In almost every one of the leading controversies. . . both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though in the wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the others’ views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.
– John Stuart Mill
The Asteroid Club Convenes
Any time two people with differing political identities mutually acknowledge that the other side may see some real threats more clearly than does one’s own side, the Asteroids Club has been convened. It can be as simple and as informal as two friends at lunch taking turns talking about asteroids, or a dinner party with 8 or 10 friends. Or your meeting can be formal with the public invited to attend. Read more
A meeting should have two conveners, one from each side of the aisle. It is critical to the success of your effort that the conveners have an existing relationship. They can, but don’t have to be, the same people who started the club. Each convener comes with an asteroid to share, along with a fundamental commitment that his ability to be well understood rests on a demonstrated effort to understand his partner’s asteroid (the audience makes that commitment in a public event by their proxy). The conveners each assist other guests in this reciprocal spirit by modeling it themselves and explicitly stating this principle at the beginning of the meeting. By harnessing the power of reciprocity, you are using human nature to your advantage.
Conveners can share whatever they need to help explain their asteroids – whether it’s a video, a fact sheet, or an article. For a more formal public Asteroids Club event, the conveners might choose to each bring an expert in the area of discussion to join in as a resource.
Find a sample format for an informal Asteroids Club dinner party here and a more formal public event here. Click here for materials that will help you prepare for your program and click here for a listing for quotes that might be helpful.
Summon reason, but pay closer attention to intuition
Conveners should make every effort to support each asteroid with intuitive arguments that speak to the heart of the issue more than deluging listeners with copious facts and figures. You can read about Jonathan Haidt’s elephant and rider metaphor that supports this approach here. Facts can be a bottomless abyss from which even a fleet of fact-checking experts might not emerge from until a week later, thirsty and bleary-eyed… meanwhile your meeting became unbearably dull and the disagreements intractable. Fact checks also tend to support a tit-for-tat process that is antithetical to the Asteroids Club. Consider implementing a one-minute rule on factual disagreement – if it can’t be resolved in one minute, the factual question goes on a piece of paper or a blackboard for another day and an ambitious Asteroid Clubber with fierce Google skills. Read more
Facts are surely important, but if you’re going to rely on them in explaining your asteroid, make them manageable by bringing a simple one page (one-sided) fact sheet to put in front of participants at the beginning of the discussion (or even get it to them ahead) to serve as a baseline for your discussion.
Be sure to verify your own facts before you bring them – remember that bad facts inevitably lead to bad outcomes, and that could mean that even if everyone sees your asteroid, your might not be able to deflect it. “Facts” advanced in today’s hyperpartisan debate are often either untrue or half-true and built to advance an ideology rather than to represent a broad and accurate sense of reality. You’ll have a hard time getting people to see your asteroid if you bring only easily dismissed memes to support your case. Also consider the context of the facts to be sure you’re not leaving out critical countervailing information and thus damaging your own case. When assembling your facts, remember you’re going for the broadest possible recognition of your asteroid – which means more people to help divert it – so don’t include extraneous and gratuitous points that some people are less likely to agree to. (Read about sacred objects, which you should take great care to avoid whacking at or you risk dooming your argument.)
Telescopes Come Into Play
An Asteroids Club would never hold debates. People use reasoning to find evidence to bolster their existing beliefs, so debates can often increase polarization. Rather, a local Asteroids Club would hold “telescope parties” in which members help each other to see approaching asteroids. For someone who has never seen the asteroid, a telescope can work wonders in snapping them out of denial. Read more
And even if you’re the one who sees the asteroid, with a good telescope you’re suddenly able to see its surface in more detail and complexity. The “skeptics” (who are not opponents at an Asteroids Club meeting, but your ally in asteroid-deflecting) function as your telescope. Far from being annoyances, their questions – and often their points of disagreement – can serve to help you see the asteroid in more depth, dimension and accuracy. Remember that at the same time that people on your side of the aisle are more likely to see your asteroid, they’re also more likely to be blind to some of the critical details about it (read about morality binding and blinding us here). An unflinching steely-eyed understanding of the asteroid is critical to dealing with it.
Participants might break then into ideological groups briefly after each convener has explained their asteroid, in discussion led by each convener. The groups must remember that far from being tasked with shooting holes in the other argument, their goal is to make every effort to really try to acknowledge the asteroid inevitably affects willingness to recognize yours. For those who didn’t see the asteroid before the meeting, are you persuaded? Is there information that can be added or adjustments that can be made that will help more of you agree that the asteroid is indeed real? For those who have always seen the asteroid, listen to the reservations that have been expressed by the skeptics. Do you now see new things that help broaden your understanding of the asteroid, help you to see why people aren’t seeing it and possibly strengthen ideas about diverting it? A keener understanding of the factors that keep skeptics from seeing the asteroid is a fundamental step in dealing with the asteroid, so your group has a goal of increasing your understanding of the other side. Ultimately, the more people who see the asteroid, the better chance it can be diverted.
Food opens hearts
Consider making food a part of your Asteroids Club event. It can be as formal as a catered dinner with pre-sold tickets or as simple as inviting people to bring their favorite take-out. Even coffee and store-bought cookies can change the trajectory and the tone of the evening for the better. Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart. Sharing a meal or a conversation allows social interactions that foster the mutual recognition of everyone’s decency and sincerity. If hearts can open, minds can follow.
Facilitating a Non-Debate
Please remember this is not a debate with the participants scoring points against each other. It is an opportunity for members of a community to explain what matters to them most deeply (their asteroid) and for others to try to understand why it’s so important. The magic is that folks with different moral and political beliefs each get to share what matters to them. The key is that you’ve got to listen, with empathy, to the “other side” in order to have the right to explain your side and be heard. Read more
The goal is to increase understanding within your community. To do so, it is helpful to make the audience a team tasked with understanding the other side.
The Facilitator must try to keep it from becoming a tit-for-tat debate. Each side gets to explain its asteroid and then the Facilitator manages the discussion to allow “skeptics” (not opponents) to ask questions or even make points, but remember the goal.
There will undoubtedly be critical facts in dispute and there is value in crystalizing what those factual disputes are (identifying them by writing them down). You may not be able to solve them at the meeting but identifying them for further discussion or follow-up research can help increase understanding. Clearly identifying the assumptions the person explaining the asteroid is making will be helpful.
After the asteroid is explained and the attendees have a chance to ask questions, the Facilitator should ask what arguments “the skeptics” found most compelling, or whether anyone attending learned something they did not already know. Perhaps there will some obvious common ground which results from the gathering, but don’t expect that level of success. The goal is to increase understanding and the means is to provide a safe place for people with different perspectives to explain themselves.