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Feature Leeds... A City of Debate

Paul Thomas, co-founder of The Leeds Salon looks at the success of Leeds as a city for intellectual chatter

Feature: Leeds... A City of Debate

"its creation was based on our long-held belief that there had been a decline in robust and challenging intellectual debate within mainstream politics, education and society in general"

Michele Ledda and I started The Leeds Salon in February 2009. The idea essentially evolved from a small book group we attended, but instead of half a dozen people round a table in a pub, we wanted to create a public discussion group like the Salons we’d attended in Manchester and Huddersfield, and with the same format as the Battle of Ideas (an annual festival of debate held in London), in which experts in their field are invited to present their ideas clearly and succinctly to a lay audience, without diluting their content. Most of the time is then given over to audience discussion and the robust exchange of ideas.

We generally discuss contemporary political, cultural and scientific issues, but will consider anything we think interesting. Our outlook is broadly liberal and humanistic. We aim to ask difficult questions about the ideas that shape our world and to challenge some contemporary orthodoxies along the way; such as the placing of limits on human activity, instrumentalism in education and the arts, and the increased regulation of public and private life.

Our first Salon, in April 2009, was on the theme of ‘Global Citizenship in the School Curriculum’, and since then we’ve held them on topics as diverse as the legacy of the Rushdie affair, the differences between apes and humans, freedom of expression in the university, the future of energy production, the vetting of adults working with children, the importance of poetry, and the future of Leeds. Forthcoming Salons include the uprisings in the Middle East, the government’s ‘happiness agenda’, and quantum theory.

When we started the Salon, we felt there must be a large minority of people out there keen to engage in lively debate, or at least come and listen; but we’ve still been surprised by the popularity of the Salon. We believe that at least part of the reason is Leeds’ healthy, but still little known about, ‘culture of debate’. In fact, we were ignorant ourselves of just how dynamic Leeds was on the debating front until we started looking round for an audience for the Salon.

For example, not only does Leeds have two Café Scientifiques (Chapel Allerton and Headingley) but the very first Café was actually founded in Leeds in 1998 by a former YTV producer. Leeds also has Taking Soundings, founded in 2007 by lecturers as Leeds Met, which is the sole-existing forum for the left-wing journal Soundings. Chapel Allerton also boasts Café Economique, established in 2007, and the newly-formed Café Psychologique. In January, a new Café Philosophique began in Weetwood, while last year Philosophy in Pubs (aka Talking Allowed in Leeds) and Skeptics in the Pub both set up groups in Leeds city centre. These latter two, like the Salon and the Café Scientifiques, are also part of loose networks of like-minded groups that exist throughout the UK.

One of the questions this raises is why have so many debating groups sprung up in recent years, particularly in Leeds?

This isn’t an easy question to answer, and it’s difficult to stand back from our own experience and be truly objective. Leeds Salon started when it did partly through chance. But its creation was based on our long-held belief that there had been a decline in robust and challenging intellectual debate within mainstream politics, education and society in general. Maybe the growth of debating groups in Leeds and elsewhere is, in part, linked to this decline, as those interested in questioning the world around them are forced to search out or create new opportunities to do so. And maybe Leeds has just been lucky, in that the early establishment of a few groups unique to the city have helped inspire new initiatives, adding to an already existing audience for debate.

Whether that’s the case or not, The Leeds Salon has certainly benefited from the connections we’ve made with other groups – something we’ve tried to reciprocate through the exchange of website links, and the promotion of Leeds itself as a ‘city of debate’.

Paul Thomas co-runs the Leeds Salon, for information and events see www.leedssalon.org.uk

Other links:

www.cafe-sci.org.uk (Café Scientifique, Chapel Allerton)

www.headingleydevelopmenttrust.org.uk/pages/cafe.htm (Café Scientifique, Headingley)

www.takingsoundingsleeds.blogspot.com

http://tinyurl.com/6c9tsum (Café Psychologique Chapel Allerton)

Posted on Wednesday 16th March 2011

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