Light not heat? - RSA

Light not heat?


A core objective of the RSA is to promote informed and constructive public debate. It is an aim which runs through our history and was also central to the values of the 18th century Enlightenment, whose champions saw tackling ignorance and prejudice as essential to social advance.

It is one of the reasons we are rightly proud of the phenomenal impact of RSA Animate. Upwards of 15 million people from around the world have now viewed these lectures. This figure is made up of people who have watched all or nearly all the edited lecture (otherwise YouTube don’t count it as a view). It is clear from the comments that Animate is making ideas accessible and entertaining not only to learned people but to many who had not previously thought of themselves as the kind who would choose to sit through a lecture on a subject like human motivation, the nature of modern capitalism or the principles which guide education.  The most recent – highly engaging - addition is from the renowned public intellectual Stephen Pinker and having been posted for just a few days it has already (at time of writing) reached a quarter of a million views.

There are other ways the RSA is opening up ideas to a wide audience. Last night saw the second recording at the RSA of a set of lectures to feature in the new Radio Four slot ‘Four Thought’ being broadcast on Wednesday nights at 8.45. Radio Four is seeking to develop a new style of presentation, part lecture, part story-telling, part raconteurism.  As it is broadcast right after Moral Maze I can’t be the compere, but RSA Fellows make up a large part of the audience and the Society is credited on air at the start of each programme.

It also make sure that my RSA role is mentioned in my intro on ‘Maze’. I know it’s a programme that drives some people nuts but I think it can, at its best, provide an invaluable and provocative insight into the moral dimensions of a contemporary issue. Its slightly adversarial nature may not be to everyone’s taste but it gives the programme its edge. Tonight we are debating whether charities (especially big ones delivering public services) have lost sight of the spirit of spontaneity and altruism which inspired their creation.

I have written here in the past of a long standing ambition to find a way of subverting the adversarial nature of much public debate. I have tried various ways of developing a programme format to do this. Now at last I think I have the right idea, and Radio Four have commissioned a pilot. But as it’s still in the formative phase I am looking for any thoughts and tips from my wonderful readers. The programme – provisionally titled ‘agree to differ’ - works like this. Two people well known for holding totally opposing views on a big issue are asked to participate. They are joined by an active Chair/presenter and a fourth person who may be well known for their opinions on other issues but has no strong view on the matter in question. 

The meat of the programme comprises the protagonists interviewing each other to discover what lies at the core of their respective beliefs. For this to work they have to agree to abide by some strict rules, chief among which is that they have to conduct the interview in a thoughtful and friendly way, genuinely seeking to find out what makes the other person hold their beliefs. The role of the chair is to ensure the rules are enforced. The role of the independent guest is to reflect on how what they have heard has influenced their own view of the issue at question.

The power of the programme is that it subverts the usual process of public disagreement in which we caricature our opponents’ beliefs and – more perniciously – denigrate the motives which lie behind those beliefs. Instead the programme’s participants are committed to trying to get to the heart of the matter. Does their difference reflect disagreement about core facts, about ideological starting points or even matters of faith? Does the attempt to discover the foundations of polarised beliefs reinforce difference or start to bridge the divide?

So, dear readers, do you think this will work? How would you refine the idea? Can you think of some good parings (George Monbiot and Matt Ridley on capitalism and the environment, or John Gray and Jonathan Sachs on whether human beings are capable of ethical development are a couple of suggestions that have been made to me).

Who knows, if the format works on the radio (or even if it doesn’t) maybe we can try it out at the RSA. After all shedding light where there has previously been mainly heat is surely a foundational enlightenment ideal?

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