Reflections on the Rebel Wisdom Summit

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:

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’.

Rebel Wisdom Summit

Next month I will be attending the Rebel Wisdom Summit in Brick Lane, London, with two members of my family.

On the front page of the Rebel Wisdom website is the statement:

When our existing ways of thinking break down, it’s the rebels and the renegades, those who dare to think differently, who need to reboot the system.

I don’t consider myself to be a rebel or a renegade, but I am interested in people who think differently and the four speakers for the event all seem to fit this category.

I first came across Rebel Wisdom last November on Twitter, where I found that they were live streaming an interview with Iain McGilchrist, which I then attended. Aside from hearing McGilchrist speak, which is always enlightening, the main thing that struck me about that event was that it was male dominated, both in the chat that I participated in by posting a question, and also in the room where the live event was taking place. In addition, in the online chat, many of the men seemed to be fixated on Jordan Peterson, even though it was Iain McGilchrist who was being interviewed. Given that Rebel Wisdom puts a heavy focus on what they refer to as ‘New Masculinity’ perhaps it is not surprising that the event was male dominated, although Rebel Wisdom also seems about to offer a ‘New Woman’ retreat. This might redress the balance, but a course/retreat for just women wouldn’t appeal to me.

So it will be interesting to see whether there are more men than women at the Summit next month.

The build-up to this summit has been interesting. On buying the tickets we each had to sign an agreement. The organisers explained this with these words:In order to create a safe environment in which we can discuss challenging topics, we ask that all attendees read and ‘sign’ the agreement below by checking the box.”

I understand that the Rebel Wisdom Summit is designed to be a safe environment for discussing challenging topics, one in which all attendees commit to leaving preconceived ideas and ideologies at the door. 

I agree to take responsibility for my own responses and how I communicate. I am willing to have my ideas challenged. I understand that at times I may feel discomfort, and am willing to take responsibility for this as well. I am willing to practice self-inquiry and do my best to listen carefully to others. 

I agree to engage in discussions in good faith, without a specific agenda, and with respect. I recognise that others are entitled to their views, and agree to consider and critique their ideas, rather than them as an individual.

I am also willing to have fun, to be rebellious in my thinking, and to be a part of an exciting new form of cultural conversation.

This makes more sense to me now that I have watched the videos that have been sent to us this week to help us prepare for this event (see references below), a couple of which focus on what is described as “Having a Real Conversation”. I do wonder, though, whether they are expecting the discussions at the summit to be heated, and if so, what the topics for discussion will be. Interestingly we have been asked not to tweet or share content of what the speakers say, which is intended to ensure them a safe space in which to share their ‘Thinking in Public’. We can, though, share information from the group discussions, so long as contributing participants’ anonymity is maintained.

I already appreciate the advance organisers we have received from the Rebel Wisdom team, which from an educator’s perspective is a definite sign of good practice. I also appreciate the efforts being made to ensure that everyone can have their voice heard if they so wish. Asking participants to take responsibility for this is also a sign of good educational practice. I have not volunteered to moderate/chair group discussions, but it would be interesting to know what advice the moderators will be given on how to handle, for example, a dysfunctional group. Maybe I’ll find out on the day.

Having watched the videos and read the article (and there is still time to do more research before the event), and booked our train tickets and hotel, I am really looking forward to this event, which will even throw in a party in the evening, and I’m looking forward to meeting some of the other participants. The number for the event has been capped at 150 (Dunbar’s number!) and there is a long waiting list, so I feel we are lucky to have our places. I don’t see how it can fail to be interesting.

References from

Rebel Wisdom films.