Kitchen Talks: Reports

Dispatches from our dialogues.
Reports from previous Kitchen Talks meetings are stored on this page. Each report has three sections: the description used to advertise the event, questions the participants asked at the start of each meeting and highlights from the discussion.

These reports were written by the meeting facilitator. Click on the bottom under the topic of interest to you to scroll down to that meeting's report.
Past Meetings

Political Fear

Event Description:
"What's going to happen to my life if he gets elected?"

"Can I say what I think without losing the people I care about?"

"Are we at a point of no return?"

"Do I want my kids to grow up in a world like this?"

"How can someone have been my friend for so long if they really believed that?"

The recent American election prompted a tidal wave of emotion, but one thing that was common across the board was fear. Fear of what would happen if 'the other guy' got in. Fear of how the results will affect your family or your job or your savings. How it would affect world politics or the economy. Or your safety, boundaries or spiritual practices.

A major thing about fear is how isolating it is. Depending on your community, some fears are encouraged and others are a sign of being the wrong kind of person. Talking about your worries can make you feel ungrateful, reactionary or paranoid. Sharing your fears can lead to fights, fallouts and getting unfriended. But not talking about them can damage our mental health – it can put up walls against people who might genuinely like to get to know us better. Maybe there are times when we're fearful but don't understand why, or are too worried about finding out.

While hiding the things that terrify us (or announcing them destructively on social media) is one strategy we use when confronted with volatile events like the election, another thing we can do is try to come together to try and figure out what to do with our political fears. This can mean reaching out to people who are afraid of the things we love, or finding a way to describe our worries in non-destructive ways. It can mean making friends across a divide, or at the very least understanding that everyone involved is human. Even the people who feel threatening.

Kitchen Talks will be hosting an online discussion on political fears & anxieties, and how they impact our lives. The group discussion may be attended by people with very different (and potentially uncomfortable) views, but the point will be less about figuring out who's right than on sharing how these past few months have made us feel and asking, in a safe space, about the experiences of others outside of our regular social bubbles and echo chambers.

Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions into a shared Google Document. What follows are a selection of these questions, after they have been edited for readability:

Why do people feel political fear?

What's this Great Reset I keep hearing about?

What makes politics so difficult to talk about?

Why is politics usually about the opinions and politics of old, white men — what about everyone else?

Is Canada heading towards communism? Will Liberalism be the new Communism?
We started the conversation by giving space to each participant to speak about what anxieties they felt during the American presidential election cycle. For many, there was a shared sense that something critical was at stake, but it wasn't always clear what, or why. Some were more afraid of the undesired candidate than actually attracted to the person they supported. Others felt that the candidate they supported was still frightening enough.

When speaking about sources of anxiety, much of the discussion then turned to media and information. There was a sense that participants felt, at times, helpless when it comes to finding accurate information. There was a general dissatisfaction with how facts have been treated, and concern over the ability to get solid information.

Some participants described the need to move past mainstream media sources, and this led to a discussion over the line past which honest inquiry may cross over into conspiracy theory. The facilitator intervened to remind participants that terms like "conspiracy theory" are polarizing and often resonate with moral judgement, and so criticisms of a given narrative might be more productive if they were specific instead of criticizing something as a conspiracy theory.

The first hour was spent in reflection over how the election cycle made the participants feel. In the second hour the group began to ask questions that provoked differences of opinion. The first such question was "are all fears legitimate?" Participants answered in a 4-Corners format, working with a Google Document allowing users to answer yes, no, maybe or I don't know.

Nearly half of the participants answered no, while the other half were divided between yes and maybe. Those who said yes claimed that all emotions have a right to exist and that to delegitimize someone's feelings is harmful or problematic. Those who said no argued that not all fears are rational or reflect the actual level of threat involved. A number of those who answered maybe spoke from their experience as counsellors-in-training that there is a need for both approaches: acknowledging the existence of fears/anxieties while recognizing the need some of their patients had to readjust the level of fear to match the actual circumstances of their life. After discussion, half the participants who answered yes changed their answers to maybe.

From there another question emerged: what happens when someone's fear is expressed destructively? When a politician uses fear to mobilize a population to go to war, for example, or to persecute minorities. Or when a parent's anxieties affect their child's development. Unfortunately, time ran out before all were able to share their opinions.

Participants expressed gratitude for the space to discuss the impact the election had on their mental health, but they also spoke of a desire to use this space not only to share impressions but also to ask more controversial questions of each other.
From: Province of Quebec Charter of Values

Religion and the Public Sphere

Event Description:
The holiday season draws closer, which often means a heightened amount of religious imagery soon will appear in the public square. But debates over public religion aren't limited to images of Christmas and Hanukkah – they involve thorny questions of identity, history, inclusivity and freedom of expression.

Different countries take different stances when it comes to the separation of church and state. Britain favours an "equalizing up" strategy, which not only honours historically privileged traditions (the Anglican church) but asks questions of how to make other religions as publicly prominent. Countries such as France, on the other hand, advocate for a kind of secularism called laïcité, which opts for a limiting of religious expression known as "equalizing down."

The case of France (and, in many ways, Québec) has lately been the focus of major attention. Not only have controversial laws limiting religious dress and symbols been passed in both regions, recent religiously-motivated attacks in France have prompted government officials to publicly reproduce cartoons offensive to Muslims as a way of affirming its national secularism. Critics and supporters of the French government's position have argued over the degree to which freedom of expression should be limited by norms of respect for believers, especially those affiliated with a religious minority.

In North America, debates on public religion take a different form. A controversial 2019 Albertan bill sought to enshrine the conscience rights of doctors who are unwilling to provide certain services due to moral reasons, reopening a tense debate on religious exemptions to public services. In the US, the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett came amid concerns over whether her religious beliefs would unduly influence her decisions.

All these instances lead to a number of questions: to what extent is religion a public or private affair? What are the limits of secularism? How should a culture relate to historically dominant religious traditions? And how should religious minorities be treated in society?

Participants were free to read the following articles related to the topic:

France's hardening Defense of Cartoons of Muhammad Could Lead to "a Trap"

Canada: Court to hear challenge to 'religious symbols' law

Why Criticism of Religion is So Necessary

Amy Coney Barrett's Catholicism Is Controversial But May Not Be Confirmation Issue

Controversial conscience rights bill for Alberta physicians voted down

Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions into a shared Google Document. What follows are a selection of these questions, after they have been edited for readability:

What does "secular" mean?

How can different religions celebrate together?

Does Islam pose a threat to Europe or North America?

Will any laws emerge compelling people to use secular holiday greetings?

What's the line between religious symbols and cultural symbols, and who gets to decide which is which?
We started the discussion talking about religious holidays, with an emphasis on organizations such as Scouts and Girl Guides and how discussions are taking place within both groups as to how best to be inclusive when giving holiday greetings.

When participants shared their concerns about the topic, many expressed regret that there isn't more harmony when speaking of religion and the public sphere. We then broke into small groups to discuss why there is disharmony, and what reasons might give rise to anxiety when religion is expressed publicly. Some of the reasons included:

1) diversity is hard to maintain when it comes to ideology and values, and people might not be willing to put in the effort needed to create harmony when there's so much difference.
2) different ideologies can be seen as threatening.
3) there can be an issue with dogmatism – certain religious groups are seen as not willing to compromise or accommodate other groups.
4) there's ambiguity when it comes to what's considered religious and what's considered cultural – Christmas trees, for example, have been considered to be both at different times and this can create tension.
5) religion can be used as an instrument by people in public power to further their own agendas.
6) religion, for some people, is associated with violence.

We spent a lot of time discussing two different ways religion and public life intersect: personal integrity and the influence of religious beliefs on public policy.

The issue of personal integrity was expressed by one participant who said that they believe that any religious person who takes public office will have to compromise, in some way, their religious or ethical beliefs, making it hard for a strongly religious person to take office while holding firm to their beliefs. We discussed what's called remote material cooperation with evil, which is a theological term describing the dilemma religious people face when the state they participate in allows for certain policies, behaviours or choices that conflict with their religious, ethical or metaphysical beliefs.

Discussing the issue of religious beliefs influencing public policy brought up the Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination as well as the Andrew Scheer campaign in 2019. Participants uniformly expressed the need for public figures to be given the opportunity to separate their beliefs from their public responsibilities.

We then spoke about laws limiting the display of religious symbols when working with vulnerable populations – this policy in particular affects elementary school teachers. A number of participants thought that this was a non-issue, either because a) children are perhaps not as vulnerable as are assumed, or b) many kids might not care about what teachers wear.

We briefly discussed two strategies for how to handle when a country has a historically prominent religious tradition but wants to transition to being a secular state. One option, known as equalizing up, means elevating all religions to the same status as the historically dominant one. The other, known as equalizing down, involves removing many if not all religious symbolism from public life and relegating spirituality to the public sphere.

The final question we discussed was about the degree to which religious communities should have the ability to opt out of the society they live in and be able to form autonomous communities. This could range from separate neighbourhoods or towns to the possibility of reservation-like entities or separate countries. We discussed the tension between the need for unity vs the desire for self-determination, especially when it comes to ethical differences (ie, legislating morality, diverse household structures, honour killings). We did an anonymous poll of participants on the question "how much public/official autonomy should religious communities have" and answers ranged from 30-40%. These answers did not change after the discussion.

The Vaccine

Event Description:
Discussing the virus was so 2020. This year, we're talking vaccination.

Last summer, the first COVID-19 vaccine producers predicted that an early vaccine could be ready as early as January. January is here, but not everyone is willing to line up for the shot. Why are some hesitant to get the vaccine? Who should have access to it first – and who will have that access?

Making the situation more complicated, vaccines have long been a source of controversy. Fears over side effects, whether proven or unproven, have led large parts of the population to declare their resistance to vaccination. Moral issues make the issue more controversial, with many asking questions like: is it ethical to refuse the vaccine in the face of a global pandemic? What does bodily autonomy look like when someone decides not to vaccinate their family? Under what circumstances is it legitimate to call the other side out as "conspiracy theorists" or "sheeple?" What is to be done with traditionally-minded populations if a vaccine was developed in connection to cell lines derived from aborted fetuses?

That and, of course, the perennial question: whose information do you trust?

Participants were free to read the following articles related to the topic:

Why So Many Americans Are Skeptical Of A Coronavirus Vaccine

A doctor on 9 things that could go wrong with the new vaccines

Vaccine Expert: "Don't overthink it. Don't wait."

In Defense of the Common Anti-Vaxxer

What happens if someone refuses vaccination?
Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions or comments into a shared Google Document. These help to focus the discussion on the factors relevant to the participants. What follows are a selection of these questions, after editing for readability:

Do we have a "duty" to get vaccinated as soon as the option is available to us?

Will there be some kind of division in rights/privileges for those who've been vaccinated and those who haven't?

What's the elevator pitch on how the vaccine works?

What are some tips for having one-on-one talks with people about this topic?

There are so many vaccines out there. How do we know which one works?

It takes 10 years for a vaccine to be approved. How did the COVID-19 vaccine get approved in less than a year?

What are the effects of poor reporting on scientific studies in terms of public trust?

In the minutes before the meeting started, participants spent time sharing their impressions of the violent protest at the U.S. Capitol which had taken place the previous day. A number of participants brought up the issues of information, echo chambers and heightened polarization across North America, but especially in the United States. These are all issues that affect how many people relate to the topic of the various COVID-19 vaccines.

Each meeting begins with each participant being given time to share their concerns about the discussion topic. Many described experiencing tensions in conversations with their friends and family, particularly in regard to whether there is a duty or obligation to become vaccinated whenever the opportunity becomes available. While some participants looked forward to receiving the vaccine, others explained their skepticism. Some expressed concern about whether there would be consequences to not taking the vaccine, and how this might violate the idea of bodily autonomy. One person brought up how COVID-19 has reinvigorated enduring debates over our relationship with security, safety and freedom.

Other participants talked about how frustrating it was to see all sorts of narratives take wing on social media, and how different parties in the conversation can get stuck in their echo chambers and become less able to communicate civilly to people who believe something different. A few said they had hopes to hear from the other side during our meeting, as well as to hear tips about how to have conversations on emotionally fraught topics like this. There was also a wish to figure out how to better be able to identify good science, and there were a few health care professionals who described how difficult this can, at times, be.

We very quickly had to remind ourselves that some of the words we use carry huge moral baggage, especially ones like antivaxxer. While we all have the right to our own opinions, and to promote them, one thing we try to do at Kitchen Talks is meet the other side and learn more about them. In this kind of context, loaded terminology can sometimes get in the way.

While talking, we brought up how there are a number of points that are received entirely differently depending on whether you're a supporter or skeptic when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. People on different sides of the debate may have different fears, different moral judgements in play, different ideas of the consequences should things go wrong, and different ways that distrust manifests itself in the broader conversation. We divided up into small groups and discussed the various sides to each point before coming back to the large group to share.
COVID-19 Vaccine Supporter
COVID-19 Vaccine Skeptic
Of infection.
Of passing on the virus to people who are vulnerable.
Of living for a long time in lockdown.
Of not being able to return to normalcy.
Of unknown side effects.
Of being critical of the process without being socially ostracized.
Of how the media appears to be uncritically accepting of the upcoming vaccines.
Of losing autonomy over one's own body and what gets put in it.
Moral Judgement
Can judge the other side to be:
-rebellious without a reason
-putting lives in danger
Can judge the other side to be:
-not appreciative of freedom and agency
-dogmatic in the application of its own values
More people dying.
Distrust in government-sanctioned healthcare providers.
The strengthening of anti-vaccine movements generally.
The potential of massive side effects having a larger impact on more people than the actual virus.
The restriction of freedoms in a way that make it easier to restrict freedoms in the future.
More intrusive government policies.
Skeptics are sometimes lumped in with conspiracy theorists.
Confusion over which articles shared on social media are true.
Independent experts who have expressed skepticism.
Governments and large organizations are fallible and don't always deserve uncritical trust.
Confusion over which articles shared on social media are true.
Big Pharma.

On returning to discuss these different points as a large group, we returned to the idea of fear and did another anonymous exercise on a Google Document. Participants were invited to express their own personal fears regarding the topic, and some of the responses can be found below (edited for clarity and anonymity):
Accidental contraction and death for my family or myself when getting vaccinated.

Fears of potential futures, including curfews, recession, not getting certain freedoms back.

What happens if I don't get vaccinated .

Losing my freedom because of being a non-vaccinated person.

Folks getting sick or dying from either COVID-19 or even the vaccine.

I fear death if I don't get the vaccine. I fear the death of people I love, especially with so many at-risk persons.

Losing my personal rights to my body or health by giving my rights over to a governmental vaccine program.

Unjust political or financial factors in terms of who gets the vaccine first.

Fear that the vaccination will give worse side effects than getting the actual virus.

Fear that the vaccine will be imposed on people and we will have no chance of saying no.

Fear and boredom. That life may never returning back to normal again.

Wanting to gather in social groups without getting ill or getting others ill.

Even after getting vaccinated, my fear is being a symptomless carrier and spreading COVID-19 to someone who has not been vaccinated.

Giving COVID-19 to people I love.

Extending the length of time that COVID-19 distracts us from all the other problems and opportunities in the world.


Suffering badly because of complications due to COVID-19.

Worried that the immunity won't be long-lasting or effective across all groups.

Danger of travel; some countries are better off than others.

A lot of these vaccines are 95% effective? 5% is a big number!

Mutation: will the virus become something more dangerous, like we already see with the UK variant.

Long-term dangers of vaccine.

The world becomes less human because of polarization or fear of each other.

Enduring loss of community spaces, social closeness. An increased fear of others, or increased cloistering in ideological bubbles.

I'm afraid that the next pandemic will be handled the same way - no learning, loss of freedoms without mitigations, not many honest calculations between the harms and benefits of political responses.

That the system will not work to treat COVID-19 through improving health or looking at what makes some people more vulnerable than others.

We returned to our small groups to discuss different tips or tricks to having discussions with people about high-stakes topics like this.

Social media was one area of disagreement. Some participants found that having conversations on platforms like Facebook or Twitter is more difficult than face-to-face, while others have become invested in learning how to have respectful engagement on social media.

Certain principles that have helped include:

1) Communicating that you're open to changing your mind - this might encourage openness on the other side, or at least more respect for our common humanity.

2) Being aware of what's called the logical fallacies. These are ways that we may start using illogical or problematic arguments in our discussion that do not ultimately back up our case. We can also be aware of when other people use them as well (though we have to be careful when identifying that someone else is using a fallacy. A poster describing some of the more common fallacies can be found below.
3) Identifying the ways that humans think differently, especially in times of stress, pressure or threat. Some of these different mental systems are described in books like Thinking Fast and Slow or The Righteous Mind.

4) Finding ways to disagree more productively. One technique, from what's known as the Rationalist movement, is known as Double-Crux. If you are interested in other rationalist techniques, feel free to check out your local chapter of the movement. For those of us in Ottawa (where Kitchen Talks is currently based), there is a local Facebook group with events.

5) Emphasizing that you care for the other person.

6) Letting the other person speak and feel respected, especially if they feel like they are often shut down for their opinion. One participant described meetups with friends where her only role is to listen (with the listener role often being reversed).

7) Using techniques like nonviolent communication, which emphasize not only the intellectual content of a conversation, but the less-than-visible needs and feelings of all people involved.

Explore: Trump Legacy

Event Description:
On January 20th, Donald Trump gave up his post as the 45th president of the United States, leaving behind a complex and controversial legacy built over the past four years. While many pundits and commentators have attempted to guess just what his legacy will be, discussion on the topic soared on January 6th after a rally turned into a violent, mass break-in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

Trump has long been a divisive figure, and thoughts as to what his future will bring are varied. Some declare that he shook up a system that has long needed a deep rethink. Others say that his administration empowered racists and neo-fascists, uncorking a national impulse that will be difficult to manage moving forward. Various other voices claim that a primary focus on race obscures other essential factors that have led to recent events. Certain thinkers have, while criticizing Trump's policies and actions, claimed that some responses to his actions have been severe and themselves problematic. Many more have claimed that, though his rhetoric was dangerous, he furthered certain positive conservative agendas by appointing judges more moderate than he. Still others say that, while recognizing that many of these points may be legitimate, the perceived need to course-correct American political life is more important than paying attention to the details.

As you can imagine, civil conversations on the soon-to-be-former president are hard to come by. In fact, some advocates claim that civility is less important than taking quick (and sometimes severe) action to limit the impact of Trump's legacy. This leads to an important question on both sides of the debate: if we only have space, time or resources for one of the following, then which is more important – dialogue or action?

This meeting we tried Explore, which is a special format for particularly divisive topics. Discussion was be more structured in the direction of formal dialogue, with opponents with opposing views given more space to formulate questions and understand why the other side believes what they do.

Participants were free to read the following articles related to the topic:

Trump Legacy: He changed the presidency, but will it last?

Supremacy of the Court

The American Abyss

'Problematic': Germany's Angela Merkel calls out Twitter over Trump ban

The storming of the U.S. Capitol was not about white supremacy

Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions or comments into a shared Google Document. These help to focus the discussion on the factors relevant to the participants. What follows are a selection of these questions, after editing for readability:

How do we restore a common, agreed upon reality and truth instead of echo chambers and 'alternate realities'?

How do we restore faith in the media?

How do we restore impartial investigative journalism on both sides?!
Given that this was our first meeting in the Explore format, the beginning of the meeting was spent discussing how we would proceed. Most meetings are a combination of facilitated dialogue and open discussion (with various large- and small-group activities), but the Explore format models itself more explicitly after the kind of facilitated dialogue used in the peacebuilding world.

The meeting was organized in the following four stages:

Every participant tells about themselves and why this topic is meaningful for them.

Division into like-minded groups
Participants divide into breakout sessions with people who have relatively similar opinions as they do. They come up with various reasons why they hold their beliefs and share them with the large group.

Designing questions for the other groups
Participants return to their group and devise one question for each other group.

Answering the questions and discussion
Once each group shares their questions, they return one last time to their small group and come up with a common set of answers. Everyone returns to the large group to discuss the various answers.
The theme tonight was not so much "Donald Trump" as the legacy he has left on the United States and wider world. While participants were introducing themselves, many began to share a wide range of opinions: Trump's character was inappropriate for the office of the president, Trump's character unfortunately overshadowed some of this policy successes, Trump enabled a degree of public racism that has not been seen in the US in generations, the media was incessantly biased against Trump, his Supreme Court appointees were surprisingly moderate, his pardons grossly inappropriate and so on.

Given the fact that many participants described themselves as living in echo chambers where they mostly encountered people who believe the same things they themselves do, there was a stated interest in learning more about what the "other side" thinks about Trump's legacy and what reasons have brought them there.

During the registration process, participants were asked to rank themselves on a scale from 0-10 where 0 represents the opinion that Trump's legacy is entirely negative and 10 represents the opinion that Trump's legacy is entirely positive. While there were participants who ranked themselves as 0 and 10, for the most part the audience skewed more critical of Trump and so were divided into the following groups:

Ranked 6-10: from "Trump's legacy is not entirely bad" to "explicitly pro-Trump" (later calling themselves Not Bad)

Ranked 4-5: in the middle, skewing slightly away from Trump (later calling themselves The Mushy Middle)

Ranked 2-3: against Trump, but he has some redeeming qualities (later calling themselves Some Redeeming Qualities)

Ranked 0-1: thoroughly anti-Trump (later calling themselves God, No)

After spending time in their groups, participants created the following list of positive and negative aspects of Trump's legacy:
Positive Aspects
Negative Aspects
Started no foreign wars.

Challenged multilateral fora (although not eloquently).

Facilitated the Abraham Accords.

Transformed the China agenda.

Challenged media narratives.

Brought dark, racist elements out into the open where we were able to start wrestling with them.

Put the focus on people and not corporations

Appointed moderate Supreme Court justices.

Pulled America back from a meddlesome 'world leader' role.

Brought unemployment down, with wages rising (pre-pandemic) and narrowing gaps with pay discrepancies based on background.

Fearless about speaking his 'truth' to power...

Brought concerns about corporate training based on Critical Theory to light, and banned federal funding for such programs.

Redefined political accessibility and activity through Twitter use.

Enhanced media polarization.

Demonstrated that it was OK to be disrespectful at the highest level.

Was prone to telling falsehoods and exaggerations.

Transforming the China agenda.

Regressive tax policies.

Enabled and enboldened racist & selfish behavior.

Environmental terrorism.

Pardoned Steve Bannon, who is accused of scamming his own base.

Used of emergency orders to enact policy.

Embodied cruelty, disrespect, dishonesty.

Enacted callus policies.

...whether his 'truth' was truth or not.

Didn't remain in or start the one possibly justifiable war needed to defend the Kurds (an American ally) from Turkey after pulling out of Syria.

After clarifying and assembling this lists, participants spent the majority of the remaining event time designing and answering questions as a group. What follows is a condensed version of what was an extended discussion:
Not Bad

Question from The Mushy Middle:
Were there any negative side effects resulting from the decisions you liked?

The Palestinians were not involved in the Abraham Accords peace talks with Israel. His character got in the way, and things may have been better if he behaved differently. It detracted politically from his legitimate accomplishments. Trump didn't know how to build credibility with all of the American people, including his own political party

Question from Some Redeeming Qualities:
Some folks really like Trump because he "says it like it is." How can society embrace "saying it like it is" while also restoring civility (which can be lost) to public discussions.

There is no civility across the political and social landscape. Political correctness will be used against you if you misspeak, and so it's better to say it like it is without thinking of what the consequences might be. This may not be a fair request, nor realistic: Trump was not a politician, but a businessman.

Question from God, No:
Bi-partisan officials found no voter fraud even though Trump claimed there was, and Trump displayed undemocratic behaviour in his request to Georgia to "find" votes. Where do we draw the line with blatantly undemocratic behaviour like this?

We think that there wasn't enough attention paid to the issue of fraud, and we think it is in the interests of the Democratic Party to investigate further because, if there are opportunities for irregularities, then it is in the interests of everyone to investigate. That said, we don't advocate for the Supreme Court to get involved. We think that the election results should go forward with an inquiry only afterwards so as to avoid a crisis.

The Mushy Middle

Question from Not Bad:
What would your response be if you found out that everything you thought was awful about Trump was also true for every other leader?

Nothing would change, because we do think that most awful things about Trump are true about most other leaders.

Question from Some Redeeming Qualities:
Do you think that if we could come to agree on the same reality – the same set of facts instead of being in different media bubbles would we be so far apart on most of these issues?

Maybe not, and agreeing on the facts is certainly a positive development. Certain kinds of discussion can't happen unless there's an agreement on facts and what they mean. But, on the other hand, facts aren't always enough to bring people together. Different people have different values, and those values determine what facts we pay attention to, emphasize or prioritize.

Question from God, No:
What was the craziness you saw on the other side that made you think of voting for Trump?

[note: this was a question directed to a specific member of the group who said that, though she was critical of Trump, she may have voted for him because she was more concerned with developments on the American Left]

The main concern to this specific participant is the limitations on civil liberties that were perceived as coming from the Left, particularly on free speech by means of what's referred to as 'cancel culture.' She is concerned with the consequences of being cancelled or deplatformed, especially on the ability to have public discussions (and the consequences for people's livelihoods after cancellation). She described her position that there seems to be a radicalization and certain dirty tactics that seems to be more prominent on the Left than on the Right.

Some Redeeming Qualities

Question from Not Bad:
What would you say are your expectations, or standards are of a world leader? Do you expect those in higher office to be without character flaws?

[note: this question was due to an objection to Trump's character as not being 'appropriate' for a world leader]

We expect fewer character flaws, though nobody is perfect we found that, at times, it seems like Trump revelled in his flaws. Leaders should be able to take criticism without having a meltdown or being manipulated by their ego. We expect presidents not to be pathological liars.

Question from The Mushy Middle:
If you were in Trump's shoes today how would you be feeling? And drinking?

If we were in Trump's shoes, we would be scared of legal consequences and eager to maintain a hold on media attention.
Trump is a non-drinker, so he's sipping a Diet Coke.

Question from God, No
Do you think that Trump's "redeeming qualities" were factors that only were possible under a Trump administration, or is it possible that they were a pure accident?

Probably both. We think that his background in business led to a desire for a stronger negotiating position, and not feeling beholden to prior contracts and agreements increased America's leverage globally. However, we think that many of his better policies may have been developed by the more capable staff in his administration.

God, No

Question from Not Bad:
How do you come up with your viewpoint? Where do you research what the Trump administration achieved? Have you looked at other views?

We have a bit of a problem with how this question is phrased, as if we didn't do our research. We looked at his comportment online, and watched the news. Some of the members in our group also have paid attention to right-wing media, so we have heard other views. One particular source was the AskTrumpSupports Reddit thread, and we were not impressed with most of the responses there. We found that they were not always thoughtful positions. We also value comparing news from different sources.

Question from The Mushy Middle:
Do you see any trade-offs or positive side effects that may have come out of some of his decisions you don't like - for example, could the decision to support coal have led to helping keep some rustbelt states out of destitution?

About the coal: we think that other, less destructive strategies could have been taken to address the needs of the populations involved. But in terms of positive side effects, we appreciate that Trump took on the mainstream media we think that we are more aware now of media biases and how certain networks/organizations seem to suppress certain facts. Another positive side-effect was that we saw an example of how not to do governance.

Question from Some Redeeming Qualities:
Can you empathize with those who feel that they need to support Trump?

Well, we certain think that poverty can cloud the vision of certain voters. But even so, there's a bigger picture that still needs to be taken into account.
Two hours was not enough to go through all the questions and answers, and so we went over the time limit and did not have space for open discussion at the end. Some participants stated a desire for a more loose, discussion-style format while also acknowledging that this heavily-facilitated format was insightful.

We did a small activity at the end to see if anyone changed their minds with regards to their positions (on a scale of 0-10, with 0 = no change and 10 = complete change): participants ranged from 0-2, with many describing the value of this dialogue as a chance to clarify their positions, meet people from the other side of the debate and learning more about their views/reasons.

There's never enough time for these kinds of discussions. Many participants stayed after the meeting for socializing.

Identity (Politics)

Event Description:
Few things feel as understandable yet hard-to-define as identity. It's who we are. How we fit into the world. But who exactly gets to decide what our identity is?

One answer to this question is that we decide for ourselves who we are, making self-identification a powerful and popular notion. This is increasingly the case in the context of gender identity, and in many countries it is now acceptable for people to be free to construct their own identities. But this paradigm is not without its challengers. Some believe that certain aspects of identity, gender included, are biological and innate, and some public figures assert their right not to accept others' self-identification. Racial identification is just as fraught: white activist Rachel Dolezal's attempt to self-identify as black was met with controversy and cancellation, while questions of "how indigenous" a person is may decide whether cultural figures or projects will receive funding or distribution. Which leads to a question: what are the limits of self-identification, and who has the power to tell someone else who they are (and who they are not)?

Making the issue more complex, the past few decades has seen the continued rise of what's called "identity politics," which refers to how large groups use identity markers to pursue specific goals. For many, these goals include the search for justice, rights or reparation for historical wrongs. For others, though, identity politics seems like a way of capitalizing on problematic ideas of victimhood, or of fragmenting society at a time when we need to be united.

How do identities shape our actions and worldview? Is identity personal or do they have a responsibility to society? And when is it ever okay for someone else to tell us who we are and who we are not?

Participants were free to read the following articles related to the topic:

How America's Identity Politics Went From Inclusion to Division

NFB pulls Michelle Latimer's documentary Inconvenient Indian from Sundance festival

Understanding Identity Politics

Rachel Dolezal: "I wasn't identifying as black to upset people. I was being me."

It Is Time To Debate – And End – Identity Politics:
Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions or comments into a shared Google Document. These help to focus the discussion on the factors relevant to the participants. What follows are a selection of these questions, after editing for readability:

What is the future of identity?

How do identity crises or changes in our identities work?

Should identity be seen as entirely open? If so, anyone would be allowed to be whoever they choose to be - is that okay?

What about 'socially expensive Identifiers' for in-group identification like haute couture dress, cars, tattoos, piercings, dyed hair?
As they trickled in, participants started discussing what aspects of identity were interesting for them to discuss. One common question concerned self-identification, particularly with whether it has any limits. To what extent can someone say they are something without legitimately being contradicted by the people around them? Self-identification is a cornerstone of the trans community, for example, but the case of Rachel Dolezal (a white woman who faced criticism for identifying as black) demonstrated that it is still a controversial and contested issue.

Another point arising from this self-vs-society tension regarding identification is the requirement to prove one's identity, as is the case with certain North American Indigenous laws. Being "insufficiently Indigenous" may come with consequences when applying for benefits, reparations or participation in groups or festivals.

The issue was raised of whether identity politics, as a force for political mobilization, is a positive or negative development. Its benefits include how it allows for certain groups to advocate for their interests, but drawbacks include fostering a sense of division or competition in society.

Other questions were more personal or cognitive in nature: why is identity important to us, anyway? What needs are involved, on a human level? How is identity tied up with our values or sense of safety and belonging? How might these factors change in the future, especially if the transhumanist ideal of merging human and technology is achieved?

We then did an activity where participants were able to ask a few questions: have you ever felt marginalized because of an identity? Do you feel that identity is a significant issue when it comes to questions of justice? Do you feel solidarity with other people in your identity group?

There was a short discussion on the concept of salience, which refers to how one of our identities becomes more relevant or personally meaningful than the others. A person might identify their race as being salient, for example, even though they have other identities linked to gender, nationality, education, place of birth, job and so on.

When asked which identities were salient to the participants, a number of interesting answers were given. Headstrong woman. Religious. Living with a visible disability. Being Canadian. Being a nerd. Loving a certain type of music. Being a gay man. Having gone through certain life experiences.

For most of the participants, the identities they described as salient were ones that made them unique or otherwise different from the people around them. Some didn't feel Canadian, for example, until they travelled abroad or started paying attention to international politics. One participant asked if this pattern of identifying with what makes us different might be a Westernized framework, and she wondered if people who were raised in other cultures might identify more with large-group identity markers.

We also talked about the ways that parents can pass aspects of their own identity onto their children. Some participants claimed that, for the most part, that transference is successful. Others said that children, especially teenagers and young adults, can easily throw off old identity markers or experience parental identity expectations as oppressive or imposing.

A tension was identified when participants discussed how parents and the state (through school programs or other socialization initiatives) may end up trying to pass on different identity markers to children. This raises the issue of whose right it ultimately is to form the identities of a country's young. A secular society may try to instill traits ranging from tolerance (Canada) or suspicion (USSR) of religion while a religious family may defend their right to present one faith (and the value system attached) as more true than others.

The line after which the state has legitimate cause to intervene in the family was also discussed. One participant said that evidence of abuse would be legitimate cause, but this is complicated by the fact that the word "abuse" may mean different things to different people. For some, being raised with less flexible gender roles is a form of abuse. For others, being taught (sometimes framed as "being indoctrinated") against the parents' wishes is a form of abuse.

Continuing with the theme of parents, children and the transmission of identity across generations, the last question discussed was migration and immigration. About how feasible (or desirable) it might be for incoming groups to set up autonomous communities, as was done in Canada in the past. About why second generation children in Canada seem to shed their ancestral identities more often than those born in Europe or Asia. About what it must be like, as a parent, to see your child identify as something different than you.

QAnon, Children and Conspiracy

Event Description:
"QAnon" usually refers to a cluster of beliefs claiming, among other things, that North American children are at risk of falling into pedophilic rings maintained by major political elites. Some dismiss it as conspiracy, others claim that this is a very real risk that children need to be protected from.

QAnon's more extreme assertions, including the dominance of American culture by elite satanist rings, have been dismissed by many as conspiracy. But concern over children, and pedophilia more broadly, has had some wondering if there's perhaps even a sliver of truth to the rumours. Response to "Cuties", a controversial 2020 film depicting dance sequences with young girls, voiced outcry over problematic marketing, as well as criticisms that members of an alleged cultural elite did not do enough to condemn it.

In the current atmosphere of political mistrust, hints of danger to children can easily escalate from legitimate outcry to full-blown conspiracy theory. And in our times of polarization and questionable sources of information, it can be challenging to know what is conspiracy theory and what is legitimate critical thought. Making things even more difficult, it pits two sides against each other: those who see themselves as defenders against dangerous theories that can be used to destabilize democratic norms, and those who see themselves as the only sane voice protecting kids.

Feel free to read the following articles on the topic:

Child sex trafficking is a problem, but QAnon isn't helping

So was QAnon...Right?

Why We Shouldn't Watch Cuties

When QAnon came to Canada

QAnon Is More Important Than You Think

The conversation began with participants naming certain dynamics connected to the QAnon phenomenon that worried them. A number mentioned issues with trusting media, and how to evaluate whether alternative sources of news can or cannot be trusted. Many consider sources like "Q" to be trustworthy, others do not.

Some even consider "Q" to be dangerous, which then leads to the issue of what to do with "dangerous" information. Certain parties say that blocking "Q" and outlets/profiles that amplify its content is a good thing to do for the sake of democracy or public safety. Others say that doing this opens up worrying precedents where certain sources can be labelled as "dangerous" and then blocked, potentially for political reasons. Current examples of opposition forces in China and Russia were brought up as examples of what can happen when this type of precedent is set.

Not all participants were familiar with what "Q" and QAnon were, asking for more details. Two people spoke with more information, one of which was the facilitator and the other was a participant who was an active follower and supporter of "Q". The descriptions attempted to encapsulate the debate around the figure, who purportedly released information about a secret, deep state group within the US connected to alleged pedophile rings and other controversial claims. Some say that many of "Q"'s claims are disproven and baseless, others point to evidence. Since there was a limited number of "Q" supporters, the discussion proceeded to ask general questions of information literacy rather than getting in-depth in to the "Q" claims.

We discussed other topics that are often framed as "conspiracy theorist" claims, including the following: the involuntary implanting of chips, the planning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential damage of 5G networks, flat earth theories, 2020 American election fraud, 9/11 trutherism, the Roswell landings and hidden agendas behind rich philanthropists such as George Soros or Bill Gates. We mentioned how, in the case of Soros, countries like Russia amplify these conspiracy theories as the Soros Foundation's grants to liberal projects are seen as attempts to destabilize countries that are not allied with the US.

The meeting participants approached these theories in different ways, believing that some are perhaps more legitimate (or have better grounding) than others, which leads to the question: on what grounds do we legitimate a conspiracy theory? Using what criteria?

Making this more difficult, the words "conspiracy theory" themselves can become moralized or pejorative, allowing for ideas to be dismissed because they are linked to "conspiracy" rather than addressing the ideas themselves. This was a matter of concern for some participants, as incidents like Watergate and the controversial CIA MK Ultra mind control program were considered to be farfetched theories at one point until proof was eventually released.

This has been an issue at previous Kitchen Talks meetings, as terms like "conspiracy theories" have been used in various ways, sometimes value-neutrally and sometimes framed negatively as an idea taken to be controversially and possibly baseless.

Participants discussed why this particular theory has proved particularly controversial, which led to a discussion of how any alleged threat to children has a potentially potent triggering effect. Because children as seen as being victimized by the "cabal" alleged by QAnon sources, there's an extra moral dimension to people's choice to believe the content or not.

The notion of "triggering" was also discussed. Some participants framed QAnon believers as "triggered" and, which could then lead them to be framed as a) victims of their triggering, and thus needing to be understood and treated with a degree of empathy, and b) triggered into dangerous behaviour that nevertheless may need to be resisted, and thus the "triggering" used as a way to potentially delegitimize their perspectives for reasons of emotional distress rather than logical response. One respondent mentioned that framing QAnon believers as "triggered" in these ways seemed patronizing and reductive. Since there were few QAnon believers in the discussion, they were a party that were less able to present their case effectively.

In lieu of greater QAnon supporter presentation, the discussion turned to epistemological factors. Participants asked each other, depending on where they stood on given conspiracy theories, about what could potentially change their minds. As in, what type of information (or degree of trust in a source) would be enough to prompt someone to reconsider their belief or disbelief in a theory like QAnon.

We also discussed the nature of cognitive biases (which are described above in the section on the COVID-19 vaccine), as well as to what degree intellectual humility is seen as a virtue in contexts like this. We also discussed the metric of "falsifiability" as a potential metric for evaluating how we approach a controversial or unproven idea.

From there, the conversation turned towards propaganda in general, as certain ideas are framed as propaganda while others are not. QAnon content is dubbed propaganda by some people, while "mainstream media" is considered propaganda by others. Participants described that calling something propaganda is often motivated by a particular point of view which may itself be partisan or biased.

We broke up into small groups to describe what we considered propaganda to be, which led to discussions on social media, fake news and issues of trust. One participant described that the increased amount of paid news contributes to the erosion of trust.

Also within the small groups was discussed whether or not there are any tips, tricks or rules of thumb that might assist people with evaluating information. The concept of falsifiability was repeated again, along with various ways of framing an ideas plausibility. Some participants said that assuming that there are no hidden interests seems naive. Others described large, decade-spanning conspiracies as too difficult for humans to keep secret for so long. Still others mentioned other principles: not assuming evil intentions where other reasons (ignorance, human error) are highly plausible alternatives. There's also the idea of Occam's Razor, where complicated theories should not be introduced if simpler theories seem to explain a phenomenon.

Another participant mentions that, even with good intentions and the use of good cognitive thinking, parties involved can still be triggered or manipulated by powerful actors with agendas, making it even more difficult to find the truth.

We end the conversation by bringing it back to QAnon and the degree to which some participants believe an idea like this can be evaluated by these principles. Participants stay after the meeting to continue the conversation, and suggest that more work is needed to address such a complex theory.
Note: a post describing the QAnon discussion at Kitchen Talks was flagged by Facebook as violating their community standards concerning political content. As a result, the organizer's Facebook account was deleted without the ability to appeal. The Kitchen Talks Facebook page was deleted, along with all previous content on the social network. This affected the organization of the meeting, leading to less participants attending (which may have affected the conversation. This was also discussed during the meeting in terms of how theories like QAnon should be addressed and whether or not policies like Facebook's are a) seen as legitimate and b) even if indeed legitimate, the degree to which other accounts may fall victim to these policies. Participants wanted to discuss the role of social networks in addressing or contributing to these controversies, and this would go on to form the topic of the next meeting.

Big Tech, Big Power

Event Description:
Big tech's "big five," Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft, have an increasingly huge impact on our world. Facebook has become an apparent "public space" where people can discuss ideas – but only so long as it follows the company's community guidelines. Amazon has transformed retail across the world, as well as how workers are treated. Microsoft's leader Bill Gates has become world renown for his philanthropy, but accusations of hidden agendas and conspiracy theories question whether his intentions are as noble as he claims. Elon Musk's various companies, including SpaceX and Tesla, may shape the future of where we live or how our brains interact with our environment. However, while Silicon Valley's early days seemed full of promise and optimism, recent actions on the part of tech companies have, for some, generated a very opposite atmosphere.

It's been a long two decades since Google added "don't be evil" to their corporate code of conduct, and Big Tech companies are facing accusations that this is what they have indeed become. Facebook's moderation policies have had hundreds of users flock to other platforms in hopes of less oversight over how they express their ideas – and the company has recently had a spat with Australia over the ability to post news content. Countries like Russia and China attempt to regulate the ability of Big Tech companies to interfere in their internal policies, sparking anxieties in North America over Chinese companies Huawei and TikTok. Google has unilaterally applied "sanctions" to countries like Turkey, where refusing to service its own devices can cripple an entire nation's tech users. Elon Musk's Starlink satellites are affecting the ability for astronomers to measure the cosmos, but they may be able, one day, to bring internet to remote areas – how to balance the pros and cons of such projects?

In a world where tech, politics and changing values are colliding, how are we supposed to navigate policies that we have so little control over? And if it becomes a battle between Big Tech various world governments, who do we think should win?

Feel free to read the following articles on the topic:

Kitchen Talks founder Josh Nadeau describes the experience of having his account deleted because of a Kitchen Talks post describing an event discussing QAnon and conspiracy theories.

What Facebook's Australia news ban could mean for its future in the US

The media loves the Gates Foundation. These experts are more skeptical

Apple has a Vladimir Putin problem

Don't break up Big Tech

Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions or comments into a shared Google Document. These help to focus the discussion on the factors relevant to the participants. What follows are a selection of these questions, after editing for readability:

Is big tech public infrastructure? Should we get a vote on how it is structured? Should the government regulate it?

Interested in thoughts about the theories going around about microchips being implanted in people against their will.

How can we preserve the ability for folks to functionally engage in society without participating in aspects of modern technology, such as social media or smartphones?

'Fake news' travels faster and takes less time to produce than accurate facts, journalism and fact-checking. How can we preserve the ability to censor/minimize demonstrably fake news without creating a structure and power that is excellent at censoring legitimate protest and legitimizing government propaganda?
When introducing themselves, many participants described there being a "problem" with Big Tech, particularly with social media. To begin the evening, we broke up into small groups to generate ideas as to what "the problem" may be. The results are listed (ranked in chronological order discussed):
Whether or not Big Tech elites have interests that conflict with the interests of users
A general tech illiteracy among users
The amount of time spent on Big Tech platforms, and whether this time is a "waste"
Unclear moderation policies that are not publically accountable
Whether these companies themselves have ideological leanings, making them not neutral engagement spaces
The idea of online "friends" who may/may not be sincere.
Increasing social, cultural or political polarization online
The difficulty of developing immediate solutions
Big Tech's ability to cause trouble by means of Big Data
We are the product, not the customer.
Coming back and discussing the problems, the context for talking about Big Tech at Kitchen Talks was mentioned. As alluded in the note before this report, the Facebook post describing the previous meeting on QAnon and conspiracy theories was flagged as violating the company's community standards. This led to the organizer's Facebook account being deleted, which included the Kitchen Talks page and the loss of the contact lists and previous event pages.

This was discussed on a number of levels. For one, the consequences of this action led to the disorganization of these events, and participants framed the end result as ironic: a project aimed at providing space for dialogue was flagged as contributing to a "dangerous" conspiracy theory. This led to a higher degree of stress while organizing the QAnon and Big Tech meetings (eventual posts about both were flagged as spam, though were not taken as grounds for deleting the organizer's new account), as well as additional time to restore participant lists and other promotional infrastructure.

This also prompted different responses among participants. Some famed this as a free speech issue, and described Facebook's ban as an act of policing free speech. When described this way, participants discussed the power that Big Tech has in organizing our de facto public spaces and what can be discussed within them.

Another view discussed was whether the issue was less about free speech and more about Big Tech monopolies on spaces that, while used as such, are not public spaces protected under public laws. Participants described the act of signing our data way via terms and service agreements, implying that not only is Big Tech "at fault", but so are users for not taking enough care of their digital rights.

This then led to a discussion about how capable people actually are of protecting their rights, and how empowered they are to do so (or vice versa). The case of Australia, which was at the time of the meeting engaged in a lengthy battle with Facebook over the role the company has in posting or promoting news, was also discussed.

The idea of agency proved of interest to participants, who described three possible places where "fault" may lay: with users, with tech elites (though who these "elites" are was also discussed) or with an impersonal set of algorithms. Some reasons for choosing each are outlines below:
Many of the reasons for user "fault" include the act of signing away data rights, a sense of entitledness to digital spaces that do not belong to them, a general lack of knowledge or data literacy.
Tech Elites
Some mention the issue of money: engagement creates revenue through ads, and so elites in tech companies may be incentivized to create and regulate spaces that encourage uncritical engagement. There is also the issue of Facebook and other Big Tech companies profiting off of user data, providing another motivation for placing users in potentially exploitative positions.
Impersonal Algorithm
Only one participant described the algorithm as a major problem. She said that no one, probably, predicted how dominant Big Tech would become in our lives. The promotion of polarizing and radicalizing material in the wake of the 2016 US election, for example, was prompted by an algorithm optimizing for engagement rather than a tech elite who wanted to polarize the populace.
The discussion then pivoted to explore the idea of user agency (empowerment vs. fault) when it comes to their positioning within Big Tech projects and platforms. Participants were asked to rank, between 0%-100%, the degree to which they thought users themselves are responsible for what's been done to their data. The majority of participants answered 60%, with the rest spread out equally towards 0 and 100% in either direction. We divided into small groups to discuss why we chose the numbers we did.

Along with the question of agency, many of the groups discussed potential strategies of curbing Big Tech influence. Government regulation was discussed as one major tool, with the Australian case, or the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) policy, discussed.

The issue of state regulation was problematized, however, with examples brought in of authoritarian regulation in countries like China and Russia. The Russian case was particularly interesting, as their laws on "digital sovereignty" have been criticized for placing data in the hands of a government framed as authoritarian, while also somewhat praised for attempting to reign in Big Tech's ability to operate at will.

The evening finished off with different participants describing individual strategies to curb Big Tech influence on their online activity, including best practices like using VPNs or VPN browsers like TOR. Other suggestions included extensions for browsers like Chrome such as Dark Reader, Privacy Badger, ReviewMeta, UBlock Origin and others.

Death and Dying

Event Description:
Mar 17th - Kitchen Talks: Death and Dying

End of life issues are often complicated to speak about. Not only are many of us uncomfortable with the idea of death, but we're divided in our response. How should younger generations support the aging as they draw closer to their passing? Does assisted suicide provide more options for dying with dignity, or does it make a vulnerable population even more vulnerable? In cases where Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) is legal, who should be able to use this service? And whose decisions should decide our options when it comes to death - our own, our loved ones, our community or the medical system supporting us?

Joining us will be members of the Death Cafe community, who hold regular discussions on death, dying and how our society frames both.

We Need To Talk About Death

Why We Don't Talk About End Of Life

Top 10 Pro & Con Arguments: Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Dutch paediatricians: give terminally ill children under 12 the right to die

What is a Death Cafe?

Participant Questions:
At the beginning of each meeting, participants are able to type anonymous questions or comments into a shared Google Document. These help to focus the discussion on the factors relevant to the participants. What follows are a selection of these questions, after editing for readability:

How do we talk about MAiD (medical assistance in dying)?

What is a death doula?

How can I discuss my mortality on a personal level, as compared to as a response to another's death (which combines an awareness of mortality and grief).

What is it like discussing suicide and assisted suicide with a group that holds different values?

Will physically healthy people have access to assisted suicide for reasons of depression, even if there is a chance that the depression is temporary?

Should children have access to do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, and is it fair to extend or withhold that access?
As participants joined the call, we spoke a little about the ways that death has impacted our lives. Some had recently mourned the loss of relatives, one of which was related to a COVID infection. Some were navigating the care of parents, including discussions of end of life issues.

The role of a "death doula" was discussed, which generated interest among participants who had never heard of them before. One of the participants described how they are the opposite of "birth doulas," mainly offering support and assistance to people who are coming to the end of their life.

We also had members of the Death Cafe community present. Death Cafe meetings are similar to Kitchen Talks, with each meeting focused on some aspect related to end-of-life. While Kitchen Talks often revolves around polarizing issues in hopes of creating spaces for people to find common ground, Death Cafe is more of a safe space for people to bring their stories and speak to their experiences or concerns connected to death.

Concerns voiced by participants at this meeting revolved around the legal structures connected to death, mainly medical assistance in dying (MAiD). This was a divisive element in the group, as some described opposition to certain MAiD structures and laws, while others welcomed them. Other issues that were brought up involved palliative care (especially in the context of MAiD) and how faith perspectives impact how we approach or encounter death.

We divided up into small groups to discuss what it can be so hard to talk about death. Participants were encouraged to explore why it's so controversial and to identify more concrete issues that divide people.

When we returned, a number of participants from the separate groups talked about how spiritual practices can prove divisive, especially when a person's metaphysical belief structure contrasts with the legal structures in a given country. For faith traditions that believe in emphasizing palliative care over MAiD, for example, it can be difficult to support said structures. And if a religious doctor were legal required to perform MAiD or to give referrals, this could provoke deep conflicts of conscience, and possibly spark resistance to specific laws.

Atheistic perspectives were also discussed, particularly whether it is a concern that so many death-support services are framed in religious terms, especially when it comes to hospital support staff (which can include chaplains). There can also, at times, be a "missionary" element to the way some religious care workers approach atheists near death, which some atheists consider manipulative given the vulnerability of people near death.

Another point brought up was the issue of control and agency. For many, death proves controversial because it is so outside our control. Practices like MAiD can add an element of control, and so some supporters may resent attempts from members of the population that seek to limit access to it. The issue of how much agency someone should have in the face of death was a particularly thorny issue (one that would return later in the meeting), as well as the question of who should have how much agency. Should MAiD be offered only to terminal patients in pain, or should it be offered to society at large? Should we try to convince people not to undergo MAiD, or would that be an imposition of our values? When are discussions of MAiD actually a cry for help that should be responded to in a way that presents support for other options? And how old should people be when they have access to MAiD: should young people have that access?

The issue of "death phobia" was also discussed. For some, "death phobia" was a negative trait of a society that may not know how to discuss death (and therefore avoids thinking about it, with potentially unhealthy consequences). One approach to this is to speak about death more often (advocated by the Death Cafe community), and possibly provide support to people so that we learn how to accept death and even frame it in a positive light.

For others, "death phobia" was framed positively, with some communities spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to extend life or even end death altogether. This gets into the territory of transhumanism, which is a movement dedicated to enhancing or augmenting human life with the help of technology. This can involve increasing our physical or mental capacities, even to the point of moving our consciousness into bodies that do not age or die. For transhumanists, "death phobia" is a healthy reaction to a terrible reality that can provide motivation to develop technologies that will extend life, perhaps (eventually) indefinitely.

With the issue of "death phobia," one complicating factor with these conversations is the moral component associated with one's values. For some, acceptance of death is seen as a positive practice, which can frame attempts at transhumanism as negative or "beside the point." From the other side, some proponents of transhumanism may see acceptance of death as foolish or backward.

After this discussion, participants were asked to envision their "other" when it comes to their position on death. They described their "other" in the chat, with some examples including: a) people who don't care about safe death care, b) authority figures declaring certainty in an afterlife, c) people who look down on attempts to extend life, d) people who want to live forever, e) people who think death is the end.

Different participants expanded on their "other" for some time, which occasionally prompted other participants to say "your 'other' sounds like me." We then discussed whether we feel comfortable sharing a space with that "other" and why. Some said that they constantly share space (and a culture" with their "others" and they're used to it. Other participants said that, in moments where they would need to express their values or make end-of-life related choices, it would be hard to share space with their "others."

As the evening started to come to a close, we returned to the issue of choice and agency. Participants were invited to identify, on a scale from 0-100, to what extent they felt people should have a choice in how and when they die. Some marked themselves at 0%, with an emphasis on accepting what comes when it comes. Others advocated a 100% position where all people were able to choose their time to go.

There were positions scattered through the middle, which included a) death being, for the most part, outside of our control but our reaction to it being a matter of human agency, b) respecting DNRs and turning off life support while not going as far as MAiD, c) wanting full control when it comes time to die, but not wanting to be able to hasten death and more.

While many emphasized the benefits of choice, one participant near the end affirmed her belief that sometimes intervening when someone says they want to die can be an act showing that we care, and that sometimes what a person wants to hear is that someone cares. There was also a move against narratives framing "being a burden" as something negative, claiming the possibility that a person might "want to burden their loved ones," that love, in some way, necessitates being a burden to each other in ways that offer opportunities to love and be a community. There was also the point maid about whether there is something beautiful, generally speaking, in embracing the realities that we do not, in the end, choose.

The Convoy

Event Description:
On January 29th, a convoy of transport trucks arrived in Ottawa, culminating in a massive protest calling itself the Freedom Convoy. While the original protest was aimed at border restrictions for unvaccinated truckers, the event has expanded into a widespread expression of opposition to issues as varied as vaccine mandates, government overreach, discrimination against the unvaccinated and the Trudeau government.

The convoy has met with highly polarized reactions. Many Canadians have expressed passionate support or aversion to the protests, which have mostly been peaceful but have seen instances of deeply problematic behaviour among some participants. Many protesters have claimed feeling more hope these days than since the start of the pandemic, while critics criticize the protesters' opposition to federal health regulations as well as the appearance of racist and other problematic images and language. Some Ottawa residents have complained of how the convoy has brought the capital to a gridlock, affecting local families and businesses, and protesters have voiced grievances that the media is unfairly demonizing both the event and the movement. Activity on social media led to expressions of hate speech on both sides for each other, along with "with us or against us" language that incentivizes the loss of nuance in what is an incredibly complex situation.

Kitchen Talks and Let's Talk Ottawa organized a dialogue on the trucker convoy as an alternative venue for supporters and critics of the protesters who desire to meet in a safe, civil space to learn more about each other, share their concerns and to engage in a spirit of respect and dignity.

Shared Principles and Ground Rules
At the beginning of the meeting, the facilitator noted that the convoy had become an incredibly sensitive topic, one that was growing more complex every day. In order to create and maintain a space for dialogue and connection, we highlighted some principles for participants to keep in mind over the course of the event. What follows is the text they were sent beforehand:

First, dialogue is focused on constructive engagement with the "other," developing mutual understanding and building relationships. What it's not about is figuring out who's "right" or solving a problem – this is important work, but there are other spaces for that. We believe that trust needs to be built and respect needs to be restored before getting around to the necessary problem-solving that lies ahead. Feel free to read the Kitchen Talks explainer for more information on our approach to dialogue.

Second, participants will be coming from very different walks of life and may have different beliefs than you. This is normal – dialogue spaces are created so that people from different "camps" can meet and learn more about each other. If the other side makes you feel unsafe, or if you have other reservations about meeting them, we support you. It might be the case that this event may not be for you.

Third, during the meeting tonight, our emphasis will be on sharing our needs and personal experiences rather than establishing facts.

Fourth, we strive to create a space where respect for everyone's dignity is upheld. Our facilitators will intervene if participants direct hostility or aggression at other participants.

Fifth, we ask all participants to keep who said what within the dialogue space confidential. You are encouraged to share about what was said and how the event went, but not to disclose who participated or who shared what experience.

Sixth, people have registered for the event who do not live in Ottawa. This is wonderful and we welcome you – we also recognize that this issue is affecting people in Ottawa more directly, and so there will be more of a focus on their experiences tonight.

Seventh, this will be a space that we make together with you. We ask that you help our facilitators to make the space constructive and safe for all involved.

Lastly, our facilitators may intervene in the conversation at different points. This may be to rephrase what participants say to help separate observations from judgements, unearth the underlying needs of all involved, protecting people's dignity, confronting direct hostility or aggression and bringing us back to a spirit of dialogue.

Participants were asked if they desired to add any other principles or ground rules for the night's event, either verbally or in the chat. No participant suggested additional principles.
The Dialogue
There were approximately 25-30 participants at various points in the evening – this group size, along with the online format, presented limitations on how the dialogue could take place.

As social divisions surrounding the convoy were still escalating at the time of the dialogue, the facilitator decided not to lead participants into group exercises but instead have them respond to spoken prompts that aimed to lead the group into a deeper reflection space on how the convoy has affected our lives.

Some exercises served as a spark for engagement and discussion between participants, while others asked participants to share their perspectives without additional discussion. Over the course of two hours, we had time to respond to five different prompts:
Introductory "Circle":
Participants were encouraged to share their own experience without discussing what other people said.
Why did I come today?
How have Covid-19 restrictions affected my life?
Dialogue Activities:
Participants were encouraged to respond and dialogue with others following their responses.
What fears, concerns or frustrations do I have surrounding the convoy or how it's been received?
What are people in my "camp" doing that is contributing to the problem?
What's one thing that the other side could say or do that would build trust or give me more hope?
Why participants came to the dialogue
The introductory "circle" had participants give short answers to the first two prompts. The reasons why people came to the dialogue were diverse:
To get to know the other side
Fear of polarization around Covid-19
To get insights into the conflict
To compare experiences of people who consume different media sources
To compare experiences of people who have been downtown
To challenge our contempt of the other side
To challenge narratives of the other side
To rehumanize communication between sides
To build relationships between sides
To reach mutual understanding
To gain experience with exposure to uncomfortable opinions
To communicate unmediated by traditional or social media
How Covid-19 restrictions affected participants.
The second part of the introductory "circle" encouraged all participants to share how the restrictions have affected their lives. As the convoy in Ottawa has proved to be a very polarizing topic, the facilitator decided to start the evening with a focus on people's individual experiences of a major event that affected them all in different ways. It was hoped that it would create an atmosphere of good will, identification with each other and open up a space to connect as human beings rather than as ideological or political opponents.

Some of the ways the restrictions had affected participants included:
Evoking sharp division of opinion between friends and among family, sometimes causing painful ruptures.
The protection of health.
Separation from family members who are in hospitals.
Watching children struggle to adapt to online learning
Less in-person contact with friends, family and others.
Discovering a love of solitude.
Spending more time outside.
Pain at seeing opportunities restricted because of unvaccinated status.
Rejection by friends, family and society because of unvaccinated status.
Pain at seeing societal division.
Forming new communities of people.
Facing challenges to bodily autonomy.
Learning to work and socialize online.
Loss of jobs.
Increased gratitude for medical and front-line workers.
Concern for unvaccinated family members, both for their health and for their societal opportunities.
Difficulties finding resources and strength while parenting young children.
Fear of government overreach into personal lives.
While there were a number of things that participants said that were similar, certain voices stood out and resonated with the group. One participant emphasized that the restrictions protected the lives of immunocompromised people like him, and that this alone makes their existence worthwhile. Another participant said she was concerned about how, with the convoy, the enemy is no longer an abstract, impersonal virus but now a concrete group of human beings.

It was clear that there were tensions between a) those who see the restrictions as a necessary evil, accept the sacrifice and become frustrated with those who don't, and b) those who find the restrictions too strong, or who feel like they're drowning or unheard, and for them the convoy brought hope and a sense that they have a voice again.

This brought the conversation back to the main topic of the evening: the convoy.
Activity: What are the fears, concerns or frustrations you have with regards to the convoy protest? What makes you feel worried or unsafe about how the conversation is going?
Participants were free to speak freely when answering this question. They were encouraged to share their personal experiences, fears, needs and desires rather than focus on perceived facts or narratives. Other participants could comment, respond and engage in dialogue with the speaker, with assistance from the facilitator. Their responses were consolidated in the lists below:
Concerns about the protest:
Harm: The honking is loud and can do damage. It can also reactivate some people's traumas or trigger immigrants who came from chaotic contexts.

Timing: Mandates will probably be rolled back soon, so the protests might be premature.

Creating resistance: The way the protesters are acting encourages locals to turn against them, and now the government has to be even more resilient so as not to lose face.

Vulgarity: Many signs are vulgar (especially towards the Prime Minister) and combine hope with hate. This is confusing even if I'm sympathetic to the cause.

Occupation: Locals and businesses are really affected by the blockade, and it seems that protesters aren't concerned about life in the core.

Privilege: The mandates are for keeping people safe and alive, and it's frustrating to see people protest what are seen to be comparatively minor inconveniences. There also seems to be little respect for the fact that protests by indigenous and racialized groups were broken up way earlier than the convoy.

Complicity: Not enough work being done to marginalize extremist or racist elements in the protest.

Legacy: Connections to problematic groups or funders are seen as corrupting the
whole event.

Methods: Even if people are on board with the message, the way the protest is going can turn people off.

Targeting: Concern that the protest isn't being directed effectively – perhaps it should be directed at provincial authorities or through official channels instead of having the effects be felt by workers downtown.

General concerns:
Division: The feeling that problems are getting worse and things can easily get out of hand.

Anger: On both sides. There's a free-for-all with expressing hate for opponents.

A crisis of leadership: Both with how Justin Trudeau is reacting, confusion over who leads the convoy, and how this will affect the Conservative leadership race.

Different "realities": The way people speak about what's going on downtown is almost like there are two separate realities being described, and this creates scary divisions.
Concerns about responses to the protests:
Marginalization: Many protesters are scared that this is the only way not to be ignored or dismissed, but feel like they're being marginalized all over again.

Refusal to engage: The government's and people's refusal to engage is driving wedges even deeper and tearing Canadians apart.

The media: Coverage seems overwhelmingly biased and not reflecting realities on the ground. This is scary and might actually push people towards the extremism that critics are afraid of. The media feels like a bully.

Alienation: The fact that people are saying that this is "fringe" and these thoughts are "not acceptable" is really dangerous, because it ignores what people think and feel, and it alienates people from the institutions that are supposed to represent them.

Damaged credibility and trust: Dismissal makes people who already don't trust the government and institutions feel like they have even less reasons to treat them as credible voices.

Problematic narratives: People are painting the protests as white supremacist and ableist, but this ignores the diversity on the ground and plays into a narrative. Many people still support the protests even though there are occasional extremists because we feel trapped and that we have no other options.

Double standards: A sense that disruptive protests are okay for some people, but not okay for us.

A lack of understanding of what they're really about: It's not just about the mandates. It's also about feeling disenfranchised – the East marginalizing the West, urban areas deciding for rural areas. Our mechanisms of representation don't seem to be working well enough to include all voices.
Note: The facilitator had planned an activity that we didn't have time for tonight. Participants were to collectively create a list of 5-8 questions that embody curiousity and a desire to get to know the other side more. Participants would then be free, in any order, to answer any of them. Unfortunately we had to move forward more quickly.
Activity: What are people in my "camp" doing that is contributing to the problem?
While responses are arranged according to who said what, there were many people on all sides that resonated with what was spoken.
We need to be more willing to listen to the other side.

We need to be more charitable and less vulgar.

We are really, really angry.

We can sometimes take advantage of our moment, and we're clashing with locals.

We paint opponents with a broad brush.

A lack of respect and dignity – forgetting "to be right in the right way."

We're trying to convert others instead of dialogue with them.
We need to start talking to protesters – we don't understand how people have been impacted by the mandates and what drove them to come here.

We may need to support changes to mandate restrictions – not laying people off, for example, if they can work from home.

We don't know how to communicate what needs to be done, regarding mandates, without coercion, which is a form of violence.

We need to find ways to build trust.

We dismiss arguments we don't understand.

We communicate out of anger.

Nuance and complexity get lost.
All participants valued this exercise and thought that this was a step into deeper dialogue. It was noted with interest that, even though people were excited to discuss this question, it was hard to discuss the problematic elements/strategies in one's own camp without first trying to justify them. This, at times, required more active facilitation.
Final activity: What's one thing that the other side could say or do that would
build trust or give me more hope?
For the convoy & protesters:
If the convoy could move to different places instead of staying in one place so that the same people don't have to suffer from the disruption.

To hear more messages from protesters and leadership condemning the extremist/racist elements.

For protesters to respect those who follow the mandates (or wear masks) and to condemn the harassment of locals.

For there to be more direction instead of just mass anger, broadly directed.
For both sides:
To know more about what official negotiators and "contacts" are doing.

To humanize the other side and build more connections rather than all this online condemnation.

To bring more nuance and less zero-sum, win-lose language to the table.

To recognize the nuance that exists on both sides.
For the counter-protesters:
For Trudeau and other officials/community leaders to be willing to talk openly to the protesters.

For the media to stop labelling all protesters as extremists or racists.

If people recognized that some have valid reasons not to take vaccines.

For more people to admit, or at least consider the idea, that some mandate policies have failed or have had unintended consequences.

For there to be more support for public debate over mandates and dealing with pandemics as compared to coercive, top-down actions.

Participants recognized that dialogue like this is tiring, but wished that there was more time to go deeper into these issues and to ask more direct questions of each other. While some participants had issues with the format, there was a desire to have more dialogues like this and to have channels to send the highlights of such dialogues to community leaders and relevant decision-makers.

In a post-event survey, most (but not all) participants reported an increase in understanding towards the other, and an improved sense of hope.
Want to participate?
If you've read this far and want to register for one of our events, you're more than welcome! If you haven't yet, read this introduction to the event to learn more about how Kitchen Talks works:
Kitchen Talks currently has two bases of operation. Click one of the links below to find out if there's an upcoming event in a time zone near you:

Saint Petersburg / East Europe: Vkontakte (VK) – Trava

Ottawa / North America: Eventbrite

Looking forward to see you at one of our events! If you have any questions, contact Josh on VK or Eventbrite.
Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner based in
Ottawa, Canada and Saint Petersburg, Russia. He writes about dialogue,
conflict and peacebuilding at Summerpax.

Banner photo by Lera Chegge
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