Blog: Sam Walby

The programmer of Sheffield's Festival of Debate on why we need to talk

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At the time of writing, our parliament is in deadlock over the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Beyond the pomp and pantomime of 650 people sitting in an old building disagreeing with each other on almost everything, life goes on and once again ordinary people feel utterly disconnected from the forces that govern their lives.

Whether we voted to leave or to remain – and especially if we didn’t vote at all – we feel an overwhelming sense of frustration, boredom even. We know it’s nothing short of a national crisis, we know our futures will be defined by the outcome for decades to come, but we just want it over and done with.

Democracy shouldn’t be like this. The referendum shouldn’t have been seen as a way to release years of pent-up social, cultural and political pressure, but the start of a conversation about who we are, what we want and where we’re going.

But isn’t it talking that got us into this mess in the first place?

Talking – and, crucially, listening with empathy and respect – has to be the cornerstone of our democracy and there’s just not enough of it. Too often politics with a small “p”, which affects each and every one of us every day, becomes politics with a big “p”, which draws battle lines and convinces us that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. Social media bubbles don’t help, because often they don’t encourage listening – just endless talking. Brexit is just one example of this.

We are interested in the issues, digging deep into topics, exposing audiences to new points of view and new ways of thinking

Opus, the company I work for, started Festival of Debate in the lead-up to the 2015 general election as a way to try to turn attention back to the issues and away from party politics. We’ve hosted party politicians in the past – like Ed Miliband and Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley – but the conclusion of our events is never “… and therefore you should vote for X”. We are interested in the issues, digging deep into topics, exposing audiences to new points of view and new ways of thinking through as many different formats as possible: talks, workshops, seminars, walking tours, films, music, theatre, comedy and just about anything else you can think of.

Since 2015 we’ve hosted hundreds of events across Sheffield in our annual festival, from huge international keynote speakers like Yanis Varoufakis to small workshops in community venues across the city, attracting over 10,000 audience members in 2018 alone. We don’t claim to be representative of all political persuasions through our programming, but we welcome wide discussion and debate of all topics because we believe it’s the only way to get to a more positive, constructive place, as a city and as a society.

Opus is a small company, so the festival and its 60 upcoming events could not happen without a large number of partnerships with organisations all over Sheffield. These range from big institutions like both of the city’s universities to small activist groups pushing for positive change. Wide collaboration give us the ability to cover a lot of ground with our programming. Festival of Debate is an umbrella for so many varying interests and enthusiasms, with some partners focusing on single issues and others on broad engagement and discussion.

All of the above might give the impression of a large, top-down structure, but in reality Festival of Debate came out of a conversation between a small group of people – about what we felt were the most pressing issues of the day, about how we might bring new experiences to people in Sheffield, and about how we could reinvigorate discussion and debate about society, culture and politics – with a small “p”.

I’m under no illusions about how difficult a task this is. I don’t think programming a political festival is going to save the world – but we’ve got to start somewhere.

Festival of Debate 2019 runs in Sheffield from 19 April to 1 June. To see the full programme, book tickets or learn more, visit festivalofdebate.com

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