Brick Lane, in the east end of London, was the location of the Rebel Wisdom Summit which I attended last weekend; a full day event for 150 people. I had anticipated that the event would be dominated by white men, and it was. Women in the ladies toilets laughed and commented that it was very unusual to go to an event where there was no queue for the ‘ladies’, but there was for the men! Nevertheless, I didn’t get a sense that women didn’t have a voice, and there was a wide diversity in the age of participants, which was good to see. But perhaps Rebel Wisdom could do more to attract participants from different cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
The question of diversity is important because Rebel Wisdom viewed this event as an experiment in whether we can find new ways to understand each other. The focus of the day was on exploring what it means to have difficult conversations, and how best to have these difficult conversations, so that we can avoid group think, polarization, and are able to ‘speak about the unspeakable’. The view expressed was that there has been a collapse of discourse, and the world has narrowed what we can talk about, such that conversation has now become too superficial.
A response to this at the event was to consider the meaning of ‘sovereignty’. We spent quite a bit of the day exploring this idea, which we were told means being responsible for your own responses and being able to listen to yourself and others. We were required to do deep breathing/meditation exercises to ‘centre’ ourselves in readiness for this.
The word ‘sovereignty’ in the Rebel Wisdom context is, I think, attributed to Jordan Hall, who has talked about the need for distinguishing between listening and hearing, and the need for greater wisdom and maturity in how we interact with each other and have difficult conversations. He defines his understanding of sovereignty in this video: https://youtu.be/Y8kYZUQ6xcw
For me it was a pity that we spent so much time discussing ‘sovereignty’ focussing on questions such as ‘What does it mean to be sovereign’ and ‘when do you lose your sovereignty’, because this necessarily meant that people were encouraged to focus on themselves rather than on entering into conversation with others. So for example, answers to the question about losing sovereignty included:
I lose my sovereignty when:
- I say what is convenient rather than the truth
- I feel attacked
- I try too hard to belong
- I feel inferior
- I feel misrepresented
- I don’t listen
Note that the responses all start with ‘I’. Whilst these responses might relate to the collapse of discourse, in our group participants stuck so closely to the exercise brief that we never got round to discussing possible causes of collapse of discourse.
Another exercise we were asked to participate in, in our groups, was to each state ‘what are the things we feel we can’t say’. Again, this didn’t lead to conversation (at least not in our group), but rather to a list of personal experiences that people had of either paying a price for disagreeing publicly, or of being silenced, or of feeling unable to voice opinions for fear of being silenced.
The paradox of this whole event was that although the aim was to explore ways of engaging in generative conversation, there appeared to be so much fear about the possibility of conversation degenerating into the kind of polarized positions that we see on social media, that we never, in our group discussions, got to the nitty gritty of what we mean by free speech, how we recognise different cognitive models of others, or how to engage others in a dialectic rather than a debate.
This fear was evident before the event, when at the time of buying our tickets we were asked to sign a behaviour agreement (see a previous post about this). Similarly a month before the event we were sent the ‘rules’ for discourse; we were asked not to tweet the event or report on what speakers said, and not to identify any group members if reporting on what was said during the group activities. So whilst wanting to explore how to generate conversation about difficult topics (in the event I was not aware of any contentious issues), there was also a measure of control and limitations on openness. I’m so confused about this, that I’m not even sure whether this blog post breaks that agreement.
For me, this just goes to show what a complex issue free speech is. I would have liked more opportunity to discuss this. As one of the speakers said (no attribution allowed!):
‘There is nothing that doesn’t have a good side and a bad side’.