The comedian Jimmy Carr was on the radio on Saturday explaining how his audience helps to write his material. Sometimes he feels tentative about a new joke, but when the audience react well it becomes a firm part of the routine. Other times he will love a new line, but try as he might, however much he builds up to it, the audience is left cold. There comes a point where a comedian has to face facts, dig a hole, say a few words and bury the brilliant but unappreciated gag in an unmarked grave.
A while ago in search of speech lines which combine humour with something superficially clever I had an idea. Recent audiences have heard me say, 'the world is divided up into two kinds of people; those who rely on false dichotomies and those who don't '. Sadly, despite my high hopes, this has gone down like down like a feminist poetry reading at a rugby club social.
I have written in the past about the danger of mistaking a typology for substantive theory, but still I am attracted to dichotomies (true and false) as a way of illustrating ideas. I think I may have stumbled upon another one; it concerns the nature of the RSA.
The early findings of our Fellowship survey are very positive. Particularly heartening were answers to a question about what being a Fellow means to people. Here are some of the responses:
An incentive to use my profession to serve my community and humanity more.
It is a recognition that I am a 'rounded' person professionally. Having worked in public service as a professional engineer, a manager and an educator, I did not want to be seen as one who was too deeply entrenched in any one discipline.
Being a Fellow of the RSA means being a part of a network of local and international change-makers who are working to improve our communities, cities, and nations - for one, for all.
The survey comes on top of what we already knew; more Fellows are more active and in ways more closely aligned to our charitable mission that even before. As well as many new local groups, there are more common interest networks like that on social entrepreneurs, public service reform or corporate responsibility. And nearly all our major research and development projects are now designed to engage Fellows. Indeed when we won a recent bid to provide community based support to people recovering from addiction, practical support from local Fellows was part of our offer.
But still I sense in certain quarters some concerns about the RSA's direction of travel. One possible reason takes me back to false dichotomies.
We often think of third sector groups dividing into two: On the one hand, professional organisations, members' clubs or learned societies. Many do good work including of a charitable nature, but still, at heart, these are organisations run for the interests of their members. On the other hand, there are NGOs. Again, these take many forms and often the bulk of their work involves service delivery, but in essence, NGOs (and to them I would add politically-aligned think tanks) tend to hold to a relatively fixed view of the world and what about it needs to change.
Roger Scruton - whose new book 'Green Philosophy' helped me name this distinction - says of NGO's that 'they often exist purely for the sake of their goals' and, he alleges, they are 'unable to discuss the validity of their goals since they are defined by them'.
While I am not nearly as sweepingly critical of NGOs as Scruton, it occurred to me that some of the opposition to the process of turning the Fellowship outward and engaging Fellows in the RSA’s charitable mission lies in a fear that the Society is being set on the road to becoming an NGO?
If so, I hope I can offer some reassurance. The RSA is much closer to what Scruton refers to a ‘civic association’, one which has a charitable mission but sees the delivery of this mission lying as much in what it is as a collective endeavour as in its capacity to achieve some specific change in society and policy.
The distinction is subtle and far from clear cut; across its history the RSA has from time to time tried hard to convince Government to change course. Also, although civic organisations are often small and local the RSA is international and has many strings to its bow; including our growing Family of Academy schools and the millions of people who watch our lectures on-line. So perhaps it is better to say we are a ‘civic organisation plus’.
Recently it has become a cliche to quote Ghandi; ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. In the multi-disciplinary, problem solving way we work, and in the expectations Fellows have of themselves and each other, as well as the support we try to give, the RSA seeks to exemplify ways of thinking and being needed in the face of modern challenges.
On a few occasions I have described an ambition that the RSA becomes ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’. So far it hasn’t really struck a chord with audiences but I think I’ll give it a few more goes before reading the last rites.