Rediscovering a dialectic etiquette.
Weaving college memories, a history lesson, and a secret essay to create a playbook to revive dialectic & convivial spaces and behaviors.
In early 2003, as first year engineering students, a friend and I were selected to represent our college at a symposium of engineers organized by General Electric, India. The theme of this symposium was “Homes of the Future” and our preparation for it serves as my first memory of identifying with an “engineering credo”.
We had to present ideas on what Homes of the Future would look like. I remember him being an avid fan of Isaac Asimov. We brainstormed and argued through the night and I found this method of getting new ideas through dialogue and argument (often heated) to be exhilarating.
Our preparation for the event marked a self-discovery and preference for a dialectic interpretation of the world around me. It also influenced how I made friends, found partners, and engage different subjects.
The five years prior to this experience was a period of intense and somewhat forced analytical thinking that was quite stressful that involved rote memorization and force-feeding concepts of maths, physics, and chemistry to score well on standardized testing and exams in India without really understanding the underlying concepts.
Thereafter, I can summarize my college experience as a roller coaster adventure of analytical, dialectic, and performance art.
Fast-forward 10–15 years:
Of late, most intentional discourse (online or offline) that I’ve participated in has felt problematic.
Many intelligent and compassionate people I’ve encountered engage in a form of self-imposed censorship for fears of walking over rhetorical landmines that reveal issues of their unconscious bias and privilege.
This self-imposed censorship leave us alone with our (sometimes crazy) ideas, notions, and biases without being heard. I’ve also found that a pent-up desire to be heard eventually leads to resentment that also affect our ability to be good listeners.A moment of self-expression that is granted quickly becomes a laundry list of grievances, rants, and proverbial strawmen that lead to mutually assured incoherence.
Amongst the cacophony of hostile politics, social media, restrictions of digital discourse, and an earnest quest to create safe spaces to protect speech for the marginal, fringe, and vulnerable, I think we’ve largely lost a certain etiquette for a certain type of magical thinking and judgement-free discourse.
As I was writing this piece, the Nobel Prize in Economics was announced. It was shared between William D. Nordhaus and Paul M. Romer.Coincidentally, Romer won for his emphasis on generating ideas for economic prosperity.
Our inability to engage in thoughtful and sometimes uncomfortable discourse appears not be just a pet peeve but perhaps an indication of a more problematic stagnation.
Romer demonstrates how knowledge can function as a driver of long-term economic growth. When annual economic growth of a few percent accumulates over decades, it transforms people’s lives. Previous macroeconomic research had emphasised technological innovation as the primary driver of economic growth, but had not modelled how economic decisions and market conditions determine the creation of new technologies.
Paul Romer solved this problem by demonstrating how economic forces govern the willingness of firms to produce new ideas and innovations.
Romer’s solution, which was published in 1990, laid the foundation of what is now called endogenous growth theory. The theory is both conceptual and practical, as it explains how ideas are different to other goods and require specific conditions to thrive in a market. Romer’s theory has generated vast amounts of new research into the regulations and policies that encourage new ideas and long-term prosperity.
So, how do we rediscover an dialectical etiquette?
In answering this, I’ve reflected on my own experience in public discourse, historical precedents, and an interesting recipe for ideation within groups from a recently discovered essay by Isaac Asimov.
Helix (2003–2007, Hyderabad, India)
Every Sunday between 3–6PM, a ragtag group of Indian engineering students sat together under a large tamarind tree or hiked to one of Hyderabad’s many rock formations to intentionally discuss a book, a movie, or an eccentric topic followed by an informal session to cool ourselves off after heated exchanges.
A popular informal session involved playing a role-playing game called mafia at a nearby cafe where the owners tolerated our noisy hijinks partly because we served as a stable a source snacking revenue.
Helix was a place where anyone could engage in ritualized self-expression, discourse, and engage in small talk. It was a space that was not intentional in that it did not serve a specific purpose like a debate club, therapy, entertainment, toast mastering, public speaking, or playing creative drinking games but ended up addressing these social norms through open-ended discourse.
This space was cathartic after many years of being being educated in a analytically biased environment.
A few historical precedents of dialectic rituals have also stuck with me as I encountered them while randomly stumbling across the Internet.
The original rituals of Greek symposium (5th century B.C.)
At symposiums, groups of adult citizens gathered to enjoy each other’s company or to celebrate special occasions. Non-citizen men, and women who were professional entertainers or companions, might also attend. Guests usually reclined on couches facing towards each other and used a range of vases to mix, serve, and drink watered wine. The guests might have had dinner together beforehand. A symposiarch, or symposium leader, presided over the evening, pouring offerings for Dionysus, regulating the drinking, and managing the activities. It was their responsibility to set the tone of the evening and, in theory, to see that everyone behaved properly.
Important caveat: Women were not allowed to engage in the act of symposium which is something that the ancient Greeks can keep to themselves.
The European tradition of convivium as practiced in Antwerp (16th century)
In “Come, let us make a city and a tower”, Barbara Kaminska discusses Pieter Bruegel’s painting of the Tower of Babel as a cautionary canvas to discuss creating and sustaining harmonious community in Antwerp.
I particularly enjoyed this piece as it involved the creation of specific rituals, a discourse theater of sorts that served as a larger setting to generate ideas in a way that served a larger community.
It involves Dinner, patronage, the commons and addresses inhibitions in a way that is ulterior but not malicious.
"Come, let us make a city and a tower": Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Tower of Babel and the Creation…
On February 21, 1565, Antwerp banker and merchant Niclaes Jonghelinck pledged to the city, on behalf of his business…
The article discusses Pieter Bruegel’s Tower of Babel (now in Vienna), originally displayed in the suburban villa of Antwerp entrepreneur Niclaes Jonghelinck as an image that fostered learned dinner conversation (convivium) about the well-being of the city.
Looking at various sources, the author analyzes how the theme of the painting, a story of miscommunication and disorder, resonated with the challenges faced by the metropolis. Antwerp’s rapid growth resulted in the creation of a society characterized by extraordinary pluralism but with weakened social bonds. Convivium was one of the strategies developed to overcome differences among the citizens and avoid dystrophy of the community.
The Asimovian cerebration etiquette
The fabled science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, in a recently discovered essay from 1959, appears to have encountered similar barriers to discourse and goes to certain lengths to explicitly state the social, environmental, and temperamental pre-conditions necessary for a dialectical gathering he calls a “Cerebration” ( a play on celebrating cerebrally or cerebral celebrations?)
Isaac Asimov Asks, "How Do People Get New Ideas?"
Note from Arthur Obermayer, friend of the author: In 1959, I worked as a scientist at Allied Research Associates in…
It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.
Vagrant Thoughts! That sounds fun and mischievous!
I’ve attempted to distil Helix @ Hyderabad, Flemish conviviums, Symposiums in Ancient Greece, and Asomivian Cerebratory into a consumer’s handbook of sorts for reviving public discourse at scale.
The Ambience for a Cerebration
- No single participant need be “responsible” for any thing. Displaying responsibility risks creating an environment of guilt and obligation which inhibits the generative experience. Ideally, this responsibility should be handed to a designated symposiarch who’s central role is to cater to superficial needs of the group while also maintaining environmental decorum. (Lights, Temperature, F&B, AV, note-taking etc.)
- Meet in a non-participant’s home that has been specifically staged for the cerebration (aka it’s ok to dirty the place) OR at a restaurant with appropriate acoustics so that you don’t lose your voice while cerebrating. You may also try the outdoors or a light physical activity to get to an inspiring place. Be respectful of participants’ physical limitations.
- Provide libations that are watered down so that even those participants who require frequent replenishments don’t get intoxicated but rather remain in a state of sustained mellowness. The symposiarch should monitor individual behaviors and intervene with neutralizers such as water or food when deemed necessary.
- No more than 5 people in a cerebration. A larger group leads to a tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating to some who may be on the verge of a new idea and therefore restless.
- Engage in explorative breakouts i.e. be in a place surrounded by curated art pieces, symbols, or motifs (with explanations of their origins and creation).
- Come up with strange words to describe things. I often find spoonerisms as serving towards jeing bovial.
- Mocking someone’s idea is a deep violation of the etiquette of public discourse. “Yes, and….” choreography can solve for that to a certain extent but it can also devolve into politically correct posturing without actually listening to the other person.
- Play with being eccentric. If you’re not an eccentric person by nature, try to channel one who you think is while still retaining the logic of your own ideas.
- Participants can actively encourage each other to dare to fly in the face of established convention and reason in their own fields while also being sympathetic to others from visitor fields in collaborative attempts to make cross-connections.