Speakers’ Corner at the Being Human Festival

Zoe Williams introduces ‘Truth, Propaganda & Purpose’

Following the success of the debates they organised in the British Library’s piazza to coincide with its Propaganda, Power & Persuasion exhibition in 2013, SCT and the Library joined forces again to promote two Speakers’ Corner events at the Too Much Information – Being human in a digital age event at London University’s Senate House on 15 November 2014.

Jeremy Gilbert leads on ‘Truth, Lies & The Individual’

The day marked the launch of the week-long Being Human Festival of the Humanities led by London University’s School of Advanced Study in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.

The Festival involves over 35 research institutions and is being staged in museums, galleries and cultural and community centres – from Truro to Orkney, Swansea to Belfast, Norwich to Liverpool – highlighting the ways in which humanities research can enrich our everyday lives and help us to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and the challenges we face in a changing world.

Ian Cooke of the British Library contributes to the debate

Both Speakers’ Corner events attracted large audiences and sparked lively debates.

The first, on Truth, Propaganda and Purpose, introduced by the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, posed a number of questions –

The 20th century has been described as the “age of propaganda”. Was the use of propaganda ever justified and does its history provide important lessons for contemporary society? In a hi-tech culture of multiple and manipulated messages, what does ‘the truth’ actually look like and how useful is it when we find it? Is ‘spin’ a legitimate and necessary feature of contemporary discourse?

The second, on Truth, Lies and the Individual, led by Jeremy Gilbert, Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London, asked –

With the rise of the selfie culture and given the well-publicised controversies about trolling, hacking, extremist propaganda and surveillance, are we in danger of losing our grip on what is ‘news’, ‘truth’ or important? If we are to maximise its value and minimise the pitfalls, do individuals who use the internet to broadcast their own ‘truths’ need to learn new skills in self-editing? If not, how do we regulate social media? Or should we put it all out there and learn to sift?

In his response, Professor Gilbert commented: “In this new world of information, we could be losing our privacy and our authentic relationships with friends, families, colleagues and neighbours, only to replace them with a state of perpetual, enervated, impotent distraction. On the other hand, we could be heading for a world in which billions of people can finally communicate across borders in ways which make it impossible for the ‘1%’ to hoard all the power, wealth and influence for themselves. Which way it goes will ultimately depend on what kind of political choices we make, I think.”


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