Keep hold of the talking stick

February 18, 2010

Observations on debates

Everybody wants to talk. If Tony Blair’s “Big Conversation” and the constant chatter on the London think-tank lecture circuit aren’t enough, you can now attend the “Coffee House Challenge”, organised by Starbucks and the Royal Society of Arts.

The idea – for informal discussions over lattes – first percolated across the Atlantic as the brainchild of Vicki Robin, a peace-nik author, songwriter and advocate of sustainable living. After 9/11, she decided that Americans needed somewhere quiet to talk. The “conversation cafe” quickly spread across North America, and the weekly topics have included everything from terrorism and gay marriage to national identity.

The idea has been around the London scene for a while. The New Economics Foundation and Charter 88 once tried a “democracy cafe”. But perhaps the RSA, itself founded in a coffee house 250 years ago, has the best chance of making it work.

The first Coffee House Challenge at a Starbucks in Clapham, south London, was on “creating resilient communities”. This is fairly typical of the topics, which also include single mothers and global citizenship. These aren’t the kind of events at which you might say: “Pay more taxes for the poor? I don’t think so.”

Despite the availability in Clapham of small samples of Fairtrade coffee and chocolate, plus a copy of the Starbucks corporate social responsibility brochure, the big-business connection would probably put some people off. But it may be no bad thing to keep away the sort of people who normally inhabit debates. In North America, the conversation cafe has regulations about not “going on and on”. That didn’t stop a mayoral candidate in Toronto using a conversation cafe to promote his campaign to move the UN to Canada and introduce a special currency for the homeless. This person had obviously not listened to the rule about speaking only when holding the talking stick.

The Coffee House Challenge is an admirable attempt to be serious about politics in a way that lets people join in. But how will it manage without an audience like the one in Clapham, which included Polly Toynbee, Radio 4 and 20 invited community leaders? And with an ever-growing number of organisations entering the debate arena, how much is there really to talk about? A scan of the London events shows that the list of topics is ultimately limited, as is the choice of speakers. In the end, it’s not about how much we talk, but how much we listen.

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