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Micha Narberhaus: "We live in an era of hyper moralism and tribalism that is very destructive"

Jordi Pigem The Protopia Lab

Economist, strategic consultant, essayist and researcher on solutions and strategies to complex social and environmental problems, Micha Narberhaus, is the founder of The Protopia Lab. An association and laboratory for social innovation that proposes to break out of the current impasse and have honest and pluralistic debates about the causes of our cultural crisis and how we can creatively use this crisis to take steps towards true human flourishing. He explains his next steps in this interview. 

What is missing in today's society?

Perhaps what is most lacking are good and deep dialogues on the most important issues and problems we face. There is no dialogue, no real debate. There are only narratives. Everyone has their own narrative and tries to fit the facts into their narrative and a fixed worldview and morality that does not allow for different points of view.

The world is divided into the good guys and the bad guys, who have to be fought against. As there is less and less interest and effort in discovering and describing reality, for example in the worlds of journalism and academia, it is increasingly difficult to build common sense as a society. We are all in our epistemic bubbles.

When you talk to someone who is in another bubble, it is difficult to agree on anything. This happened with Covid and it is happening with more and more issues.

Do you think progress is good in itself?

It depends on what we mean by progress. If we understand progress to mean pursuing a certain mixing of ideas and taking them to their maximum, such as individual freedom, diversity and even equality, the chances are that there comes a time when these policies are associated with costs that do not compensate for the fact that they may also have some positive effect and the balance ends up being negative.

I like the phrase ‘virtues become vices when taken to the extreme’.

There is a lot of truth in it. In English there is the expression trade-off. It has to do with the idea that a change in society or policy X may have a desired and positive impact, but it almost always comes with costs, which are the trade-offs. We don't talk enough about trade-offs, but it would be very important to do so; we could try to find out what changes in society actually bring us a plus for the good life. It would be a very useful conversation. Most likely we would stop making certain changes because they are obviously negative on the whole.

For example, diversity in society or in an organisation can be positive to a certain extent because it brings new ideas and impulses, but there comes a time when more diversity destroys the social fabric and trust, without which a society cannot function. Likewise, there are many other examples. 

Why do we consider crazy that kind of thinking that does not coincide with our own?

Because we are so caught up in our ideological bubbles that we are continually reassured that our morality is the only possible, the only good one, that we don't even consider that the world is not black and white, and that the issue of morality is also much more complex. What contributes, in large part, to this is the fact that we now spend a large part of our day online/connected and do not have as much face-to-face contact with people who think differently from us as we used to.

Another point that also facilitates this situation is that there are now many people who believe in extreme ideas that used to be considered crazy, and they are, but because we don't have as many people of different ideologies to contrast them with, we start to believe in them.

What motivates you to found The Protopia Lab? What are your objectives?

The Protopia Lab is a space for talking openly and honestly about important issues in society. On the one hand, I would like to encourage people who have the ability to see things from different perspectives and also the courage to express them.

Furthermore, I want this project to have an impact on public discourse; the idea is that over time we can plant the seeds for public discourse to become more plural and functional again. If, as a society, we have lost the ability to construct meaning, we have to rebuild this ability in some way. I can't tell you exactly how, but that's what we need to find out. Technology - social networks - plays a role in this, of course.

But if in the beginning Protopia Lab is known as a space to generate good and interesting conversations and to find people who are open to real dialogue, that would already be an achievement.

What is Protopia?

It is something like the third way between stagnation, the ‘nothing has to change’ and utopia that wants to change everything for the sake of a specific ideological idea. Leaving things as they are can be a good idea when everything works in principle, but this is rarely the case, because things always change by themselves and, therefore, it is necessary to adapt and sometimes to anticipate.

Chasing a utopia is often a bad idea. Historically, it has often led to dystopia. The problem is that we often don't really know what a particular norm or tradition is for. We don't know what effect it has had on our lives as a whole. This is because society is a complex system, because it is ultimately a complex biological system. So we can never fully understand it.

That is why Protopia is the attempt to make changes, but bearing in mind that we can only try to approximate a change that as a whole is positive for society and that contributes to the good life. But we must know that it is a process of trial and error, a process of evolutionary search.

On 23 May, Mary Harrington will present the conference ‘Is progress a belief or a fact? What do you expect from this conference?

Mary Harrington has a very interesting approach because she has thought a lot about all these questions. She has come to the conclusion that there is no progress, or at least that it is very difficult to come to the conclusion that there is progress from an objective point of view.

We can say that there is a lot more well-being today than 200 years ago, with great advances in medicine, with conveniences such as central heating etc. But she says that these improvements have not come without environmental costs but also in the deeply human.

It is a fascinating topic. I hope that those attending the conference will learn something and take some inspiration home with them.

I think they will also enjoy the mere fact that there is a really interesting conversation going on about topics that are not talked about much in the public sphere.

When will you celebrate the second edition of the ‘Protopia Conversations’?

Hopefully soon, but it depends on funding which, for the moment, is not assured. We are working on it and hope that by autumn we will be able to continue holding this type of event. If anyone knows of sources of funding for these free-spirited conversations, please let us know 🙂 


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