An Incubator for Self-Reflection, Skepticism, and Effective Dialogue (ISSED)

A Proposal for the wider Secular Community, from Podcasters and YouTubers to Organizers and Leaders

I officially propose that we all come together to create an “Incubator for Self-Reflection” - a real conversation platform for the Right and the Left to talk openly and honestly about problems within their own community. A series of video chats, podcast discussions, and threads could be a starting point. Campus talks to follow.

One of the biggest problems today is the unwillingness of any side to criticize their own camp. This is fundamentally unhealthy, and detrimental to progress. We need to revolutionize the nature of conversation, through honesty self-reflection within our own movements and communities.

While most political discussion forums — be it on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or in-person debate — aim to ‘win’ and score points against the Other Side via a zero-sum contest, the main point of Honesty Incubators should be for people to honesty reflect.

This can be a cooperative exercise by different political factions. Here is an example. Imagine if people were to write up or vocalize their top 3 observations and questions for defenders of each side to honesty address. This would force a conversation, in a transparent and productive way. I’d like to see an ongoing discussion across campuses, podcasts, blogs, and video chats, about the need for the Left, and the Right to seriously address the sizable problems of tribalism, dogmatism and authoritarianism within their own camps.

Counterextremism, Reform and Reason Revival (CE3R)

“This should become a new arms race of compassionate conversation, from coast to coast, across the tapestry of our American landscape.”

This is a proposal for a wider discussion and debate by the secular community, on serious reform within the Left and the Right, and reform within social justice activism. Dogmatism and tribalism — as well as a desire to shut off people with differing viewpoints and avoid exposure to helpful criticism — is currently a sizable problem worth addressing. It is a problem which — if my psychological warfare background and understanding of moral psychology research has anything helpful to say - will further empower the far Right and play into the phenomenon of ‘echo chamber reciprocity’.

Serious changes are needed. We can find a road map ahead, together in solidarity, on the basis of scientific skepticism, reason and human dignity.

Immediate Objective: Get people — and different factions — in the wider secular, humanist and atheist communities talking to each other, in a productive way, and foster more open, public self-reflection for naming and addressing problems within one’s own idea community. Essentially, to empower reform from within.

Ultimate Objective: The extremists and echo chamber ideologues will become less relevant, while mainstream Americans talking to one another in a sensible fashion will start to become the new trend. That’s been my theory for a decade, and I’m willing to be wrong. But I really think it’s possible to “incubate” civil discussion the way we do with iPhone apps

Summary of what I am proposing for the secular community

I’m working with people in the secular community to start a series of productive conversations about the need to bridge the divide on this issue. I’d honestly love to talk more about that.

Here’s why I’m so concerned with the state of our broken discourse right now within these topics:

I genuinely think the very basis on which Americans (in general) debate and discuss controversial politics and social issues is broken, on a fundamental level. I see this deeply seated within the secular and reason community as well. The virtues of skepticism and reasoned processes of thinking tend to be overtaken by tribalism and echo chamber in-fighting the very moment the word “feminism” or “social justice” pops up, and this is a problem across the isle. It is a breakdown of skepticism, reason and compassion that both sides of the “PC Debate” need to help us all fix.

Many YouTube exchanges and videos are a living embodiment of this echo chamber reciprocity. Various ‘Teams’ rarely attempt to bridge gaps or find common ground. Most certainly doesn’t change their mind or live the ideals of Carl Sagan while responding to others with differing points of view.

Another example of this abysmal failure is the back and forth combative echo chambering between those “Ten Questions (Black People / Naive Americans / Women etc) have for White People”, and the famous YouTube critics of those videos, who sweepingly dismiss rather than engage. Or the Diehard Leftist who reflexively ignores and blocks rather than engages in good faith.

There is a much better way to bridge much of that divide, and have those conversations. I may come across as arrogant here but I could do a far better job than most famous YouTube “celebs” at discussing and bringing redeaming conversation on the social justice spectrum of topics. It may not get the massive YouTube hits that sensational douchbaggery infused with some basic wit tends to get, but it would actually move us in a productive direction and dialogue.

We need an overhaul in how we have conversations on this PC topic, and on most social justice issues. Our playbook needs to be re-written in many ways.

Here’s some evidence that this can work:

Last weekend, I set up and chaired 3 discussion panels at the 2017 Left Forum, all on controversial topics (including police reform, and Islam & ex-Muslims). They went surprisingly well. Many in attendance were very receptive and engaging. I also did a team debate on Political Correctness here in NYC recently, and we saw enormous common ground and audience engagement. Both our opponents and audience members came up to me afterwards and told me they felt it to be a great discussion. And most I talk to in the bar, pub or on the street about this see a greyzone of common sense between the absurdity of the fossilized, outdated, childish “Left vs Right” model of simpleton thinking. A grey area of dignified conversation between the extremes of ideology. A space we can occupy between the usual Black and White Fallacy of false choice that tends to permeate these echo chambers.

The idea that we must be “Pro” or “Anti” PC in binary sense is patently absurd. What if we were to re-frame it entirely:

There are good forms of PC, and toxic forms of PC. It depends on how we define our terms

Helping people in our community understand and discuss these distinctions and demarcate these differences is one of the best services we can render in this domain of conversation.

We likely won’t move the DieHards or extremists. But I think most of us can find a space in which these gaps can be at least reasonably bridged in some key areas.

Practical Way Forward

Here is what I propose, and I think it would appeal to people across the spectrum, including to anyone on the Left with even a few ounces of self-reflection and intellectual honesty. I officially propose that we create ‘incubators’ for real discussion, and self-criticism. That’s correct, self-critique. Inward reflection. Self-examination. All of us benefit from this wonderful entity, which has driven human progress and made the world go round since the dawn of Socrates. I would love to see an open, honest, raw, and unfiltered discussion by people across the Left spectrum about where the cutoff point is for shutting down speakers.

So, for example, if a conservative thinks that affirmative action should be questioned, or that certain campus sexual assault statistics are misleading, or that certain speech policies are misguided, should they be deemed a ‘Nazi’, or perhaps a ‘Nazi Lite’? And should they be silenced by a mob?

And how are people defining White Supremacy here, when they label people? The traditional definition (and the kind advocated by Nazis) is different than the Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality definition.

People who identity as “anti-SJW” can engage in an open, honest self-assessment: do many on that side of the social media sphere have an empathy problem? Is there a lack of compassion there for the vulnerable, for the genuinely struggling and the ones sincerely seeking a bigger voice? Is there too feeble an effort to bridge the divide? Could people do more to better understand the nuance of terms and movements like ‘social justice’? Is it possible that perhaps some people are too reflexively dismissive of any form of identity politics, when that term had deep historical meaning in its original forms during the Civil Rights era?

Exchange Spaces Summary


Dr. Michael Rectenwald and I founded a bold new endeavor to defy the toxic environment across much of modern academia, and expand the space in which civil dialogue and reasoned compassion is possible.

This is only the beginning. Science, reason and compassion will win. Polarization and hate will lose. The walls of our ideological prisons will be torn down, and extremists on both sides will finally, one day, be marginalized by the voices of civil discourse.

Americans will start talking to Americans again. It is a long day away, a hard journey, but it will come.

Examples of Panels and Dialogue

The following (to be continually built on with ongoing conversation projects and events) is content from our talks and participatory dialogues on and off campus, and within local NYC communities.

Salah, Mike and myself at the recent 2017 Left Forum. This otherwise controversial dialogue was surprisingly effective, even as it took place in the Mecca of the American Leftist community. Our aim was to demonstrate how we can have productive and non-bigoted yet honest dialogue on the subject of Islam, tolerance and the treatment of ex-Muslims. We had several Muslims in the audience and it was very engaging. I invite people to take a look at the YouTube clip, below.

Islam, Tolerance, and how to have The Conversation: Supporting Muslims, minorities, women and human rights movements across Islamic societies

“…many here in the West are afraid to have this conversation, because it is a sensitive topic. People are rightly concerned about bigotry, anti-Muslim hatred and the rise of Right Wing fascism across America and Europe, as well as the anti-Muslim sentiment of the Trump era. However, we need the tools to meaningfully and productively discuss the topic of Islam and human rights movements, and there is a way to do it. This panel seeks to help give people a way to have the very conversations that many are afraid or hesitant to have, but which are needed more than ever. As a Jordanian-American who underwent Palestinian refugee status, Salah himself is someone who speaks powerfully to this reality. As a panel, we will aim to create a productive conversation that will help bridge gaps, and build bridges.”

Debate: Has Political Correctness Gone Too Far?

“I want to find areas where we can all can agree. Ways we can acknowledge the legitimate grievances and concerns that often underscore the spirit behind political correctness, such as oppression, marginalized people, and human vulnerability. How we can recognize these realities and tackle these problems with honesty and courage, while still avoiding the entrapment of rigid ideology, political dogmatism, demonizing of dissenting opinions, and fear of open conversation.”

Understanding our differences, and facilitating Emotionally Effective Communication

Imagine two people sitting down, discussing their backstories and inner lives, and trying to imagine ‘what it is like’ to be the other person. To walk in their shoes. And then, connecting with more and more people from the ‘other group’, as their spheres of inclusion is expanded and their moral and intellectual horizons broadened.

Veterans and Scientific Skepticism collaborating: The Campus Counterinsurgency Project

This describes how peaceful models of Counterinsurgency, Tribal Engagement, Cultural Understanding, Applied Psychology, Social Science and Anthropology can help us bridge the toxic divide on campuses across America.

One of our project aims is to host and train others across campuses, eventually Nation-wide, to create new and better venues for real exchange

Lessons from Science, Moral Psychology, and Warzone Counterinsurgency

Here are some principles of combatting extremism and defeating radical insurgency that are more relevant to our political landscape than ever before. They are lessons that we can take from our warzones and the elite warriors who worked alongside local populations to combat pockets of extremism:

Understand the spectrum of political beliefs, motivations, and behaviors on the Other Side

Have a strategy of outreach and engagement with people who support ‘the Other Side’

Drive a wedge between the extremists and the wider population

Seek to build bridges with those who don’t share your goals. Find common ground

Engage and build bridges with diverse sections of the populace

Tailor your communication to reach people outside your inner circle of agreement

Engage with the population segments likely to be persuaded by extremist propaganda

A COUNTEREXTREMISM TOOLKIT

is designed to assist students, professors and skeptics around the country in creating real exchange and dialogue, while combating bigotry, dogma and tribalism. The following tools and ideas draw from the nonviolent side of Counterinsurgency (COIN), Special Operations, Tribal Engagement, Village Stability, Civil Affairs, Information Warfare, and Counter-extremism

These are lessons from Counterinsurgency and Counter-extremism that need to be carried over to how we understand the war of ideas and political battleground here at home, in America and much of Europe. In places in which the key ‘political and civil terrain’ is contested between various extremists and their echo chambers, we need to know how to respond. How to engage the different facets of the wider population with nuanced analysis and targeted messaging. And to do so with the humility to realize that many people we disagree with — which is often a rather sizable segment of the population at large — are not ‘The Enemy’. They should not be lumped into a simple category nor ‘otherized’ as an out-group.

Here are related articles I have written on this subject:

A Counterextremism Handbook for Defeating the Far Right
Lessons from Science, Moral Psychology, and Warzone Counterinsurgency

​_______

Why Bruce Lee’s Legacy should inspire us to revolutionize — and modernize — American political discourse
Lee’s unprecedented fusion of MMA, science and philosophy is an analogy worth exploring

_______

Truth Over Team Sport:
Politics, Moral Honesty, and why I took the Pro-Truth Pledge

The Long-Awaited Schism
Why True Liberals must Divorce themselves from the Tribal, Dogmatic and Intolerant side of the Left.

_______

A Reformation of the American Right
The Coming Civil War of Ideas, and the Road Ahead for Conservatism

_______

A Proposal for a Freethought Revolution within American Politics
A Call to Action for Freethinkers everywhere, for a non-Dogmatic ‘Third Voice’ and a Revival of Science and Skepticism