|30 December, 2016
|Filled under Denis Joe O'Driscoll, Opinions
Salons exist throughout Britain, in many of the major cities. There is also a Zurich and a Dublin Salon as the movement continues to grow. The Salons are the offspring of the Institute of Ideas, which also gave birth the Battle of Ideas and Debating Matters competition. The Liverpool Salon takes the title of ‘Salon’ from the 18th century Enlightenment period, which saw the expansion of political debate, as drawing rooms and coffee houses became places where people discussed new political, scientific and philosophical ideas that would shape the new society that was emerging. Today the space for people to come together to talk about ideas feels narrower. Ideas such as ‘Equality’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Humanity’, once the rallying cry of people seeking freedom from tyranny, are too often spoken about in sneering terms. While those who still hold to the importance of those ideas are dismissed as ‘so last century’. With large sections of the political class having effectively abrogated their role as representatives of the electorate, decision making has shifted from democratically accountable bodies to appointed agencies, bureaucracies, policy makers and other ‘expert’ opinion makers at home and abroad. Looking out for the interests of the electorate, placing trust in them or even showing interest in their wishes or opinions seems not only politically irrelevant but dangerously close to ‘fanning the flames’ of populism.
With the production of policy and regulations in the hands of think tanks and bureaucracies, public ‘debate’ has become focused on immediate reactions to the latest health threat, terrorist atrocity or a particularly gruesome crime. Similarly, as traditional religions lose their influence, new concerns around ‘saving the environment’, tackling ‘everyday sexism’ or promoting health and well-being have arisen to replace the old gods. And woe betide those who would dare to question these new certainties. Our freedoms to engage with each other in the public world are increasingly diminished by petty rules introduced by local authorities. Our once cherished privacies and freedoms are no longer our own. Children are exhorted to correct their parent’s ‘misdeeds’: which waste to put in which bin or what type of food is safe to serve up for meals. Adults are treated as children: a chance remark made in a conversation among friends and colleagues can be made public and the ‘offender’ dragged before the court of ‘public opinion’ to make an apology, retract their faulty opinions and perhaps even shed a few tears.
This drive towards narrowing the boundaries of what is or is not ‘appropriate’ or ‘relevant’ as a topic of conversation or point of view has certainly proved helpful to those who prefer to sidestep the concerns and opinions of their fellow citizens. The authoritarian response to unwelcome or ‘inappropriate’ ideas is to shut them down by censorship. This has become a particular problem in universities, where speakers, including academics, have found themselves ‘no-platformed’ – in other words banned from expressing their opinions. The National Union of Students, giving up any pretence of representing the practical interests of students, increasingly see themselves as acting in loco parentis, protecting their vulnerable charges from contact with ideas that a small number might find upsetting or offensive.
But why should we accept a situation, where we have so little say in decision making around the issues that affect our lives and futures? And how can our lives be truly our own, where we are fearful of doing, saying or even thinking the ‘wrong thing’? For many, the loss of old political certainties seems to be giving rise to a sense of confusion and apathy rather than a desire to search for new and better political ideas. Apathy does not necessarily mean that people have lost interest or stopped caring about political issues. Apathy may simply be a symptom of the break down of the democratic structures through which we are able to make our voices heard. The gulf between the electorate and those responsible for political and policy making decisions has never been greater in modern times. As people find themselves subject to rules and regulations over which they exercise no authority, it is little wonder that many of us have stopped talking about ideas that could make a political difference, and simply retreated into defending our own private interests and spaces. In this mood of political disaffection, the need for public debate has rarely been so urgent. The Liverpool Salon is committed to free and open discussion and aims to attract the best and most authoritative speakers to take part in debate around a wide range of social, cultural and political activities. Our events are open and welcoming. No viewpoint is disallowed.