I took an interest in the clip that was all over the internet last week of an episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian-talk-show-host exchanging with Sam Harris, the atheist-turned-mindfulness author, and Ben Affleck, the actor. If you haven’t already seen it, here’s a link to view the clip of their heated discussion.
Bill Maher begins the discussion by asserting that both he and Sam Harris have been trying to make the case that “liberals need to stand up for liberal principles” like freedom of thought and speech, religious freedom, freedom to leave a religion, and equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals, but says you can’t say those things about Muslims.
Sam Harris responds by asserting that, as he said, “Liberals have failed when it comes to theocracy, and have been sold this meme of ‘Islamaphobia’,” which is the problem of conflating criticism of Islamic doctrine and with bigotry towards Muslims as people.
Ben Affleck finds their position intolerable. As you watch the discussion unfold, you’ll see the moment where Bill Maher asks Ben Affleck why he is so upset, and Ben Affleck replies that what Bill Maher and Sam Harris are saying is “gross,” “racist,” and is just like saying, (he mocks), “you know, you have your shifty Jew…” In other words, according to Affleck, the conversation they are trying to have about Islam and Muslims is fundamentally racist.
This is the overwhelming moment when I imagined trying to facilitate this conversation. And it is why I think it caught the attention of so many people online and in the media, from the likes of Bill O Reilly to Reza Aslan to Dustin Di Perna.
In his op-ed piece, DiPerna points out how much the conversation could have benefitted from an integral clarification, particularly regarding levels of development because as he says, “two perspectives are simply talking past each other.”
He suggests the help of a developmental model, like that of Jame Fowler’s or Jean Gebser, because he writes, “what is needed is the critical comprehension that individuals, with different levels of development, are enacting Islam (and all other religious traditions) according to their own worldviews and levels of development. As development unfolds, interpretations of faith move from being more restrictive, ego-centric and ethno-centric in view to orientations that more compassionate, open, and world-centric.”
I couldn’t agree with Dustin more, but the challenge for a facilitator working in the here and now of conversation, is that bringing forward a developmental lens is usually a form of education—one that people will often reject in the heat of the moment if they are ensconced in and advocating for their own viewpoint. It is hard to learn when you are feeling strongly and just trying to get your point across.
So my suggestion for facilitators is that if you were there in person, first, back up to the very beginning and making an integral move of getting agreement from the participants that the conversation has multiple perspectives with multiple claims to truth.
That is the number one, most important agreement that a facilitator can get when embarking into this kind of territory. It moves the conversation from its natural and weary binary argumentative course and instead, opens up a landscape in which multiple perspectives can inhabit and grow up next to each other. (As Dustin would point out, success with this will depend on the developmental level of participants.)
Another Integral move that can be incredibly helpful is making the distinction between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person perspectives. If you pay attention to the conversation, you’ll see that it is all happening in a third person discourse. It is “about” liberals, “about” the unequal treatment of others, “about” religious doctrine and differences, “about” racism,” and this third person discourse is making demands on the participants without their knowing it.
Ben Affleck’s feeling states could be felt much more directly and honestly if he would speak from his first-hand experience about the pain of racism, and his commitment to refuse it. And those feelings could be received and integrated by the others if he were able to speak to his own experience, using, as we like to say, “I statements,” instead of simply off-loading the difficult feeling states onto the perceived shortcomings of Sam Harris.
We have all done it; we all do it, especially when we feel strongly. But an Integral model suggests that strong feelings deserve their rightful place in the conversation. They are energizing, enlivening and often bring the human heart to bear in the discussion. However, it takes some practice and skill to know how to work with strong feeling states so they can do their powerful work. And for the most part, they don’t belong in the objective realm of 3rd person.
Rarely, in this conversation, do these participants consciously move to a first person perspective and use it’s power. And only once did I notice acknowledgement of the second person dimension. And yet, the conversation itself is a second person phenomenon. It is all about “us” talking these issues over.
The list of Integral interventions one could use in a discussion like this goes on: from clear intention and purpose, to good reflective listening, to well-placed questions, to momentary challenges to the status quo, and the fine art of making the distinctions that can weave multiple views into a complex, but beautiful tapestry of exchange.
With luck, you might be able to introduce a developmental view later in the conversation if it is done lightly and makes use of the distinctions already introduced into the discussion; in this case, by Sam Harris delineating the difference between jihadists, fundamentalists or Islamists, and conservatives. In other words, he has created a natural opening to bring in a developmental lens.
There are many other Integral skills that could help this conversation along. If you are interested in exploring how you might have navigated this type of challenging conversation as a facilitator, I invite you to join us next week for a live, online demonstration and discussion about facilitating challenging conversations.
Live Integral Facilitator Open Call with Diane Musho Hamilton
Facilitating Challenging Conversations: An Integral unpacking of the Maher/Harris/Affleck debate
Thursday, October 23, 2014
9:00 a.m. PT / 10:00 a.m. MT / 12:00 p.m. ET
Register for the call (at no charge) HERE
Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.