Changing Conversations

It is always a fine line to tread when one has a very strong agenda for change, between the political and the supra-political. Especially so when the issue in question lacks the fluidity that allows many of the most useful debates to have their natural rhythm. But as today is “Brexit Day”, it is both timely to mention it and important to do so in order to explain why I want to drive what I do here in a particular direction.

It is not a secret that I am a passionate advocate for the EU. I am not going to get into the past, present, or future debates on Brexit here, but the way I have phrased that sentence shows, I hope, the principle reason for my frustration with large swathes of not just the public Remain campaign but so many of my colleagues on social media. And it is indicative of a larger problem, which is what concerns us here and will take the rest of the post. One of the most infuriating things was, and still is, seeing people who share my passion get their rationale so wildly and so consistently wrong. With the wonderful exception of Scientists for the EU, high profile Remain campaigners singularly failed to put the case *for* anything. Not even for an idea. And that is heartbreaking, infuriating, and negligent in equal measure.

London’s Southbank Undercroft

For me the case for Remain was simple. It was about a vision. And it was about the details of which that vision was made. By day I work for an academic faculty that receives a lot of EU funding. And we use it to bring together the best minds from across Europe and the world to do incredible things. The money we get from the EU comes with strings that are very different from those that come from our UK funding. They are strings that tell us not to do something quantifiably useful or “impactful” or whatever those woefully poor understandings of science mean. They simply tell us to go out and get the best minds to do the best things we can. And in the wider university we have students who take part in the EU’s Erasmus programme, which sends students to other countries to learn languages and benefit from expertise within their field throughout the EU. For me, being for the EU is about being for collaboration, cooperation, putting our heads together and figuring out the stuff that matters. It’s about seeing a problem and tearing it to the ground. It’s about saying there should be no barriers to solving the things that hold us back or that threaten to destroy our planet, and also celebrating the things that make us all better from education to art. Sure, it fails in practice a lot. But it’s about a collective statement that making the world better is what matters. And the Remain campaign utterly failed to get any of that across. It left the ideas part of the arena as open land for the Leave campaign. And it continues to be a misconception of Remainers that Leave won because people were hooked on what the campaign was against. But you don’t drive public conversation by being against something. That may be what it looks like, but you drive conversation by having a simple idea about what you are for. And that is what anyone who wants to change a conversation must articulate.

But this post, and this website, and my work here is not about campaigning for membership of the EU. What it is about, however, is, just as in that instance, a vision and a set of pieces that coalesce to form it. It is about creating a world in which we are all empowered, individually, as groups, and as communities formed in every kind of geographical configuration, to develop and use our skills for good, specifically in the challenges that face us as a planet.

What I want to be part of, then, depends on two kinds of vision – one for what kind of a species and world we want (one that steps up and solves the problems coming its way), and for how we want to treat individuals within that world (removing every barrier that stops them contributing in any way to that wider goal by using their skills in the way they see best fit, be that through research, through the care and support and enabling of others, through the creation of a rich cultural landscape that feeds all our dreams, or just through having the time to think without fear of hunger, war, or disease so that their thoughts can fly in glorious directions that may prove utterly fruitless without fear of failure).

And it also depends upon enacting the practical steps necessary to build a world in which that vision can happen. In order for that empowerment and the global unlocking of potential that would accompany it to take place we need two massive shifts. We need a universal basic income – because of the time and capacity it frees up by the fears and insecurities it removes. And we need universal open access to the sum of human knowledge – because to use that extra time and the talents it frees up, we need everyone to be able to use them.

But, and here’s the key thing – those steps, the ones that lead to the key foundations, cannot be built by fist pounding or anger or by decrying all the things they are not. They can only be built by capturing imaginations one by one, by inspiring new generations and old. And that means changing our conversations. The world I am trying to build is a world, for example and most importantly, where the link between a person’s value and “work” is cut. It is a world where we aim not to work more but less. Where we do not seek to call out those who are not “hard working” but seek to call out those who demand hard work for no good reason.

But that link between work and value is so hard-wired in our day to day thoughts and conversations that we can only begin to build this kind of world by changing the conversation. And that means not criticising, not being hateful, not labelling. It means being passionate about where value should lie, It means showing the value of all humans regardless of their capacity for work. It means telling stories of human value. It means making the case for the arts, for science, for collaboration and cooperation, for the incredible things that happen when we remove people from pointless and exhausting “work” without removing their means of survival. It means celebrating exploration and experimentation. It means showing a kid on the other side of the world from wherever we may be doing a cool thing and getting people to say that’s what I want to do – not because the story was told on social media and not because the kid got a patent or got hired by a big company or got a book or media deal – but because the kid did a cool thing.

In that spirit, here’s a video. This is Skater Girls Cambodia.

I discovered this brilliant group through Sisu Girls who do incredible work promoting role models for girls the world over. Don’t watch because of the good work or the worthiness, just because they’re awesome.

This, of course, is a pitiful sketch. Aspects of it are inadequate (but I have my useful life to build upon it, and the part of the conversation to which I am contributing is a tiny one). Parts of it are woefully misleading (there is a tendency in my enthusiasm to sound aligned to a not very helpful libertarianism that would leave behind those not able to contribute or, conversely, part of some dry utilitarian planned system in which value is still attached to usefulness. Neither is true, but nuance, while essential, takes time and words that belong to the future. I am, as I hope what has gone before shows, committed to the highest quality of life for all, regardless of capability, and also to curiosity, creation, and research for their own sake, apart from impact. And parts will simply be wrong, in ways ‘I haven’t begun to understand but will come to.

But this is a start, and that is the most important part of anything. And an explanation. Our work, those who are with me on the road, will always need to be done at three levels – the visionary, the practical, and the conversation-changing


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