Visions of the Future: Public Forums

How Can We Make Gathering Places Fit for the 21st century?

The final panel discussion of the lecture series hosted by the Edinburgh International Book Festival, this deliberation of the role of public forums in the future of Scotland, again touches on many themes concurrent within my own research. It also helpfully reaches back and references many of the themes concurrent across different lectures within the festival itself, and proved to be an interesting and insightful end to the month.

The panel consisted of award winning journalist Will Storr, head of the Common Space publishing platform (focussing on all manner of viewpoints around the future of Scotland) Angela Haggerty. Finally, Angus Farquhar, head of NVA and one of the driving forces behind the “new agora” development at St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross (which I hope to visit myself later in the year). The panel was chaired by the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins, who helped to guide the debate.

I was especially intrigued to hear from Angela Haggerty, as Common Space is funded by the Common Weal think-tank that I have already met with, however they maintain complete independence on the editorial front in terms of all of their content. This means that Common Space endeavors to foster the type of discourse that has been raised in previous posts, not only the far reaching, polarised extremes but also the more nuanced debate along a spectrum of ideas. Haggerty too reiterated how difficult it has been in the last few years or so to ensure this spectrum is maintained, especially when more extreme commentators with far more aggressive tactics are able to raise funds with much more efficacy than organisations like Common Weal. Removing the hostility from debate appears more important than ever.

Again, the panel agreed that this hostility and binary opposition in debate can only be countered by removing people from their own echo chambers. This occurs online more than ever, and much of the debate was focused around this phenomena, however what was more interesting from my own viewpoint was the mention of physical spaces where this could occur. In Will Storr’s opening remarks, he framed the debate with the history of the tribal mentality, of the use of gossip in creating our social and moral code of conduct, and the way this spins out of control when placed within our tribal mentality: ostracising and aggressively criticising others.

This aggression and tribalistic attitude is increasingly prevalent with the dawn of social media, and spins monstrously out of control. Online spaces allow this to happen, the panel agreed that hiding behind a screen gave online commentators the confidence to say things they never would in real life, and to do so in 140 characters at the speed of electrons flowing down a wire. What is clearly needed to diffuse this, or to temper it at least, are spaces of real life, physical interaction and debate. Invitation to engage in discussion, to polemics, the panel agreed was needed.

Again, this comes back to the notion of empathy, and the continuing link to this and the Scottish Enlightenment was discussed once more. Spatial issues bring people together, and the re-spatialisation of debate allows increased understanding through actual social interaction. It is empathy which is key to this. The panel echoed views in other posts here that the Edinburgh festival acts as an analogue for this idea, with its many and varied venues in every scrap of available space in the city promoting interaction, engagement, and in some cases debate.

I hope to write further about Angus Farquhar’s NVA, and their work at St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross. The aims there, from Farquhar’s words at the discussion, seem similar to the eventual end goals of my own project, but utilise the technique of public art to develop the space into an area of engagement and debate on social issues. He stated freely that his almost utopian vision of these spaces were “idealistic… but had to be tempered with reality.” It is this scope that seems to resonate with my own project.

This session called upon the notion of the ancient Greek agora. This was the centre of public life, political debate, and all manner of “artistic and spiritual activity” to quote the event description, and this notion is a key element I would like to pursue within my own project. This appears to link together other strands which have emerged from these panel discussions: the need for spaces of civic debate, the links with the Scottish enlightenment, the areas of social mixing so important for the cross pollination of ideas…

What would a modern day parallel of this look like? How could this be created within “the Athens of the North?” and have Edinburgh once more live up to its title?


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