas and good-natured dialogue with very interesting people. Everyone learns something.”
You linger for a moment, shifting your weight from one foot to the other. Then you choose the room on the right: confrontation. You twist the doorknob and enter to the sound of yelling and screaming…
Engaged Presence Versus Binary Confrontation
Perhaps you are thinking: “No! I could never be that stupid. I would choose the other door!”
But is that what you actually do in your everyday life, especially in online environments? The truth is that if you look at most online discussion forums, especially ones where there is limited moderation or where people tend to be anonymous, many or most people are choosing the Binary Confrontation door. It’s very likely that you choose the conflict and intolerance option at least some of the time, as do I.
In this article I am going to show you how to find and to choose the white door. But like Neo in The Matrix deciding upon taking the blue or the red pill, you are going to have to want it.
Binary confrontation is founded upon judgment and denunciation of the other. It tends to degenerate into tribalism, as people pick and choose sides. True presence, true empathy becomes impossible. So does logic and reason, because emotionality often usurps data.
The problem with binary confrontations extends beyond chat rooms to the blogosphere and media itself, where commentators and journalists push forward volatile and provocative ideas to stir people up, to get them to click on links and to get them to keep coming back for more.
And we are queuing up to join the fight.
In the real world of flesh and blood people, confrontational binaries appear to be ever-increasing, spilling over from our virtual worlds. We see them in politics, campus protests, public demonstrations, and workplace disputes.
Yet one of the great blessings of life is when we are engaging others in a relaxed state of mind, even if we disagree with them. There is something intrinsically consciousness-expanding about being in open dialogue with others. When we are truly present with others, our minds and hearts seem to become bigger.
Ideas and attitudes can expand consciousness. So can exchanges with others.
Or all these things can contract consciousness.
As a person with a spiritual perspective on life, I have a general rule: move towards that which expands consciousness; move away from that which contracts it. The awareness of the distinction between these two modes of experience requires no college degree or study under a spiritual master. All you have to do is relax and feel what is happening in your body. Is your consciousness expanding. Or is it contracting?
How to Nurture Engaged Presence
There’s a wonderful example of Engaged Presence I stumbled across recently on the internet. The occasion was when Russell Brand interviewed Jordan Peterson on Brand’s podcast.
Now, anybody who knows about even a little about both men would know that there is likely an awful lot that they disagree on. Brand is well entrenched on the left side of politics, and some might even call him a social justice warrior. Peterson on the one hand describes himself a classical liberal (libertarian), and has been openly critical of some ideas on the left, including identity politics and postmodern thought. And yet the dialogue between the two men is possibly the best example of Engaged Presence I have ever come across where the individuals involved have significant differences. I suggest you watch at least some of that podcast, because the conversation embodies precisely what I am going to outline below.
You might like to compare that chat with a conflict-ridden one Russel Brand conducted with Sam Harris just one week prior. Both interviews are long. You can get a good sense of Engaged Presence in the Brand/Peterson chat from minutes 40:00-45:00, and binary confrontation in the Brand/Harris talk at the same point: minutes 40:00-45:00.
What is it that both Brand and Peterson did that permitted Engaged Presence to flourish? The answer is that Brand and Peterson practiced almost all of the following strategies in their ninety minutes together.
Helpful Strategies to Promote Engaged Presence
See Your Agenda. The first thing to do when you engage someone is to acknowledge your agenda. Is there some part of your mind that is trying to force a perspective on the other person, or to discredit or slander them? Do you believe yourself to be morally or intellectually superior to the other? Perhaps you are smarter, wiser or more knowledgeable in some ways, but these attitudes may also be delusional. Regardless, they will likely derail open discussion.
We all have agendas. That’s how minds function. In particular, look to see if you have an aggressive agenda. Acknowledge it to yourself. No need to beat yourself up. Just notice it.
Don’t engage while angry: retreat! The most common way to fall into the trap of binary confrontation is to start talking or writing while angry. If you find yourself being angry, step away (if possible). Or practice some mindful breathing until such time as you are able to assume responsibility for your neurophysiological state. Ideally, step back into the space of dialogue only when you are centered and present.
Begin by agreeing. When you enter a space pf dialogue, find some point with which you agree with the other person, and state it. This will help the other person relax. You might say, “I agree that criticism of Person X is warranted…”
Listen first. You have two ears and one mouth, so listen twice as much as you speak. This is an old maxim. The Dalai Lama said something along those lines. Make sure you take the time to listen to the person you are communicating with. You just might learn something.
Acknowledge and praise. We all like to be affirmed. Acknowledge or praise the other person. This is precisely the opposite to what many people do on the internet (I have done this more often than I’d like to confess). People often begin by angrily denouncing the other person, calling them stupid deluded or immoral. Needless to say, there is no chance of Engaged Presence thereafter. Trust is lost, and once gone, trust is very difficult to recover.
Acknowledging the other person means you show some interest in the other person. A big mistake is to simply see them as an abstract idea that has to be crushed or eliminated. Judgment, by its nature, seeks to annihilate that which it judges. We all know this intuitively, and it’s why we tend to experience fear and anger when we get judged. Judgment destroys presence, both in the judger and the judged. Remember that.
Avoid Declarative Language. Words and phrases that are less harsh and show a willingness to be flexible are more likely to set the other person at ease.
Avoid phrases like, “It is absolutely clear/certain that…”, “Nobody in their right mind can dispute…”, “This argument has been debunked by…”, “Such a point is silly, ridiculous, deluded, crazy etc.”
Instead use phrases like “There is an argument that…”, “Person X has conducted research that indicate that…”
Invite the other person to consider your point. Here you can use questions and phrases that allow the other person to save face, or perhaps even provide knowledge that they already have in favour of your point. “What do you think of the argument that…?”, “Do you think Person X’s ideas carry much weight…?”, “In what ways do you think Position X idea is better than Position Y.”
Admit what you don’t know. Even if you are really, really smart there is still a lot more you don’t know than you do know. Be honest! Are you certain that global warming is a hoax? Are you sure that it is the result of human activity? How do you know this? I choose climate change as an example, because it is a very complex phenomenon which very few human beings today are highly informed about. While I tend to side with the anthropocentric climate change argument, the truth is that I just don’t have the time or inclination to research the topic at the necessary depth to be anything but (reasonably) open minded. What I do know, however, is that the subject is incredibly important and our simply dismissing it could have dire consequences for all our futures.
Admit your uncertainties. Ask the other person to share their opinion and knowledge on the topic, on the areas that you are ignorant or uncertain of. If you are truly present with them, you will sense soon enough if they have a strong agenda at the level of mind top try to manipulate you.
Always leave a space for not knowing. Invite the other person to speak, even when their position differs from yours. After all. You might be wrong.
Avoid moralizing. This is a difficult one for many progressives and social justice warriors, because their discourses are often founded on the idea that they are morally above the other.
Justice and compassion are the foundations of the liberal/progressive mindset, as academic Jonathan Haidt has shown. These values and attitudes can be wonderful things. However, if they descend into an attitude of condescending moralization, they can lead to their own kind of bigotry. They may destroy presence, empathy and open engagement. Nobody listens to someone they are shaming or scolding. And I suspect folks who are being beaten probably aren’t going to listen to those giving them a good thrashing.
Consider this (and yes, I do concede that I am a rather pasty-faced white male). Many people on the political left have had bad experiences with religion. I have noted that many progressives particularly despise being told by religious folks that they are intrinsically evil – born with original sin. Yet they may be guilty of doing the same to others when engaged in political discussions. The entire idea of “white guilt”, as just one common example, has eerie similarities to the idea of original sin. If you are born with whiteness, you are a bad human. One must be cleansed, one must prove oneself to be pure and moral. The Catch-22 for those (white people) who refuse to admit this is that they must be guilty of the sins of racism and privilege. Otherwise, why would they deny it?
Judgments and moralizations, especially those founded on group identity, kill Engaged Presence dead.
Avoid labels and slandering. Slandering is a special form of labeling. Again, this is a big problem today for social justice warriors. You know the game. The other person is a: racist, sexist, transphobe, bigot, Nazi, fascist and so on. Those on the right side of politics have their own put-downs: libtard, commy, communist, Maoist, bleeding-heart liberal etc.
Again, today’s media plays a part in this cultural development, and often promulgates slander in order to get clicks. Slandering those who disagree with us has become embedded in the culture.
If you label someone you will never see them. You will merely see your label, your narrative. Unfortunately, many terms that were once at least reasonably neutral are now commonly used in the pejorative form. Consider the following: liberal/conservative, left-winger/right-winger, capitalist/socialist. Which of these are typically used as negative terms in the circles you tread? Your answer will reveal which tribe you tend to hang out with.
I see no reason why any of these terms should be intrinsically threatening. But they often are used as insults. For example, “right-winger” is often a synonym for “Nazi” these days. In fact, there are many perfectly decent human beings who identify as right-wing or conservative. It’s really only extremists who are a big problem. It is the same with the term “liberal.” Liberals, by definition, are open and agreeable people. It’s only when you get to the far left that you get entrenched intolerance and the slamming of free speech. Not everybody who identifies as “liberal’” is roaming the streets in black masks setting fire to buildings and smashing up cars, trash cans and people with their baseball bats. No. That would be Antifa, who are an extremist leftist group.
Have fun, but not at another’s expense. In the book and movie The Name of the Rose (spoiler alert!), set in medieval times, the villain seeks to literally poison the texts of The Comedies of Aristotle because “laughter destroys fear.” Anyone who thumbs through the text dies because the pages are literally toxic. The villain believes that the fear of God must be driven into people, or the world will degenerate into Godlessness and sinfulness.
In some ways we see a similar phenomenon today. There are those who wish to quash laughter and light-heartedness. They are very, very, very serious. In their quest to build an idealistic future, to impose fairness and equality across all segments of society, they simply cannot tolerate anybody having a joke, especially about culture or social groups (especially “victim” groups).
I understand why they wish to avoid bigotry, but we have to be careful not to become too serious. Laughter does destroy fear! So, have a laugh. If you cannot laugh at the other (admittedly dangerous these days), laugh at yourself or your group. Self-derogatory humor, in moderation, can be a very healthy thing. It can also set the other person and group at ease.
But be warned, humor can offend. And you already know that offending people today can bring swift consequences.
Into the Shadow
There is one other process that can be permitted in order to facilitate engaged presence. Yet this is only for the hard core. It involves allowing vulnerability by exposing one’s shadow – the dark projections that we would prefer others not see. Maybe, we’d prefer not to see them either.
For example, in a New York Times article a few days ago, David Brooks suggested that liberals and conservatives could meet in “trust and respect” to nut out differences over gun culture. Specifically, he referred to a non-profit organisation called Better Angels. Members of that organization travel from town to town and try to bring liberals and conservatives together. Part of the process involves members of both camps acknowledging their own stereotypical prejudices towards the other camp. Apparently is helps people see the other side as being more real. More human.
Yet such vulnerability can backfire badly, because it grants an opportunity for those with a hostile agenda to attack you. And that is exactly what happened with the Brooks article. It drew fire from savage critics almost immediately, suggesting that Brooks wanted to open up a dialogue with violent thugs and bigots.
Therefore, I would encourage caution when unveiling the shadow in public spheres. A watered-down version is advised, such as merely admitting that you have sometimes irresponsibly criticized the other (group), or have previously done the thing you are now finding fault with in them.
Proceed with caution.
You are imperfect
Finally, none of us is perfect, and you’ll probably break at least some of these rules from time to time when you are engaging others. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about that. You might even like to apologize to the other person or group. That was one of Dale Carnegie’s great maxims. Always be the first to apologize.
Again, there is a caveat. When the other person has a destructive agenda, apologizing may be seen as a weakness and as an opportunity to attack you. You have to be careful, both with the media and in online environments.
What does one do, then, when one encounters an extremely aggressive individual or group who simply will not relax into open dialogue? Perhaps they are chronically confrontational, and perhaps annihilating your ideas and your integrity is part of their agenda.
The answer is this. Where possible, walk away. If there is no need to engage such people, don’t. There are literally hundreds or even thousands of other people you can meet and engage productively with over the next year or so. These are encounters that can expand your mind and theirs. Why waste time with haters?
Of course, there is no guarantee that Engaged Presence will produce a positive response. Just a few weeks before his interview with Russel Brand, Jordan Peterson was interviewed by Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4. Peterson was very relaxed and engaged in that interview, while Newman was relentless in trying to derail him via repeated judgments and strawman paraphrasing. She tried to discredit him, to paint him as a sexist and bigot.
Under such circumstances there is not much one can do, but to stay present, and to not fall into the trap of becoming scared, angry and hostile. This is no mean feat, especially if there are millions of people looking on while the other person or group is trying to flush your name down the gurgler.
Sometimes, the other person will have such a powerful intention to confront you or even deceive you that Engaged Presence is not possible. Yet even one person being in presence can be a powerful catalyst learning for those looking on. Peterson won widespread support for his informed, calm and good-natured responses to Cathy Newman in that interview.
When you enter a debate or space where ideas are being contested, you may be the only person there who is consciously attempting to create a truly open dialogue. But the good news is that Engaged Presence tends to make people relax. When you are open and receptive to others it often facilitates the same attitudes and behaviors in the person you are talking to.
Remember the two Russell Brand interviews mentioned above, and the differing consciousness they engendered? Both videos have drawn hundreds of thousands of clicks to date. Jordan Peterson’s approach facilitated Engaged Presence, bringing out the best in Russell Brand. Both men appeared to learn a lot. You can see from the comments under the video that the audience appreciated that, with there being 35 times as many likes as dislikes. There is little or no communal bickering. Sam Harris’ approach, conversely, helped create a binary confrontation. Harris’ style brought out the worst in his adversary (who admittedly did the same). The two men squabbled. The comments section features many fans of Harris and Brand going for each other’s throats. It drew one-third dislikes to likes.
Remember, the expression of consciousness you exhibit (for better and worse) can influence others, even when they do not realize it.
The Price You Pay
There is, of course, a price to pay for choosing the white door. You will need to permit a greater degree of detachment from your thoughts and opinions, and from knowledge in general. You will need to tolerate a greater degree of ambiguity and uncertainty.
This takes practice. Detached thinking does not come naturally to we human beings. We like certainty and closure. We tend to become as attached to our ideas and thoughts as we do to physical things, friends and family. We also like belonging to a group with whom we share a common belief structure. We are tribal by nature.
The benefit of Engaged Presence is not just that it promotes a more peaceful and open dialogue. You will also grow and develop as a human being. You will learn so much more over the next few weeks, months and years than you ever could have if you’d been less open and welcoming of other people and ideas. Better still, you will likely be part of the healing of the cultural divide.
So why not give it a go? Open that white door.