A Liverpool debating society is bringing back discussion without the social media pile-on!
12 months ago
A Liverpool debating society is bringing back an opportunity for differences of opinion without the risk of a social media pile-on.
South Liverpool Debating Society, which meets every fortnight in Keith’s on Lark Lane, was started in lockdown by Chris Bessell.
He was already a keen debater, and a member of the popular Philosophy in Pubs group, but when Covid restrictions stopped their meetings, he decided to set up a new group.
The idea was to bring back face-to-face discussion but in a respectful way, so even the most fiercely-held views didn’t drown out any opposition.
“I think the thing about social media is either people can be afraid to say what they really think or it becomes tribal so you say what you think but within your group where everybody else thinks the same as you,” he says, “so you’re not meeting people who think differently unless you’re shouting at them.
“The debating society creates a space where difference of opinion is encouraged, there’s this structure where people are able to agree and disagree, but in a dignified way.”
The society began in a flexible way, changing its meetings according to the restrictions that were in place at the time.
“When we were allowed under the rules we met in Keith’s and sometimes we had to go out into the park and do it under the rule of six, social distancing. Sometimes we had to completely stop but whenever we could we met, and we just adapted.
“One of the other members from Philosophy in Pubs who started the group with me, Mike, hit on the Meet Up app which, as well as word of mouth, has been really key to the whole debating society. We set up a group and the app advertised it to anyone who might be interested in meeting up either online or face-to-face.”
Chris says the meetings have evolved over time in the way they run too.
“At first we tried a traditional format where one person would present each side of a motion, other people would listen and chip in and vote at the end.
“But then it tended to become a personality thing, you’d vote for the person you liked most not the issue, so we changed it so everyone was part of the debate. We have introductions at the beginning, then people say whether they’re for or against the motion and why and then we have the discussion.
“It’s mediated, so we make sure everyone has a say uninterrupted if they want to, although they don’t have to, and then at the end we say again if we agree or disagree with the motion.
“People do change their mind, maybe not on the night but it could be the following fortnight or even month after they’ve had time to reflect.”
Chris says some members come to every meeting, others dip in and out, and there are always new members each time meaning the debate is constantly refreshed.
“I’m very keen on getting a lot of diversity in the group, so we have different ages, a good mix of men and women, people with disabilities, people who’ve moved to live in this country. Some are very well read on an issue and others are just really interested, but everyone does what they feel they want to do and they contribute in their own way, even if they don’t say much.
“What I’ve found most rewarding is being able to talk about quite difficult things and controversial subjects like race, gender and the vaccine, and it be a valuable respectful discussion.
“Those sort of things are incredibly difficult to discuss in normal society because everyone has their own opinion and shouts down everybody else.
“You need to listen to the best argument against your view and seriously consider that – and if after listening you have the same opinion then fine, but you need to hear the other side.”
Since the South Liverpool Debating Society launched, it’s been so popular that Chris is starting a new one on Mondays at Thomas Rigby’s pub on Dale Street and he’s also looking at international groups.
“We held a debate on the war in Ukraine and we had someone who lives in Dnipro take part via Skype,” he says. “Now I’m thinking of starting a group in Dnipro and one in Hong Kong where I was born because in countries like Russia and China you couldn’t have these kind of discussions, so having a group in Ukraine or Hong Kong would be really fascinating. Then maybe we could have the groups joining up with Liverpool to debate the same motion.”
South Liverpool Debating Society meets at Keith’s every other Thursday. The meetings start with dinner at 6.30pm, followed by the debate from 7-8.30pm, and drinks afterwards.
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By Dawn Collinson