Transcript of EP 229 – Jonathan Rowson on the Antidebate

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Jonathan Rowson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is Jonathan Rowson. Jonathan is the co-founder and CEO of Perspectiva. Well, what is Perspectiva, you might ask? According to our website, Perspectiva is a community of expert generalists working on an urgent 100-year project to improve your relationship between systems, souls, and society, in theory and practice, a nice modest ambition.

You can learn more about them at the none too succinct URL,, and as always, all the domain names mentioned and references and such can be found on our episode page at Previously, Jonathan was director of the Social Brain Center at the Royal Society of Arts, where he authored a range of influential research reports on behavior change, climate change, and spirituality. Welcome back, Jonathan.

Jonathan: Such a pleasure, Jim. Good to see you again.

Jim: Yeah, we’ve had several excellent conversations over the years. Back in Current 041, we had a really interesting conversation on the long essay Jonathan wrote called Our Meta Crisis Pickle. It was really a lot of detail. I thought it was a great conversation. Back in episode 127, we talked about on the moves that matter.

The other interesting thing about Jonathan’s background is he was a chess Grand Master. Still is, right? Last time we chatted, you were just getting back to doing a little bit of tournament play, right?

Jonathan: I still play a little bit, yeah. It’s a sideline now, but once a chess Grand Master, always a chess Grand Master somehow.

Jim: It’s funny, I played chess for the first time in 12 years about two weeks ago, and I am by no means a grand master. In fact, I always tell people I’m in that very weird place. I’m a very good barroom chess player. I very seldom lose in a barroom. I can usually beat street hustlers, but if I play with even a crappy tournament player, they mop the floor with me.

I don’t have opening books, I don’t have much any theory. I just build an extremely complicated mid-game that most people can’t follow, and then hope they make a blunder, right? That’s basically my approach.

Jonathan: You lure them into game B.

Jim: Exactly, into a swamp of complexity that they can’t understand, and then hope they make a mistake. Anyway, we talked about his book, which basically takes a lot of the lessons he’s learned from chess, and turns them around on how those things could actually be useful in our lives and thinking about the future. Then we had a short episode, but an interesting one, where Jonathan again talked about chess, and particularly the cheating drama between Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann?

I don’t know how that actually turned out, but it was interesting. We’ve had several good conversations over the years. Today, though, we’re going to talk about a project that Jonathan and Perspectiva have been working on, what, two, three years? Something like that?

Jonathan: About three, yeah.

Jim: That’s on something that they call the Antidebate. Let’s start with the converse, and you guys do talk about this a little bit, why do we need an Antidebate? What about conventional debates these days suck so bad?

Jonathan: Right. That was really the premise, at least the proximate premise for the project. There was a bigger picture analysis about the meta crisis, and the need for new social practices, and so on, but sticking with a simple problem, debate no longer being fit for purpose. There’s different aspects of this.

One is that debate is a form requiring typically two people, typically with some kind of proposition or contention, and it calls upon the skills of reason, and argumentation, and language to explore an issue in theory with a view to seeking the truth, and having your ideas tested by an opponent or an opposing view, and that somehow, through a convivial dialectical process, you would converge on an edifying and entertaining experience in which everyone was somewhat the wiser. That’s the theory, and at its best, it is like that, and it can still be like that.

We didn’t want to throw debate out completely. We’re merely recognizing that the world has changed, and that now in the social media architecture, where polarization is built in by design, where people connect with each other and find their tribal affinity as much in what they’re against as what they’re for, and they’re actually encouraged to think that way and act that way, in that kind of context, debate has often become a kind of spectacle of endemic polarization, in which people come out with straw man arguments to attack the other side and win the day with the sound bite of choice.

There’s a lot about debate that could be great and good, but we came to the view that it was irredeemable, that actually the world has changed so much that in most context, it’s never going to be adequate for the problems of our time. That’s not just the function of social media and cultural polarization. It’s also because the nature of the things we need to discuss now are no longer issue specific. We’re a little bit beyond the world of should we bring back capital punishment, or not? What should be the number of weeks for an abortion to be legal?

These kind of single issue questions are still very contentious and very alive, but mostly people recognize that all of our problems are somehow interconnected. You’re looking for a means of inquiry in which the group as a whole can actually see the bigger picture and see how everything is connecting. That relates to the last thing I’d want to say in the first answer, that we’re looking for multiple ways of knowing, that another limitation of conventional debate is it’s pretty much about propositional logic.

Mostly, it’s about knowing as proposition. It’s not knowing from somewhere. It’s not a kind of perspectival knowing. It’s not knowing how to do something, procedural knowing, and it’s not kind of participatory knowing. You’re not actually feeling your way through it as you do it. For all of these reasons, we wanted the much richer, fuller, more inclusive practice, and that’s what we set about to create.

Jim: Yeah, very good. In one of your materials, you quoted the Guardian is describing the Trump-Biden debate of September, 2020 as the “Debate Apocalypse.” I remember I watched that. It was totally useless, and then the Democratic debates during 2020 were also less than edifying, as I recall, and of course, the shit show debates of 2024, but even worse. At least at, supposedly, the top of the food chain, I think your premise that debate is a broken artifact seems true.

On the other hand, I point out there is still some more serious debate. The Oxford Union, for instance, still has some very interesting debates on a regular process. An organization I helped start called the MIT Free Speech Alliance also does a series of debates. We actually use modification of the Oxford Union process, where we have ours is two person teams, each get quite long periods of time to talk and rebut each other, et cetera. Then of course, we have high school and collegiate debating, which is actually a weird thing.

I did it a little bit in high school, and it’s not really debating. It’s an obscure point scoring method that is, I wouldn’t say not a good model, but kind of the stupidification of debate exemplified by the presidential or the… Do they have those kinds of hideous debates in the UK when y’all have elections, where the guys just like to throw mud pies at each other for an hour and a half?

Jonathan: Pretty much, yeah, we have versions of that, although these days it’s no longer seen as essential politically for someone to take part in a debate. It used to be that the crime of cowardice would be so great that you would lose lots of votes by not taking part, but it no longer seems to be the case. For what it’s worth, where you mentioned the Debate Apocalypse, 2020 was the year we began the project. It was very much in the atmosphere of those failed debates that we thought, okay, time to build something else.

In terms of the other forms that you alluded to, I partially accept that. I was a student at Oxford myself. I attended the Oxford Union. I took part in the kind of debates you mentioned, in which you have small teams, and it’s designed in a way that you’re building on prior arguments. You are responding to opposing views. Nonetheless, it still has its design constraints. It’s still principally about verbal dexterity under pressure. It’s still principally about impressing the audience. It’s still principally about defeating the other side.

Very rarely do you feel that there’s a genuine mutual search for truth. Mostly it’s about a kind of tribal cheerleading. I want my children to grow up being able to argue. Well, I like to watch people thrash things out, but in terms of our responsibility to society, there’s a case for trying to create something new and better, if not to replace debate, at least to exist alongside it.

Jim: Yeah. We both know Ian McGilchrist, he would describe, even if it’s done well, like in the Oxford Union, it’s still extremely left-brained. It’s, like you’re saying, it’s about words, and being clever, and speaking to the left brain a whole lot.

Jonathan: Ian would probably say that. I think, not to speak for Ian directly, but I would imagine he would also like to make the point that debate is very important. He would be the first to admit that a healthy society relies on critical engagement with ideas, and sort of friendly and timely and suitable opposition. A big part of his book, I think the best chapter in his, The Matter with Things, is where he speaks about the coincidence of opposites, and the creative power of resistance and opposition.

While he would say it’s left-brained, I think to some extent, it also has its value as this sort of energizing creative process, but what we feel was you can still have that. You can still have that edge, but lose some of the limitations.

Jim: Before we move on to the details of the history and the work of the Antidebate, one final thing from history and context, I just for fun looked up the famous 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate. People hear about Lincoln-Douglas, they always assume it was the presidential election of 1860, but it wasn’t. There weren’t any debates. These seven debates were when they, in the Senate election for Illinois in 1858, and Douglas and Lincoln ran, and Douglas won. Interesting.

Jonathan: Interesting for lots of reasons for the history of that and so on, but what did it mean to say he won exactly?

Jim: Well, not the debate. He won the election.

Jonathan: Oh, the election. I see.

Jim: You always think of Lincoln as this famous dude. He won the presidency in 1860, also against Douglas and two other guys. It was a four-way race, but in the famous debates, it was for the Senate. Here’s the point, the framing: in the debate, it opened, and it was by a flip of the coin each time, or maybe they alternated across them. The first speaker got to speak for an hour, then the second speaker got to speak for an hour and a half, and then finally, the first speaker got a 30-minute rebuttal. How well do you think that would go over in the age of TikTok?

Jonathan: Yeah, maybe, but it’s the age of TikTok, but it’s also the age of the long form podcast. You, of course, exemplify that to some extent, although there are conversations online that go on for much longer, three, four or five hours. They often get significant numbers of views. I don’t think the length by itself is the problem. The deeper problem I see is the kind of elitist aspect of it, the sense that what society should be doing is having one or two people on a stage, and then a hundred or so watching, or multiplied by many orders of magnitude online, that somehow, there are the performers and then there are the viewers.

I think to have a healthier democracy, whatever your social practice, whether it’s debate, Antidebate, or something else, you want a much more participative, engaged electorate and citizenry. For that, you need practices where people can feel at home. For that, I doubt you’ll really find one that works if you’re required to speak for an hour, or listen for an hour, and then speak for an hour and a half, or listen for an hour and a half. I quite admire it, though, for its old world charm.

Jim: It is interesting. Of course, there’s other people work on things. James Fishkin famously has been working on a concept he calls participatory democracy, where they draft groups of people together, and talk in a series of meetings about issues and things like that. There’s a lot of interesting work going on there.

Now, back to the history of your idea, you reference a 2019 paper from Peter Lindberg and Connor Barnes that was titled, What Our Politics Needs Now, Antidebates. What influence did that have on this project?

Jonathan: Yeah, so that did have a big influence, but I think it’s only right to say that quoted in that article was a reference to something that William MacAskill had written. William MacAskill is one of the more famous sort of long-termist, effective altruist people who wrote a book called What We Owe the Future. Somewhere along the way, I think maybe a year before that, like 2019 or so, he had posted something online about the things that he thought philanthropists should be funding if they shared the long-termist view.

This is another conversation for another podcast, but in outline, the long-termist view is a sort of hyper utilitarian view. It’s a view that we should make our moral judgments based on a clear-sighted assessment of consequences, and try to do the greatest good with whatever money we have. He was like, “In that context, what would you put your money behind?” He suggested something like the Antidebate, because he said it clearly isn’t in our interest to have these failed debates that we were witnessing all the time.

It’s better to build an alternative that would actually help to inform the kind of choices that he felt were critical. However, this is quite an important point. The effective altruists and the long-termists are basically rationalists. Their view of the world is that you rely on the power of reason to make more or less beneficent, wise judgments, but there are many people who doubt rationalism as a modus operandi, as it was, a worldview as an orienting principle.

I think what we’ve ended up with in the Antidebate is very much beyond rationalism. It includes reason, and it includes logic, and it’s intellectually grounded, but we did think it was quite important to bring in other ways of knowing, other ways of valuing. I say that as the kind of prehistory of the project. Peter picked up on William MacAskill’s post and thought, well, what would that look like?

That was in the context of the 2020s that you mentioned, and wrote this long post where he, it was a very political piece, imagining how it would be different if only you could get the candidates to actually properly listen to each other, find the best in their argument, generously reinterpret it in a way that even the opponent would be impressed by. Through a kind of intellectual humility, both sides would come to some kind of common ground. The audience would enjoy it. It would be original, and surprising, and heartfelt, and convivial, and all the best of civil society would be on display.

I don’t think anyone really believes that that could happen. It’s very hard to manufacture such a thing. I say that as someone who has sort of tried. In the early days of the Antidebate, we did set out to create something like a one-to-one conversation in which our job was to inhabit an opposing position, something that we disagreed with, and to do our very best to really look at it sympathetically, and to try and see it from within that worldview, including all of its root metaphors, and hidden assumptions, and implicit commitments, and values, and core ideas, and then try to speak from that place.

It wasn’t without its value. It had its kind of cultural education to it. It was quite interesting. As a spectacle, as something to watch, or as something even to take part in, it felt very synthetic. It didn’t feel fully human. It felt like a performance and an artifice. We believe that will always be the case. If you’re doing something with a public audience in which you have a vested interest in persuading critical parts of it, that you and not the other person is the one to get behind.

We kind of felt that the form of the process needed to be more plural, and that was one of the critical decisions we took early on.

Jim: Yeah, and I think you referenced in one of your writings what you called the dialectic fallacy.

Jonathan: Yeah, I think it’s important to get beyond the cliches, basically. There is this view that, and it’s broadly a Hegelian view, you could say, but there’s a point, a counterpoint, and then a synthesis. Debate at its best gives rise to that in a succession of moments like that. Person A says, “We’ll never deal with climate change. The end is nigh. The world will collapse, and civil war will break out in multiple countries because of resource shortages. There’ll be conflict between countries and civilization as a whole is doomed within the next 50 years.”

The other side will say, “What are you talking about? We’ve never made as much technological progress. We are on the brink of solving the fusion problem. We’ll soon have abundant clean energy. We’re treating medical conditions we’ve never treated before. AI will solve so many efficiency problems that we’re about to enter an age of abundance. Everything will be grand.”

Then somehow, these different views meet each other, and in the middle, let’s say the one who’s the climate realist, or the pessimist, depending on how you look at it, comes to think, well, maybe I have slightly over-egged the pudding. Maybe there is some hope here. The other side says, “Well, yeah, maybe I have overstated the optimism. There is some real worry here.” Everyone goes home thinking both sides have a point. My sense is we’re a bit beyond this now. I think that this is a 20th century way of looking at discourse, that actually most of the time, there are more than two views.

Even within a view, there’s a great deal of internal contradiction and tension that most of us, on most issues that matter, are conflicted and a little bit confused, and that part of what we have to do in public is actually presence that confusion, and find a way to enter together into a space where we’re not desperately trying to defend one side or the other, but actually admit that there are things here beyond us that we need to investigate together.

Jim: Yeah, this calls back to something you mentioned very early on, and that is that you are perceiving this as a practice, a practice that the conclusions, if any, may be less important than doing the work for the people involved,

Jonathan: Right, yes. It’s very much a practice. Technically, you could say it’s a praxis, theory meets practice. It’s an attempt to bring into form, bring into social form, a method that is informed by a theoretical view of the state of the world, and the form of inquiry we need today. You’re right, it’s not the end of it. The outcome of it is not to reach some acceptable midpoint position that people can then proceed on.

It’s rather to have a shared experience of inquiry, such that we know ourselves and each other better. It’s partly about disagreeing with other people, but it’s also about being more comfortable about disagreeing with yourself. It’s about recognizing your own internal contradictions, and realizing that that’s actually a shared experience and it’s part of the world now.

Jim: Okay. That actually is quite interesting. Would you say that probably the idea, what we talked about earlier is one of the aspects of debate, spectacle, audience may not be appropriate for this. This may be a participants only thing?

Jonathan: We have recorded some of these, and as you know, there’s a few online. It’s not easy, however, once you get multiple parties moving around in space, and we think the movement is important, by the way. The body’s moving in, space matters. Getting that recorded in a way that makes sense to the audience is not trivial. I believe that the optimal form of this, we currently believe, I should say, first of all, this has been very much a team effort over three years.

Although I’ve been at the center of it, I have a great many people to thank, and I’ve thanked them in the video that’s just come out, and in all the posts that are built around it. Basically, the Perspectiva team and associates over the last three years have come up with a form now that can be flexibly interpreted, but is ideally about 25 people, and is ideally about three hours long. We believe it can be up to a day long, quite comfortably, and it could be probably 40 people or 15, but we think that its sweet spot is about 25 people for about three hours.

Even better if those 25 people know each other a little bit already. We find that quite an amount of time is needed just for people to settle into the social space, not to feel threatened, not to assume the worst about the people they’re seeing. Actually, if people already know each other a bit, you can more quickly get to the interesting bits.

Jim: Yeah, when you have a practice or a ceremonial or something, the facilitation or the priesthood is really important. How did you develop your facilitation, skills, guidebook, people, et cetera?

Jonathan: Right. It’s interesting you ask that, because part of it was about me getting out of the way, and that was an interesting moment. It went through these phases, like I say, the two-person phase, and then there was about six of us on stage interacting with the audience stage. That was the first public Antidebate. Then we went fully participatory, so the next Antidebate was actually too many people. It was about 80 people in one room, speaking about whether war is natural or not.

Basically, over some time, I realized that there was a source energy problem and a founder syndrome problem. Two colleagues, Kylan and Michael, both said, “Do you mind if we try this ourselves?” Michael took the lead and looked at what we wanted to do. I found that actually, suddenly, I saw it differently, and it was really alive and working much better in some ways. I was a little bit over invested in some of the ideas being instantiated in the practice, whereas people coming to it fresh could see what was working socially and what wasn’t.

The facilitation is really… it’s funny, I like to think I’m reasonably agreeable. I’m not out to get anybody. On the other hand, peoples’ comfort is not always my primary concern. I’m more interested in the challenge and the tension of the issues. I’m very drawn to that. Because of that, in the first few Antidebates, I think people just felt it was too much was asked of them. It was often tiring.

For example, they had to stand for a long time to show their view of different issues in space through a process we call tableauing, where they stand on a line, and then you would ask them to show variations on that theme by standing on the horizontal axis and so on. After a while, people came along and said, “Look, you’re asking a lot of people. They’re standing a lot, they’re relying on the plenary too much. You need more small group activity.”

Through various successive revisions, we honed it down to something that by the end had all of the elements that I felt were essential, and we reached a point where we could say, “Ah, we’ve created something.”

Jim: I looked at, I think it turned out it was actually the same event. You had two videos, one that you put up in your most recent essay. What’s the name of your current essay that you just put out?

Jonathan: The most recent video is a 25-minute documentary created by the wonderful filmmaker Katie Teague. She’s done a few videos with people in our sort of liminal web space that are worth checking out, but this one’s called The Antidebate: Experiments in the Art of Sense Making for a World Gone Slightly Mad. That was a way of trying to get people’s attention to experiments in the art of sense-making. That’s what this is, really. We wanted that documentary not so much to be a how-to guide to the Antidebate.

We weren’t saying, “Look, here’s a step-by-step guide. Go and do it in your own town hall.” We might get to that. In fact, we plan to, but right now, we wanted to tell the story of a small group of people, which is Perspectiva and its associates, doing what we could to bring a new social practice into being. That 25-minute documentary is really a story of the effort to create a new social practice. As a result, it has a journey quality of, is this thing worth doing or not?

We do, of course, describe the main elements of the process as we go, and we try and give people a strong feeling for what it amounts to, but the actual how-to guide is coming later in a book that will be published later this year.

Jim: Cool. Yeah, I watched that one, and I thought it was interesting, but I will say when I finished reading, I said, “Well, how does this God damn thing work?” Wasn’t clear to me, right? That’s when I dug around and I found another video called Is War Natural and Other Questions, which was, I think, the same event that was the core of the experiments and sense-making video, but it was a bigger chunk.

It was 50 some minutes, and I will say, at least for me, a kind of left-brainy kind of erector set kind of dude, I was able to extract more signal on what this beast actually was by watching that thing.

Jonathan: That’s okay, Jim. I think that’s understandable. There’s a few things going on there. We did nine Antidebates in total, one of which was online. We quite quickly decided this wasn’t going to work very well online, so we did eight main Antidebates, and there was a journey quality to that as I say. By the end, I can talk you through roughly what it is step by step.

Jim: Yeah, let’s do that.

Jonathan: The Is War Natural and Other Questions video is one particular Antidebate that took place at an event called the Realization Festival that Perspectiva co-hosts every year in St. Giles House, a beautiful country house in Dorset. It was a plenary event, so everyone at the conference was invited to take part. It was in a massive room, but everybody came, or almost everybody. We had our task cut out for us, because that number of people moving around in a room, it’s inherently somewhat chaotic.

Nonetheless, it was kind of beautiful, and there were lots of moments in that process that worked well, which is why it features quite heavily in the 25-minute documentary, but there is quite a lot of other material in the documentary as well from the other Antidebates.

Jim: All right, so with that background, I would say they’re both worth watching if you want to learn more. With that, tell us where your current canonical state-of-the-art process is.

Jonathan: This is, like you could say, the blueprint, or the template, or the default. We feel there will come a point quite soon, within a year roughly, where we’re sharing the material of the art form. It’s a kind of art form. It’s important to understand the steps I’m about to mention. It’s not quite as simple as just doing step one, step two, step three, and hoping for the best. There’s quite a lot of tacit learning in the process of doing it, and that’s what we try and convey in the book that’s forthcoming.

Anyway, with that said, the first issue is just the social dynamics of a group getting together. If you invite roughly 25 people into the room, of course, there’s a brief introduction about what to expect in the following three hours. There’s a chance for people to briefly speak to at least one other person, to settle themselves into the room, ask any necessary questions, albeit quite briefly, because you’re trying to get on with the process.

Then there’s a chance for people to set a sort of positive tone to get away from the criticality of the dialectical process. We want people to speak about things that they find meaningful, or things they find beautiful, or things they find worthwhile, or things that give them hope. We ask them to do that quite early on, but then later, we get them to resist more and speak a bit more about what matters to them more critically.

We set the positive tone, and then we get them to begin to choose a question, slowly but surely. Before that, we set aside time for everyone to spend a few minutes by themselves, just reflecting on why they’re there, what they care about, what they’re hoping to get out of this process, so that they have, we move between small group, individual, large group throughout the process.

The next phase is choosing the question. This is quite an important variation on debate, because in debate, typically the question is a given, but we feel you can demarcate the area of the question by saying it’s about climate change, or it’s about technology, or it’s about democracy if you want to, or you can leave it completely open, depending on the group. We did both. The last one we did was about climate, but before that, we kept it completely open.

The group comes up with a question, and the way they do that is by discussing with each other and spending time alone, they ask themselves what they most want to talk about. Then they get into smaller groups and they write down, try to articulate, what is this as a statement? We give them some guidance about what makes for a good statement. It’s relatively short, it’s something that you can agree or disagree with. It usually has a degree of depth and richness in it. It’s a little bit ambiguous.

It should be clear enough to talk about, but rich enough to disagree about. Then once they’ve chosen their own statement, they write it down and stand beside it. Everyone does that. Then we ask people to actually explore the room, and let go of the question they’ve helped to create, and begin to converge on the one that seems most alive to them, most juicy, most exciting, sometimes even because they disagree with it.

For example, in the last Antidebate, the statement we ended up discussing was humanity is too weak to address the climate crisis. That was the statement we ended up going for. That was partly because quite a few people disagreed with it so vehemently that they really wanted to talk about it. That process happens, and people just show that by clustering around the question.

If you get to the point, as we did a few times, where there’s some very close, almost the same size of group in each question, sometimes you have two or three, then people start trying to make the case for why they think that question’s the one to go with, or that statement’s the one to go with. That usually resolves itself. People move to a new question, and it’s obvious which one to go with. If not, the facilitators decide.

That whole process of introduction takes about an hour. If you get from the social side, the personal reflective side, the introduction, the questions, the choosing of the question, then you’re into one hour, you have a short break. You come back from the short break and now it’s like, “Okay, now we’ve got this question, we’re in it together.” It’s usually a statement rather than a question.

That’s quite important, because a statement is more open-ended and allows for a greater degree of inquiry rather than a question, which can often be limiting, because it lends itself to a yes or a no. With the question, we then do what we call the question bomb process. The question bomb process is the kind of recognizing the multitude of questions lying within any given question. In the video, I take the example of Is War Natural?

Some would see that as a very interesting question, but anyone who’s been trained intellectually, or just a thoughtful person will say, “Well, what do you mean by war? What do you mean by natural? If you say something’s natural, does that mean it’s good? How do you distinguish between war and conflict? Where does war begin in conflict end? When I say something is natural, isn’t everything natural? Give me an example of something that isn’t natural,” this kind of thing.

The question bomb process is one where the room gets to hear the full range of perspectives on the inquiry at hand. The point there isn’t that any particular authority answers those questions, but just that the whole room is aware of them, in the same way that a jury jointly hears statements from the lawyers, and the whole room gets to hear, “Oh, my goodness, this question is actually very rich, and if I want to have a view on it, I have to grapple with a lot of these hidden issues.”

From that moment of the question bomb, we then move into something called tableauing. Tableauing is a process by which on the existing statement, people show where they are with it, to the extent that they agree or disagree, they move to different ends of the room.

Jim: A question for you there. How do you go from the question bomb, presumably lots of questions could get thrown out in the question bomb, to some practical curated list of questions that you’re going to do the tableau on?

Jonathan: That’s where the facilitator has a role, and that’s why you do need a degree of facilitation because usually, before the question bomb kicks in, we’ll have a tableauing process about where people are on the existing statement that people have chosen, to get a kind of sense check of the room as a whole. Then through the question bomb, we may then ask them to again, do it now that you’ve heard what this question’s really about, what the statement’s really about, or all the questions hiding within it, do you still feel the same way?

You can do, we call this dynamic tableauing because you can show agree and disagree on one axis, but then you can introduce agree because of particular things, or disagree because of particular things on the horizontal axis. The extent of your agreement and disagreement, and the reasons for your agreement and disagreement can begin to be fleshed out. Again, the purpose of this is to show the room the degree of variation, and what is eliciting changes in that view.

It’s a kind of dynamic process of disclosure through which a social organism gets to see itself more clearly under a kind of epistemic frame. That’s the kind of principle.

Jim: Just gross range, question bomb, how many questions get thrown out? Then how many do you then take on to the tableau stage?

Jonathan: That’s a judgment call, but in the Is War Natural video that you saw, we ended up having lots and lots of questions to be explored, and the way it went was the question is war natural quite quickly converged on the question of what is natural? The room was very interested to understand that question. They felt there was a lot at stake politically in that. Then it moved into the judgments about how you decide that, someone saying, “Really, I make decisions on what’s natural to do with how I feel, because somehow as an organism, I feel that my feelings are somehow a valid test of what’s natural and what isn’t.”

Others would say, “No, no, no, that’s just a kind of prejudice. You’ve got to think your way through this based on principles and what we’ve learned from history.” The question then became, are thinking and feeling equally valid? Then someone else would say, “Well, actually, are thinking and feeling even different? We’ve learned from cognitive science that thinking and feeling are very co-extensive. We have the embodied mind hypothesis, the extended mind hypothesis, and so on.” Then someone stood up and said, “Hang on, I just want to say, thinking and feeling are different.”

Then people would swarm around them and say, “No, no, this person’s right. Thinking and feeling are different.” That’s what got me to say, and you’ll see this in the video, trying to get the tableau straight again, trying to get back to the discussion, I said, “I want to say this: thinking and feeling are both the same and different.” At that moment, a lot of people moved into agreement and they said, “Okay, that’s right. That’s where we are. Of course they’re the same, and of course they’re different,” and we have to hold that tension and that paradox, and only then can we move on with the discussion.

That’s kind of where we got to. We did move on and we got back to the issue of, “Okay, now that we’ve established that, can we come back to the is war natural?” Now that we have a fuller sense of what we mean, what the room means by natural, and a fuller sense of how you would go about it in terms of the inquiry.

Jim: Interesting. That’s about where it ended in the 50-minute video. I didn’t ever see it make a turn towards answering the question, is war natural?

Jonathan: Right, because really, it’s not about answering the question. The question is the shared conceptual object for the social process that matters. We do engage our intellects to try and answer the question. Through that, we understand a great deal about ourselves, about difference, about how we form views, and how others form views. The aim is not so much intellectual progress as a kind of socio-epistemic progress.

We want people to feel what it’s like to think together, and to see each other as agents worthy of our attention, other ways of thinking and knowing that we might learn from. The question is there as a kind of prop for the play to unfold.

Jim: Yep. This goes back to the concept. This, I think, really reinforces the fact that this is a practice rather than an analytical process to get an answer.

Jonathan: Yeah, although I do want to iterate. One of the things I had to fight for in amongst the group process was we went from the beginning of it being an almost entirely intellectual inquiry, and at some point, we almost lost the intellect completely. I had to sort of fight to bring it back at certain points, because it does matter. I remember the writer, Oliver Berkman, who’s quite well known to a lot of people, wrote a famous book on time and so on.

He was in one of the Antidebates. He said, “Look, I do understand what you’re trying to do here, but it’s quite hard for me not to feel frustrated by the fact that these terms are dangling there, and we can never exhaustively decide what they mean.” I say, “Look, I understand that it’s frustrating, but it’s also a simulation or a simulacrum of what the democratic process is like, that actually this is what happens all the time.” We co-exist with these living questions, and we have to. We have to make decisions in the context of them never being fully answered.

It’s not to sort of revel in the ambiguity and confusion of it, it’s just that the inquiry can only go so far before you get to a kind of decision point, of like, “Okay, how do you feel about this? Which way do you want to go on this?” Of course, if it elicits interest, for example, the question is war natural is still a question. Tomorrow, anyone could go and write a wonderful essay on it, but the purpose of the Antidebate is different. It’s, what does that question do to your understanding of democratic possibility?

Jim: I guess just to clarify, did you ever call the question, was there ever a tableau on the question itself at the end?

Jonathan: At the end, there was agree or disagree, but it was no longer of the form, the Oxford Union form of, as I remember it from the Union days, you would walk out, and the way you walked out was the way you voted. We didn’t want that. What we did instead is to what extent has your view changed? We got people to say, “Our view has changed a great deal, my view hasn’t changed much at all.”

Then we got a separate question which was about, did this process make you feel hopeful about our capacity to answer questions like this in future? Some said it didn’t, and some said it did, and one or two were in between.

Jim: What’s your takeaway from this? What’s this thing good for? This is a tool. Every tool has a thing it’s good for.

Jonathan: Just to let you know, Jim, this is not quite the end. This is still only about halfway through. The tableauing gets to the point, when you ask, did you take a view on it? It’s better than that. It’s better than that. What we do, once we’ve had the tableauing process, and inquired into people in the line, “Why are you here? What do you have to say to the group?” We ask people about what’s going on for them as they’re moving around.

We then get to a critical stage of the process in part three that’s called swarming. Swarming is a process which is a little bit mimicking what happens on social media, with kind of people with large following setting the agenda, and then people getting behind them in terms of likes and comments and so on. The swarming process is actually a process of something like epistemic seduction. It’s a way of trying to recruit people to your view. The way we do that is not with a wishy-washy statement of opinion, but rather through moral and political commitment.

When you say, “What does it all amount to?” Once you’ve shown the range of views, once you’ve had the social experience, it doesn’t end there. If we just ended there, it would just be more discourse about discourse about discourse. So what? No, we are actually trying to get people to the point of taking a stand. On this issue, not so much I’m yes or no, but rather, what is the thing you feel called to speak on behalf of because of what you’ve just been through? This, we’re sort of eliciting some of the history of the Quaker movement, that those who feel moved to speak the most when the spirit moves you, you speak.

There, people come out with all sorts of things that weren’t expected, again, and not directly related to the question, but they’re adjacent to the question sometimes. For example, on the climate question, when the contention was that humanity was too weak to deal with the climate crisis, someone was taking the stand for this being absolutely kind of like a fascist question. We shouldn’t ask this question, because if you’re saying that we’re too weak to deal with the climate crisis, you’re implicitly invoking the need for strength, which is principally a fascist kind of virtue.

They were saying, take a stand against the very idea of the question. These kinds of things come out, and what matters in that final process is that as far as possible, people are encouraged to find their own voice, and to recruit people around a smaller cluster of views. What happens is you have four or five statements. Then quite quickly, one or two of them combine into clusters. Then they’re sort of competing with each other for what is the most important thing to take away from this? What stand really matters?

As that’s happening, another critical thing occurs. A lot of people disengage, which is exactly what happens in the real world too. This is the moment we speak about the enigmatics. The enigmatics are the group who just feel like whatever that was, I don’t want any part of it. That’s it. That’s what happens today. What percentage of the electorate barely knows what’s going on politically, barely bothers to vote, doesn’t really get involved in public life? We are interested to know what it would take to bring them back into the game.

Part of the process is those who are trying to recruit each other suddenly stop and say, “Hang on, you think you’re the game, but actually, look at each other. To them, you’re all part of the same thing. You’re all part of the same problem. Can you now try to bring those people back in?” That’s where they try to recruit those who’ve been disaffected and disengaged, and bring them back into the process.

Only right at the end of all of that do we get to something like a kind of closing circle, where people just leave with the critical question they’re left with that they take away from the process.

Jim: Very interesting. Now, as you know, in the United States, we’re probably the most degenerate case, a very good election turnout’s 60%, so 40% don’t vote. Then here’s the scarier thing, if you actually talk to serious political scientists, they’ll tell you of the 60% that vote, 30% or half of them, 30% of the electorate, are essentially noise voters that have no clue about the issues, and they vote because they like the cut of his hair, or she’s taller, or I like, she’s got blonde hair. Idiots, basically.

Basically, the elections are determined by 30% of the people who are at least somewhat politically engaged. I would expect the yield was higher in a community that was selected by you guys for this process. Give us a sense of how many people ended up disaffected from any of the propositions.

Jonathan: Yeah, it’s often about, it’s between 10 and 20%, typically. It’s partly the propositions and partly the process, but then we do want to have that moment of bringing them back on board, because I think that’s part of the problem with where democracy’s reached. It’s this sense of giving up on people who don’t like the two-party system, don’t like the way public conversation happens, don’t see anything in it for them.

I agree with you, the level of, first of all, political engagement being very low, and secondly, even among those who vote, it’s really rather troubling to think why they vote the way they do. In principle, we have a legitimacy of the government rests upon a democratic mandate, which is based on an informed electorate making judicious decisions at a critical time. The reality is very different. It’s a lot of very suggestible people being more or less manipulated by an InfoSphere that’s often backed by capital interest.

Okay, the Antidebate by itself won’t counter that. It’s much too big a structural problem, but we want to begin to create forms of experience that are somehow more enchanting than the scroll of the smartphone.

Jim: It wouldn’t be hard.

Jonathan: Well, you say that, but the dopamine hit is still there.

Jim: Yep, it’s true behaviorally for sure, but what a low quality signal most of that stuff is, just the worst shit. I had very interesting experiences. You may know, I go on a six-month social media sabbatical each year from July 1st to January 2nd, and so I got back re-engaged on January 2nd or 3rd, I don’t remember when I actually came back.

After six weeks, Facebook in particular, this time, I just had a horrible allergic reaction to it, particularly because we’re moving into election season in the United States, and it was all team red versus team blue. People I knew in real life to be thoughtful, nuanced people, they were just smacking each other with rubber stamps. I’m somewhat unusual in that I know plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum, and my Facebook feed has people from both sides, probably a little bit more team blue Democrats in the US.

It’s maybe 60/40, something like that. Man, the stupidity was at all time highs in my experience, despite having been on Facebook for whatever the hell it’s been, 15 years. I, after six weeks, said, “I’ve had enough. I’m off Facebook again for at least another month, to come back, decide, do I would want to come back as the coyote arsonist? Do I want to…” The other possibility is I delete 4,200 of my followers, and just do the people I actually know in real life. It’s a really interesting question on whether there’s anything of value left.

Jonathan: It is, and it’s a relatively one that we haven’t had a lot of historical time to contend with. It’s happening so fast. Before we know it, these are defining features of our lives, the opinion of the world in our pocket, and so on. I think the challenge is, it’s basically, much of cultural formation is now taking place through technological and capitalistic powers that are effectively engineering addiction, and addiction that manifests as distraction, in which the distraction is fueled by entertainment, which is parasitic on the underlying culture.

This is a disaster. This is why democratic legitimacy is in peril, and why a lot of the younger generation aren’t so sure about democracy and whether it’s worth preserving. I’m not saying the Antidebate’s any kind of panacea for that, but only that I think it’s incumbent on those who care about democratic dispositions, including curiosity, empathy, intellectual engagement, and so on, that you actually try to create things that are worth doing, that feel like worthy of the challenges of our time, and prefigurative of a kind of culture you want to live in.

That’s what we tried. Goodness knows if we actually succeeded, but it was something I’m proud to have tried to bring into the world at least. We hope to keep on iterating it, and eventually allow it to be something that anyone can try. Who knows where it will go?

Jim: Very interesting. Now, let’s get to the question that many of us that fool around with social change always have to confront: is this thing scalable? I’m going to stipulate after watching it and hearing you talk about it, this will not make for riveting TV. There will not be too many 30-second takes going up on TikTok from these things. On the other hand, I could see being a participant in this being a quite significant life event.

It’s the kind of thing that you don’t normally encounter in this fractionated, artificial, remote, virtual world of ours, actually, getting down with it with the folks face-to-face, sweaty armpits, the whole thing, for three, four, five hours, right?

Jonathan: Right, right, right, right. Yeah.

Jim: How do you scale sweaty armpits?

Jonathan: Sweaty armpits, gosh.

Jim: So that it can actually have a impact on the world?

Jonathan: Right. It’s an interesting way of framing the challenge. Yes, there’s a challenge of scale, but in some ways, the need to scale things and the way we think about scaling is part of the challenge here. I agree with you that it doesn’t lend itself to the kind of digital amplification that leads to millions of people changing their attitudes, values, or behavior anytime soon.

On the other hand, few things do. I think it’s important to understand that even videos that are watched many millions of times may have a negligible impact on culture. We shouldn’t confuse volume for actual transformation. I would also like to think, although I could be wrong, that we’re entering a phase of disaffection with ambient internet, that we’re actually beginning to feel that while the online world is, of course, enchanting and engaging in all sorts of ways, there’s a lot to be said for not being online.

I was speaking with a fellow publisher a few weeks ago, and we said the defining feature of the book, the best quality of the book today, is one thing that it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have hyperlinks. That’s really what makes a book so invaluable. It’s precisely that it can’t take you anywhere else.

Jim: Yeah, no rabbit holes.

Jonathan: No rabbit holes, right. In the Antidebate, I would like to think that it’s sufficiently variegated, and interesting, and edifying, such that when you go through it, you get a lot of flow experience, a lot of flow states coming through it, and also that you learn things from it, that people begin to set it up themselves.

Now, by scaling, an achievement would be that in multiple countries in the world, there are several sites of this thing taking hold, and people doing it by choice, doing it because they want to do it, almost as a kind of civic leisure of some kind, as we used to show up for town hall meetings and so on, but do less so now. That’s my hope, but I also think that the Antidebate as such, I do think it has its own dignity and power, but it’s more the principle, that we want to model an attempt to do something like this.

It’s not necessarily this as such, but we want to get people creatively experimenting with different forms of social inquiry to actually encourage more of this quality of being together and finding power, finding agency in the collective again, and not being dazed by the hyper-agentic spectacle online.

Jim: Anything that does that is a push in the right direction. I’ll give you an example of something that I think it still exists in the United States. I actually went to one about 10 years ago, something called the Toastmasters Club. This was in a small town, Winchester, Virginia, I got invited to give a short little talk, but the main event each month, I think it is, everybody has dinner together. It’s like 30 people in this small city of maybe 40,000 folks.

One person volunteers like a year in advance to prepare a formal 45-minute talk on whatever topic they want. This guy’s talk was about the temples of Greece. He knew he was going to go to Greece, he and his wife and his family, and they toured a bunch of temples, and they did a bunch of book research. Then they put together a PowerPoint. I’d give it a B+, not bad. This is just car salesmen, and nurses, and school teachers, and construction workers, who the purpose is to improve your skills in public speaking.

This thing existed in America for, I don’t know, a hundred years, probably. At the high end, maybe you somehow turn Antidebates, needs a sexier name, probably, a positive name rather than a negative name, into something that people choose to do. You need, of course, very good guides and videos, and all how to do this, and get people to do it. Scale it by parallelism, where you don’t have to push the string all the time, right?

Jonathan: Well, that’s definitely the aim. From quite early on, we wanted to create something like that that people could do themselves. There is, like I say, an art to it. It’s quite important that we feel that the time we release it to the world as something for everyone else to do, that we’ve done our bit, that we’ve tried to make the code as clear as possible. It will, of course, evolve, and people will do their own thing, but at least we can say, “Look, this is what we came up with, and this is the integrity of the thing.”

I would also say on the name, Antidebate is there as a framing device to help us locate it in the best of debate, but trying to go beyond it in some way, but it’s also anti as antidote. It’s getting at this idea of we’re not sure debate is sort of fit for purpose in the world as it is for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, that the question is, given that there’s only two people, that it’s a kind of top-down activity in which most people are passive and so on.

I agree that there might be a future name for it as it evolves. I love the idea of it being a generalist practice. This is quite important too. I mentioned earlier, vis-a-vis MacAskill and the origins of this, that I think it’s gone beyond being a rationalist practice to being something epistemically more plural.

I also think it’s gone beyond a debate, which is typically quite an elitist practice, of those with extraordinary verbal fluency thrashing it out on the stage, and everyone else watching, to something that is truly inclusive and allows people to take part. Those who take part can show what they think without having to speak as well, which matters.

Jim: I like that a lot. Not everybody is a fluid speaker. There are guys like us who are natural-born bullshitters, right? I know lots of people, particularly in public, are very shy, but they can vote with their feet, which is very important, that you can address different psycho types.

Jonathan: That’s right, and also that they can sometimes speak in smaller groups too, that it’s important that we don’t rely on that verbal fluency being the defining quality with which you find your agency in a social group. For all these reasons, we did think it through, and hope it has some potential.

Jim: Yeah, I thought, I will say, as I was reading it and following down your rabbit holes, you need to pull all your documents together into one long statement.

Jonathan: We do, we do, we do.

Jim: They’re like, I must’ve read five or six different pages, and this and that.

Jonathan: I’m grateful for your due diligence, Jim. It’s appreciated. Like I said, there is a book coming out later this year.

Jim: That’d be great. I do see some potential here, and I certainly encourage more of this kind of stuff. As you say, getting people with them sweaty armpits, interacting as humans, that alone is a vast value compared to saying, “Yes, she did, no he didn’t,” on fucking TikTok, or on even worse, Twitter, or Facebook, et cetera. I want to thank you, Jonathan Rowson, for a very noble effort so far, and I look forward to see where this thing goes.

Jonathan: Brilliant. Well, thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure as always.

Jim: Again, Jonathan Rowson, thank you for yet another very interesting conversation.

Jonathan: Pleasure. Thank you, Jim. Next time.

Jim: Alrighty.