Unreasonable Playback: Making Space for Diversity

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” George Bernard Shaw

Ever since attending my first Playback performance in Portland, Oregon, and witnessing its magic, I have been in love with PT. I eagerly soaked up all the training I could and launched a troupe in Salem, Oregon five years ago. In the process, I have been changed. My narrow view of the world has expanded, and I feel a greater sense of connection with people from all walks of life. As a white, middle-aged, American, male, Christian, I still hold onto many conservative values, but now recognize the importance of dissenting voices, and welcome honest dialogue. I feel a sense of dismay, however, when voices are silenced in favor of ideological preferences within the Playback community. I am pleased to see that ‘Celebrating Diversity’ has been chosen as the theme for the next International Conference in India.

Our ability to celebrate diversity rests upon our capacity to remain true to our charter . . . simply, and wisely stated 30 years ago to, “specialize in the spontaneous enactment of personal experience.” Rather than assuming a particular political position we have a mission to create space for individuals to unite around shared human experiences. My first international PT conference in Montreal did not feel neutral, especially with the opening treatise on white privilege and the one-sided presentation of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. How can we celebrate diversity if we are taking sides? The call for inclusion begins with the assumption that there are those on the inside and those on the outside, and that those on the inside are making room for those on the outside. With a clear sense of mission, PT will flourish and provide an increasingly important role in the world by giving voice to all.

Invite Diversity

Research into complex adaptive systems has taught us that survival rests upon the ability of species to adapt within eco-systems. Adaptation relies upon feedback loops and self-organization (Hartvigsen, Kinzig, & Peterson, 1998).PT offers a container for feedback-loops in the form of stories . . . stories which may help inform us about new possibilities, or to help us live together harmoniously. If an Israeli, for example, is able to tell his or her story alongside a Palestinian, we will have the possibility of finding common ground on which to build bridges to peace. The affect these stories have may serve as a catalyst for change without the force of control. Trying to force change only leads to conflict escalation.

The problem we face is that diversity by its very nature tends to separate people. How can we celebrate diversity and promote inclusivity at the same time? Edgar Schein has identified 3 basic levels of culture which can help us better understand varying degrees of inclusivity.

1.Artifacts – those things that we observe superficially. We enjoy each other’s art, food, dress and festivals but don’t necessarily understand the underlying worldview.

2.Values – espoused goals, ideals, norms, standards, and moral principles

3.Basic Underlying Assumptions – the core, or essence . . . exist at a largely unconscious level . . . form around deeper dimensions of human existence such as the nature of humans, human relationships and activity, reality and truth (Achein, 1992).

It is relatively easy for people to find something to appreciate at the first level. We enjoy the food, music, dress, art, and festivals. We can retain our own identity while doing so and appreciate the fact that we live in such a colorful world. Conflicts can quickly surface, though, when cooperation demands shared values. Recognized Playback Practitioners are bound to a Code of Ethics which embrace two especially important values:

Inclusiveness: We are open to any story and also ready engage with ethical complexities within a story. We seek to include voices that are often unheard in our communities.

Human rights: We promote the human rights of all those present and not present. When necessary we take appropriate action to address prejudice that may be expressed consciously or unconsciously by a teller or workshop participant.

We can retain our deeply held values and still celebrate diversity if we follow these guidelines.

Celebrating diversity is meaningless if it does not promote inclusivity. Inclusivity occurs when people come together around shared experiences. What is the purpose of inclusivity if it isn’t to make the world a better, and more peaceful place to live? We can start by finding those things we have in common and upon which we can work together. People of very diverse values will likely agree, for example, that they want to live in safe neighborhoods. In order to achieve this, alternative voices need to be invited to the table to share their stories.

During my time as a mediator I discovered that the key to dispute resolution rested on my ability to help both parties focus on an area of shared interests. It is common for conductors to identify the “red thread” that ties stories together. This is a way of helping people recognize their interconnectedness. Diversity not only makes life more interesting, it also strengthens the fabric of the community and introduces new ideas. The natural tendency is to invite like-minded individuals who will help fortify our positions. However, as Grant (2016) points out, the tendency to seek consensus instead of fostering dissent is the enemy of originality (p. 176). He further states that, “Minority viewpoints are important, not because they tend to prevail but because they stimulate divergent attention and thought. As a result, even if they are wrong they contribute to the detection of novel solutions and decisions that, on balance, are qualitatively better (p. 185).


PT also serves the world by offering an alternative to polarizing personalities who rally people around fear-based ideologies. The tendency of a complex adaptive system, when pushed far from equilibrium, is to generate new organizational forms spontaneously.Homophily (a preference for similar others), is a basic organizing principle in the creation of social ties between people. If we are polarized around an ideology, we will flock to those who think like we do. However, if we focus on our common human experiences, we will feel an affinity with all of humankind. “The more strongly you identify with an extreme group, the harder you seek to differentiate yourself from more moderate groups that threaten your values” (p. 118). Rather than dividing around an ideology, we help create space for people to organize around commonalities.

Transforming Feedback Loops

Embracing diversity means that we listen to each other and are open to change. Unfortunately, “the more expertise and experience people gain, the more entrenched they become in a particular way of viewing the world” (p. 41). Stories create the connections and feedback loops we need in order to survive. When we focus on ideologies we create an us/them mentality that fosters resentment, hatred, and hostility. Rather than perpetuating the polarizing effects of political ideologies, let’s make space for everyone to feel heard and understood. It is important that we make room for everyone and remove labels. A recent article written by Stevala, concluded that diversity and community can coexist, “even if homophily is a significant force for relationship formation, culturally based similarity can help to build a sense of community in diverse neighborhoods” (Stavala, Ribins, Kashima, & Kirley, 2016).


In conclusion, PT offers the world an alternative to self-destructive interaction by creating a safe space for the telling and reenactment of personal experiences. We can celebrate the fact that we promote those elements which are essential for all complex adaptive systems; diversity, feedback-loops, and self-organization. If we move away from our core and identify with one political faction or the other, we risk losing our potency and becoming part of the problem, rather than part of the solution to global conflicts. Our story is one of discovering the most effective means of doing this across language, and culture. The world needs such an unreasonable approach.


Achein, E. (1992). Three Levels of Culture. Retrieved from valuesbased //

Grant, A. (2016). Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. New York: Penguin.

Hartvigsen, G., Kinzig, A., & Peterson, G. (1998). Use and Analysis of Complex Adaptive Systems in Ecosystem Science: Overview of Special Section. Ecosystems, 427–430.

Henriques, G. (2015, September 4). Trump: A Psychosocial Analysis. Retrieved from //

Stavala, A., Ribins, G., Kashima, Y. K., & Kirley, M. (2016). Diversity and Community Can Coexist. Am J Community Psychol, 57:243–254.