Je Suis Charlie… Moi non plus: After Charlie Hebdo, does anyone still believe in free speech?

The march of world leaders in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, Paris, January 2015. Cameron, Junker, Hollande, Merkel et al. With friends like these, does free speech need enemies?

The march of world leaders in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo in Paris, January 2015. Cameron, Juncker, Sarkozy, Hollande, Merkel et al. With friends like these, does European free speech need enemies?

Wednesday 18th March 2015 at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA
(opp. the University of Sheffield tram stop and the Henderson’s Relish building, map here).

£5 / £2 (concessions), all welcome. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open 6.30pm.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre and the recent terrorist attack on a public debate in Copenhagen have put the issue of freedom of expression high on the agenda. However, despite the veneer of unity behind the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’, many in this loose coalition of ‘free speech’ advocates increasingly call for limits on its practical application within Europe.

Some feel satirical cartoonists threaten public safety because they insist on exercising the right to be provocative. Others are concerned to protect oppressed peoples from being further undermined by the ‘violence’ of words. A recent survey by the online magazine Spiked! showed that 80% of Universities restrict free expression in some way. Indeed the Home Office are currently seeking to extend this innovative academic practice with a new anti-terror bill which would legally require academic suppression of ‘extremist’ speech.

So does this mean that free expression is an ideal which cannot be realised in practice? Or do we live in an era when free speech is considered the enemy of moral and progressive politics? Where do the borders between freedom and offence lie in the 21st century – and who should police them? After Copenhagen, what does the slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ mean anyway, if anything?

Join us on Weds 18th March at 7pm for an evening of provocative and engaging public debate and discussion with speakers actively involved the study and practical application of free speech.

Our speakers include:
Adam Kissel
Former Vice President of Programs at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), USA
Dr Stefanie Pukallus
Researcher at the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield
Don Milligan
Don Milligan is a communist and veteran of the Gay Liberation Front. He blogs at: and twitters @donmilligan2020.
Daisy Collingwood
Sheffield editor of The Tab, the UK’s largest independent online student magazine. The Tab regularly questions the growing censoriousness and conformity of campus life.
Dennis Hayes
Professor of Education University of Derby, Co-ordinator of Academics for Academic Freedom and The Free Speech University Rankings

Watch this space for further announcements.

From ‘No Platform’ to ‘No More Page 3’ – a new culture of censorship on campus?

Thursday 27th March 2014 at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA (opp. the university tram stop and the Henderson’s Relish building, map here). £4 / £2 (concessions), all welcome. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open 6.30pm. In association with Spiked Online‘s ‘Down With Campus Censorship‘ campaign. Universities have traditionally […] more

Nanny, nudger or therapist? – event video

The video for our event Nanny, nudger or therapist?: is the state enhancing or undermining our personal decision making?, that took place on 7th November 2013, is now available. Tweet more

‘Tolerating Intolerance’ – discussion video

The video of our event Tolerating Intolerance – should we still ‘defend to the death the right to say it’? on 30th October 2013 and featuring professors Frank Füredi, Angie Hobbs and Anthony Milton is now available. Tweet more

Event report. ‘My Brain Made Me Do It’ – have neuroscience and evolutionary psychology put free will on the slab?

More than 140 people packed into the Jessop West Exhibition Space last Wednesday to debate the complex question of the implications for the latest developments in neuroscience for free will and human nature. Kicking off the debate was an esteemed panel of academics from Sheffield University. Neuroscientist Professor Peter Redgrave argued that the human brain, and […] more

‘My Brain Made Me Do It’ – have neuroscience and evolutionary psychology put free will on the slab?

neuroscience main picWednesday 25th September 2013 at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA
(opp. the university tram stop and the Henderson’s Relish building,
map here).
£5 / £3(concessions), all welcome. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open 6.30pm.
In association with
Battle of Ideas 2013

Why do people act like they do? Addiction, crime and antisocial behaviour were traditionally understood as having their roots either in moral failings or social forces, depending on your point of view. But the recent insights into the human mind provided by neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are beginning to challenge these ideas.

New studies aren’t just providing insights into areas like addiction, but suggesting a scientific basis for everything from sexual preferences to political views. These ideas are becoming influential in government – the Allen Report into ‘early intervention’, heralded by Iain Duncan Smith, has claimed to set out the science behind antisocial behaviour. Nature seems to trump nurture.

But where does this leave free will and individual autonomy? Can anyone be said to be responsible for their actions if they are predicted by neuroscience? Are we nothing more than our ‘hard wiring’ or are we still able to make choices despite our conditioning?

Join us at the Sheffield Salon where we will explore the far-reaching consequences of the rapidly changing balance in the nature-nurture debate.

Our Speakers include:
James Lenman, professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield
Peter Redgrave
, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Sheffield
Tom Stafford
, lecturer in psychology and cognitive science, University of Sheffield; columnist, BBC Future; co-author, Mind Hacks
Chaired by Dr Frankie Anderson
, hospital medicine trainee; co-organiser, Sheffield Salon

Tolerating Intolerance – should we still ‘defend to the death the right to say it’?


“For a man who calls for a ban on the Koran to act as the champion of free speech is a bit rich” – The New York Times on Dutch politician Geert Wilders

Wednesday 30th October 2103. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open at 6.30pm
Channing Hall, 45 Surrey Street, Sheffield S1 2LG (map here)Admission £5 and £3 (concs).
Tickets available in advance from Sheffield Arena Box Office (plus £1 booking fee), Sheffield City Hall box office (no booking fee if bought in person) and on the door at the event. We will also be selling advance tickets for this event at the neuroscience salon on 25th Sept.
In association with
Off The Shelf festival of words

Outwardly, we live in a society that appears more open-minded and tolerant than at any time in our history. Indeed, we are frequently reminded of the need to understand the importance of respecting different cultures, beliefs and ‘diversity’. Individuals or organisations deemed to be ‘intolerant’ now provoke widespread moral condemnation and censure. The widespread celebration of ‘tolerance’ across the spectrum, from David Cameron to the European Court of Human Rights in countless public statements and declarations, is testament to the rhetorical appeal of a concept that is now seen as being synonymous with being ‘non-judgemental’.

However, the promotion of ‘tolerance’ today can sometimes appear to embody contradictory values. Hand in hand with the 21st century culture of tolerance there appears to have grown up a parallel culture of public intolerance toward people whose beliefs contradict this new, conventional wisdom. The statement ‘I am tolerant of everything but intolerance’ has gained widespread acceptance as have demands to restrict the freedom of speech and expression of those whose views we might find offensive. Calls to ban the public expression of ideas by those considered racist or homophobic (or who mock religion) are also paradoxically couched in terms of defending tolerance and diversity.

In this salon we will examine the genesis of tolerance as a pragmatic survival strategy for European societies riven by factional strife and on the brink of self-destruction during the wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries. We will also explore the contemporary application of tolerance and the extent to which the original philosophical and political insights have anything to teach us today.

So, should we be ‘tolerant of everything but intolerance’ and accept that freedom of thought and expression have very definite limitations? Or, does tolerance mean having to live with the thoughts and words of others with whom one might vehemently and fundamentally disagree?  Put another way, and to paraphrase a biographer of Voltaire, is it a question of disapproving of what someone says, but defending to the death their right to say it? Could it also be argued that rather than being an exercise in suspending our critical faculties or even indifference, effective strategies for tolerance actually depend on a degree of considered judgementalism about the beliefs and values of others? Does tolerating views we abhor also mean assuming a responsibility for challenging them in open debate within the public sphere? Might it even be possible to learn positive lessons from those whose ideas we find objectionable and to consider that in these morally uncertain times there might be many ways to the truth?

These are some of the questions which will be raised at this special collaboration between Sheffield Salon and Off The Shelf. Come along and be part of an ongoing conversation between the people of Sheffield and respected academics in the fields of the arts, science, medicine, sociology, philosophy, politics and history. Over the past two years the format of Sheffield Salon events has varied according to our subjects, but always centres around the concept of this being an exploration of meanings within a topic, with many points of view, rather than being merely a ‘talking heads’ session of experts.

 Frank Füredi (Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Kent, commentator and author of Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.)

Angie Hobbs (Professor for the Public Understanding of Philosophy, University of Sheffield and contributor to BBC Radio 4s In Our Time, the Today programme and Radio 3s Night Waves)

Anthony Milton (Professor of History, University of Sheffield, author of Catholic and Reformed – The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 and founding editor of Politics, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain).

Alternative lectures: What is Humanism? (Part 1)
Professor Frank Furedi answers the question ‘What is Humanism?’ in this short lecture filmed in the WORLDbytes studio. 
While humanist ideas have been around for a long time, Furedi observes, they have never been more weakly affirmed than at present. In ancient as well as Renaissance times, thinkers struggled with questions around what forces determine our destiny and began to formulate ideas that human beings themselves, rather than God or nature, had a responsibility for making the world. Humanism, we learn, begins to flourish in Renaissance Italy and finds more mature expression in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Modern determinisms, such as nineteenth-century economic determinism or today’s eco-determinism, biological determinism or psychological determinism, are all really evasions or excuses that diminish our own sense of taking responsibility for what happens. A Humanist outlook should equip us with an orientation towards reason, problem-solving and a healthy scepticism towards determinisms (or the fates) in the present day. Professor Furedi doesn’t overcomplicate the issue or use mystifying jargon in this refreshing and enlightening lecture.

Watch Part Two here:

Nanny, nudger or therapist?: is the state enhancing or undermining our personal decision making?

Nudge nudge wink wink

Are you really sure you want to risk cirrhosis of the liver; cardiovascular disease; cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, or colorectal region; dementia; depression; seizures; hypertension, alcoholic neuropathy; pancreatitis; or incur the prohibitive cost of alcohol taxation?

Thursday 7th November 2013 at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA
(opp. the university tram stop and the Henderson’s Relish building, 
map here).
Free admission, all welcome. 7pm to 9pm. Doors open 6.30pm.
In association with The Economic and Social Research Council and the University of Sheffield as part of the Festival of Social Science, 2013. 

Number 10’s Behavioural Insight Team hopes that its new ‘liberal paternalist’ alternative to the nanny state will produce effective ways to get us all to make better, healthier, lifestyle choices and pay our tax bills on time. With a novel combination of behavioural psychology, sociology and neuroscience its policy is the art of subtle manipulation. Rather than create rigid top-down rules for less desirable behaviours, such as the smoking ban, proponents of ‘nudge’ point to successes in altering behaviour for beneficial outcomes without coercion – steering citizens toward better decisions by presenting choices in different ways.
The much-touted phrase ‘from nanny to nudge’ moves the emphasis of government intervention away from old-fashioned big-state control (what nudgers call ‘shove’) toward a softer framework of reward, inducement and therapeutic support designed by self-styled ‘choice architects’. The government paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy suggests that because ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices’, governments should shift attention away from ‘facts and information’ and, instead, use ‘nudge’ techniques to ‘change behaviour without changing minds’.
‘Nudge theory’ is now gaining ground not only in big government but in mental health, community action campaigns and ‘race awareness’ programmes. Official interventions targeted on the emotional or physical, rather than the academic lives of students are also increasingly commonplace across the spectrum, from primary schools to universities.
A key text of the nudge movement, Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, ‘raises serious questions about the rationality of many judgments and decisions that people make’ and claims that ‘it is legitimate… to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better’. However, most discussion on this kind of ‘soft paternalism’ centres on how to change behaviour rather than the value judgments and assumptions that lie behind such interventions.
So, is changing our behaviour per se a legitimate aim for government? Does nudge degrade the fundamental liberal concepts of citizenship and individual moral autonomy by means of subtle manipulation? If an elite of experts and policy wonks decide we are too irrational, emotional, inconsistent and lazy to  act in our own best interests, might this indicate that the cornerstone of democracy, that society is made up of individuals rational enough to make their own choices, is being eroded?
Join us at this special collaboration between Sheffield Salon and the University of Sheffield’s Festival of Social Science to explore the questions raised by the current shift ‘from nanny to nudge’.

Our  panelists include:
If you’d like some background to the topic of ‘nudge’ and behaviour change policies here is some suggested reading:

Pro-nudge/pro-behaviour change policies:
Brooks, D. (2011) The Social Animal: the hidden sources of love, character and achievement. New York, Random House

Cabinet Office (2010) Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy, London, Cabinet Office/Institute for Government

John, P., Cotterill, S., Hahua, L., Richardson, L., Moseley, A., Smith, G., Stoker, G. and Wales, C. (2011) Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Using Experiments to Change Citizens’ Behaviours. London: Bloomsbury.

Stoker, G. and Moseley, A. (2010) Motivation, Behaviour and the Microfoundations of Public Services. London, Royal Society of the Arts.

Book Review: Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein.
Nudge is a book that has been heavily commented on in the national press in recent weeks, not least because of the authors’ influence on the Obama administration – but primarily as the book has reputedly been heavily influential on our own Prime Minister’s thinking.
ASK Europe, 7 September 2010

Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C.R. (2009) Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, London/New York: Penguin
Every day we make decisions: about the things that we buy or the meals we eat; about the investments we make or our children’s health and education; even the causes that we champion or the planet itself. Unfortunately, we often choose poorly…

Critiques, analyses and challenges

Giving up is so very hard to do We are being urged to lose weight, donate organs and pay our taxes by a controversial doctrine called nudge theory. It’s at the heart of the Tories’ ‘Big Society’ vision, but when does a nudge become a shove?
Anjana Ahuja, Daily Telegraph, 8 February 2011

Nudge, nudge, wink wink… How the Government wants to change the way we think Martin Hickman lifts the lid on the secret Whitehall policy unit dreaming up psychological tricks to alter our behaviour
Martin Hickman, Independent, 3 January 2011

A message to the illiberal Nudge Industry: push off
The ‘politics of the brain’ is a threat to choice, freedom and democracy – which is why spiked is declaring war against it.
Brendan O’Neill, spiked, 1 November 2010

Ecclestone, K. Remaking citizens for the Big Society, Battles in Print, Battle of Ideas 2011

Jones, R., Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (2013) Changing Behaviours: On the Rise of the Psychological State. London: Edward Elgar Publishing

Leggett, W. 2013. ‘The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’ Policy and Politics,
published online 8 April DOI: 10.1332/030557312X655576

Event Summary: 4th June 2103 – From angry young man to Peter Pan?

More a crisis of adulthood than the infantilisation of young people?

This latest Sheffield Salon found around 35 audience members engaging in a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion on the contemporary nature of adulthood and growing up.

Dr Kate Brown from York University’s Sociology department started the debate by setting the debate in a broad historical context where what is counted as ‘childhood’ had been extended for over 100 years, as Children were freed from the economic necessity of starting work at a young age. However, in Britain this extension of childhood has been beset by a “profound contradiction” where young people are treated as Children for longer and longer, but the moment they transgress the bounds of the law they are treated as fully responsible adults. Kate highlighted the comparatively low age of criminal responsibility in the UK, and the differences in how Britain handles cases of serious child criminality in comparison to Scandinavian countries; the key example being a comparison between the reaction to the death of James Bulger in the UK and a similar case referred to only as ‘The Accident’ in Norway. Having set out this apparent contradiction, Kate then went on to argue that debates around the ‘mollycoddling’ of the young often focused on middle-class experiences at the expense of stories of people from deprived backgrounds trying to become autonomous. Kate suggested that if it is the case that young people today are struggling to strike out on their own, it is likely that broader economic factors are to blame rather than individual young people.

Speaking next, Will Mason – a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sheffield – explained his research which aims to understand the experiences of ‘growing up’ in a predominantly Somali group of young people, grounded in his and others’ work as youth workers, and the experiences of the young people themselves. The major theme of Will’s opening speech was the idea of ‘rites of passage’, and he suggested that there has been a breakdown in the clearly defined transitional stages that children have traditionally progressed through which previously allowed young people to readily understand what new rights and responsibilities they have as they grow up. This increasing ambiguity is, for many, driven by a broader socio-economic context where the basic resources needed to attain such stages are in short supply. Will suggested that the only clearly defined “rite of passage” still expected of everyone was going to university, but stressed that this may be unsuitable or financially impossible for large sections of the population. Thus many young people  are stuck in the transitional phase. Will also argued that many young people were well aware of the lack of opportunities open to them and thus practised a “pragmatic apathy” about their situation.

Last to speak from the panel was Claire Fox from the Institute of Ideas. Claire, in a sense, turned the motion on its head, asking if the problem was not with the infantilisation of young adults, but their ‘adultisation’ by older generations who had lost confidence in their own ability to continue to assume the traditional authority of wisdom and experience. This Claire illustrated by pointing to the widespread notion that all sorts of public bodies, from schools and the NHS to the police, need to involve children in the decision making progress. Claire pointed to examples of Primary School children being asked to give feedback to teachers on teaching methods, Secondary School children interviewing teachers for jobs, young children being consulted on public  library policies, the ubiquitous ‘youth voice’ initiatives and of course the widening of suffrage in Scotland to 16 and 17 year olds. Claire suggested that this pointed to a profound breakdown of the adult/child divide and that, perhaps, the real issue was about the ‘infantilisation’ of adults rather than that of children. In opposition to the earlier speakers, Claire suggested that this wasn’t simply an economic crisis, but rather was a profound cultural crisis: a crisis in adulthood, authority and socialisation; at some point adults had lost or given away much of their assumed authority. Claire pointed to the recent uproar around the case of Jimmy Savile and suggested that the case had morphed into a demonisation of adulthood as a whole, not just the actions of one individual.

With these varied viewpoints on the table, the audience contributions were wide-ranging. A recurring theme was the idea that it is not simply a case of young people being infantilised, but all adults; several audience members pointed to the ‘dumbing down’ of public media. A debate between audience members developed over the place of ‘student voice’ initiatives, with some arguing that there could be nothing wrong with involving young people and hearing their opinions, and others arguing that involving school children in decisions on the curriculum was pointless, as students were always bound to ask for ‘easier’ or less demanding education.

When the panel had the chance to initially respond to some comments from the floor, the main division of opinion was over the role of authority (not, as Claire pointed out: ‘authoritarianism’): Kate suggested that the case of Savile perhaps showed that we are right to be wary of displays of adult authority, whereas Claire argued that authority plays a profoundly important role in the socialisation process, regardless of the exceptional cases.

The next round of audience questions found one young man arguing that it was literally impossible for him to find a job, despite his best efforts, to which an audience member confessed that he had to ‘put his granddad hat on’ and tell the youngster to stop being so lazy and do whatever it took to get a job: “We are only given our power to labour, this is the only asset we have” he argued, “Thus the onus is on us as individuals to do whatever we can to make our lives better, and to come together as men to make our lives better for us all”. His contribution received wide applause, and the young man in question insisted he was no scrounger. However, his contribution pointed to a wide theme in the discussion: is there really any political drive amongst young adults to attempt to ‘come together’ and effect social change for the betterment of all?

One contributor suggested that such political drive was being stifled by a ‘culture of me’ where many can only judge things by their effect on oneself as an individual and thus didn’t see hard work and stress as having an place in their life.

Proceedings closed with many questions raised and only tentative answers to some. Perhaps the biggest unanswered question was the causes for the breakdown of the transition between childhood and adulthood, and the question of authority was still unresolved.

From the Angry Young Man to a Peter Pan: are we infantilising our young people?

InfantilisationTuesday 4th June 2013 at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West,
University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA
(opp. Henderson’s Relish building, 
map here).
 £4 / £3(concessions), all welcome.
7pm to 9pm. Doors open 6.30pm.

In February this year, the Court of Appeal ruled that unemployed graduate Cait Reilly had been unlawfully compelled to undertake unpaid work experience in Poundland. Whilst much of the reaction to this ruling focused on the well-established debate over ‘welfare scroungers’, many saw the case as a reflection on Ms Reilly’s entire generation. Indeed, Ian Duncan Smith saw her as part of a generation of ‘job snobs’ who would rather claim benefits from government than take low-paid employment. Some commentators wondered if young people had any desire to grow up, and would rather replace their parents with a ‘mummy state’.

The discussion, however, has not been confined to welfare provision and, as 40% of young people are now going to university, this could often be seen as an alternative to breaking out into a ‘big bad world’ increasingly viewed as ‘risky’ and ‘exploitative’. In this light higher education might be viewed as now playing a role in prolonging the period of childhood irresponsibility and hi-jinx rather than being a place to take risks in asserting one’s personal and intellectual self-reliance. Whilst no society has ever found it easy to manage the transition of its members from childhood to adulthood, the common thread has always been that moving into adulthood necessarily involves the taking on of greater autonomy and personal and social responsibility. Indeed, the transition into adulthood has traditionally been understood as the young person’s increasing and inevitable assumption of moral, intellectual and financial self-reliance.

Arguably, this is not a problem limited to the middle-class. Indeed, the devaluing in social status of non-graduate employment and the lack of real apprenticeship training has made it increasingly difficult for non-graduates to gain a measure of self-respect and independence. Coupled with the fact that over 1.6 million 20-40 year olds still live with their parents, this suggests that the transition into adult life is becoming a problem that cuts across all classes. Some economists suggest that the problem is primarily economic and that Britain simply can’t provide enough decent employment for its young people. Instead the nation either places them on benefit or postpones the problem by sending them to university. An alternative view to the purely economic view is that this is a manifestation of more widespread political apathy and social anomie: If the adult world offers little in the way of political choices and social bonds, it might well appear rational for young people to be uninterested in it.

So, if we are to take the premises of this argument seriously, is there more at work here than ‘Peter Pan’ kids who don’t want to grow up? By considering young people to be vulnerable to exploitation in a risk-laden society does adult society encourage their continuing infantilisation and prevent them taking up their rightful place as autonomous and responsible adults? Join us at the Sheffield Salon where we will explore the changing nature of ‘growing up’, and ask what it’s like to move from childhood to adulthood today.

Our Speakers include:
Claire Fox
Claire is the Director of the Institute of Ideas, an organisation that aims to create a space to contest ideas without constraint. Claire is a regular panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, and is a regular media commentator for a number of programs including BBC’s Question Time and Sky News Review. Claire writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals, including the Times Education Supplement. Claire previously worked as a mental health social worker and as a lecturer in English literature.

Dr Kate Brown
Kate is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of York. Her research focuses on ‘vulnerability’ and the governance of ‘vulnerable’ people’s lives. She has a special interest in welfare and disciplinary systems for young people. Before returning to university to study for her PhD, Kate worked in the voluntary sector for around ten years supporting vulnerable groups such as young women who sold sex, young drug users and families affected by domestic violence.

William Mason

William Mason is a PhD student and full time University Teaching Associate in the Department of Sociological Studies at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in the areas of youth, identity, community, and race. His current research casts an ethnographic focus on the lived experiences of youth workers and a predominantly Somali sample of young people from two economically disadvantaged and ethnically diverse urban locations. This study casts a particular focus on the role played by the youth services in helping young people to negotiate the perceived ‘risks’ and challenges of growing up in a marginalized social context.


Event postponed: Personalising the apocalypse: Indignant identities in a post-political era.

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, we have had to postpone the event scheduled for Wednesday, 1st May 2013 until further notice. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience.


Personalising the apocalypse: Indignant identities in a post-political era.


Unfortunately, and due to unforeseen circumstances, we have had to postpone the event scheduled for Wednesday, 1st May 2013 until further notice. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience.

7pm on Wednesday, 1st May 2013 at Coffee Revolution, Union of Students, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TG. £5/£3 concessions. All welcome. Tickets available on the door or in advance here.

Since 9/11 there has been a long list of seemingly incomprehensible terrorist acts designed to frighten, maim and kill, from the tube bombs of 7/7 to the solitary figure of Anders Breivik shooting at children at a political camp in Norway. But for each of these atrocities, there have been a plethora of increasingly bizarre and incompetent plots. Most recently, Irfan “chubs” Naseer and his Birmingham co-conspirators were compared to characters in Chris Morris’ Sheffield-set farce Four Lions. Other plotters injured themselves more than others such as on 21/7 and during the attack on Glasgow airport. Closer to home, 22 year-old Nicholas Roddis was convicted leaving a hoax bomb on a Rotherham bus in 2007. Whilst many have sought to explain their behaviour as a direct consequence of an angry rebuttal of Western foreign policy or of conspiratorial radicalisation, it often seems to more reflect an alienation from both their own community and wider society. This kind of violent reaction isn’t just limited to jihadis – witness Breivik and the Sandy Hook massacre.

Of course angry young men aren’t anything new, but is this rebellion peculiarly vacuous? Whilst political violence in the past often served as a means to an end, for many of these incoherent modern terrorists it seems more like an end in itself. Vague aims and non-existent organisation point to a more personal motivation; more Four Lions than Battle of Algiers. Is modern terrorism a powerful conspiracy or an ethical pose, an individualistic response fitting an individualised culture? More importantly, is this behaviour a manifestation of an apocalyptic mindset that holds a much wider traction in society today?


Kenan Malik is a regular contributor on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze, as well as an extensive writer on multiculturalism and race including: The Meaning of Race, and the Sunday Times Bestseller From Fatwwa to Jihad – The Rushdie affair and it’s legacy. His History of Moral Thought is published later this year.

Faisal Devji is reader in History at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the author of The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics and acknowledged authority in this area, whose Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity has been highly influential. Devji’s has also authored The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence and the forthcoming Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea.

Supported by the University of Sheffield Students’ Union as part of the Flash! season.


Video highlights of ‘Don’t mention the war?’ event on Weds 28th November 2012.

‘Don’t mention The war?’ event highlights

‘Don’t let the dead bury the living.’ A report on our Don’t mention the war? event on Weds 28th November 2012.

More than seventy people joined the discussion at the last Salon.

The latest Sheffield Salon saw more than 70 people pack into the Jessop West building for a discussion of the ubiquitous but rarely dissected topic of the Second World War, and its role in forging British national identity.

James Heartfield, backed by pop culture’s depiction of a traitorous colonial type, dissects the myth of the People’s War

James Heartfield kicked the debate off by laying out the thesis of his new book, Unpatriotic History of the Second World War. He compared the perception of World War One, generally seen as a conflict for imperialistic ends, and World War Two, which is seen as a noble struggle due to its anti-fascist character. But Heartfield suggested that the Allies, although not as overtly barbaric as the Axis, were in no way standing up for the liberal democratic values we project onto their cause today. There was a concerted attempt to drive down the living standards of ordinary people to bolster the war effort, combined with a militarisation of society in which the general population was conscripted, and those who morally or politically resisted (pacifists, leftists as well as those with fascist sympathies), imprisoned and vilified. While In the colonies, colonial subjects were treated, effectively,  as slaves; thousands of Indians were killed during the putting down of protests against their involvement in the war without their consent. Whilst we are familiar with the resistance movements of occupied Europe, there was also resistance to colonialism in Iran, Iraq, Burma and from the Indian National Army, who sided with the Japanese to fight the British. But as these facts don’t fit the ‘People’s War’ historical narrative of the war, they have been ‘swept under the carpet’.

Dr Adrian Bingham analyses the role of the popular media in peddling myths of Britishness.

Dr Adrian Bingham spoke second, looking at the hold of WWII on the British popular imagination. He located the importance and power of this grip in its status as the last moment of national greatness for Britain before post-war decline, and for its continuing political usefulness for all sides – left and right – ever since. For the right, it was a great triumph of British might, conducted by traditional imperial leaders like Churchill; for the left, it was a victory in a ‘Peoples War’, the zenith of state intervention of Keynesianism and of the beginning of the post-war settlement between capital and labour. Despite moments, such as during the 60s and seventies satire boom, when the myths surrounding the war were deconstructed and lampooned in the form of characters such as the bigoted Basil Faulty, the usefulness of the war as a defining national myth has remained at the centre of what it means to be British.

Prof. Bob Moore interrogates European national myths of ‘collaboration’ and ‘resistance’.

Professor Bob Moore spoke next, making the point that in his younger days, whether someone described the war as being against either the ‘Germans’ or ‘the Nazis’, revealed much about their politics. He looked at some of the other myths around the war, which were forming even before the war had ended; the justifications in 1939 for beginning the war faded as the tales of atrocity and barbarism took their place as the prime justification for ‘Why We Fight’. Interestingly, Prof. Moore highlighted the construction of Colditz or Great Escape style narratives about the constantly-escaping POW, desperate to continue the fight against evil -whatever the personal cost – as being largely based on myth. Significantly, as a Holocaust historian he also discussed the process of whitewashing collaboration between occupied and occupier. Prof. Moore stressed that this was not just a phenomenon in occupied France but also on British territory when Jews were deported from the Channel Islands to Auschwitz with the full co-operation of the collaborationist Channel Islands authorities.

Dr Peter Thompson spoke about the multiple conflicts that made up the world war – the inter-imperial rivalry of the great powers, the wars of self-defence of the USSR and nationalist China, the national liberation struggles in Europe and Asia, and the class war at home in every nation. He spoke about different schools of historical thinking, and their applications in both East and West Germany as well as the post war UK. Describing a Nietzschean historical viewpoint, whilst the British had traditionally gone in for ‘monumentalist’ theories of history in which an all-powerful ‘great-man’ heroically struggled and triumphed against the enemy, in the wake of Hitler, Thompson suggested that this was a path barred to Germans, who in the GDR in particular took an “antiquarian” approach in which they looked to creating a small-scale, non-threatening, non-aggressive past in which to take solace. Thompson made a compelling  case for ‘critical’ historical thinking instead, in which the living do not become obsessed by history and tradition to the point, described by Nietzsche, ‘when the dead bury the living’.

The discussion from the floor was both penetrating and wide ranging. One questioner pressed Heartfield on what he would have done if he had been in the hot seat in 1939 to which Heartfield replied that the question should focus more on what those who opposed the war should have done, whereby an alternative way of doing things might have emerged. The discussion also looked at the specifics of national war myths in different countries – from the anti-Soviet revisionism of the newly independent Baltic nations where, often, their national heroes happened to be the individuals who welcomed the Nazis liberating them from Stalinist oppression and had been actively involved in the murder of Jews – to the to the resistance histories of France and the Low Countries in which fascism had been a massive social and political movement before the war, with an old joke that Belgian resistance had only happened after the war. Other questioners suggested the professional historians on the panel might have a vested interest in the phenomenal popularity of the war and that to debunk the ‘myths piled upon myths’ – the generally agreed on analysis of much of Second World War history – ‘would be to shoot themselves in the foot’ as professional historians with books and TV programmes to peddle!

Other topics included the role of the war myth in contemporary nationalism, and the troubling status and rise of organisations such as ‘Help for Heroes’ over traditional aid like the British Legion. Some also questioned to the legitimacy and appropriateness of sympathy for those who had ‘taken the King’s shilling’. It was debated whether there was a new upsurge in nationalism, or whether films and programmes like Homeland and the revitalised James Bond movies revealed the very confused state of “imperialism” today. Heartfield and Thompson argued that we ought to try and create a more forward looking form of national identity, and Heartfield agreed with Thompson’s previous assertion that as the morbid obsession with history, the past and tradition only ends with “the dead burying the living”. This lively and good natured discussion on a complex topic gave rise plenty of scope for further discussion in the pub afterwards.

Event report: Our House? – Park Hill flats and the housing crisis 17/10/12

Our House was a ‘community event’ within the 2012 Off the Shelf literary festival. It was also an experiment, offering a walk as well as a talk. And the experiment seems to have worked. Certainly it was popular, with registrations having to be closed a week before-hand. And it was lively too, with a frank exchange of views around difficult themes. But more than anything else it was a constructive engagement with an idea – about housing – an invitation to reconsider the meaning and import of a seemingly self-evident concept.

The evening began with groups of 10-15 walking through Park Hill flats. Time and numbers precluded all but the briefest introduction to this iconic structure. Our aim was to catalyse opinion in advance of a discussion about housing more broadly. With the help of former residents of Park Hill and others with local knowledge, groups followed a set route through those public areas that remain, for the time being, unaffected by the Urban Splash redevelopment at the North end.

Excellent home-made cakes and tea and coffee were available at the Park Centre (on Duke Street), an old Victorian swimming pool (floored-over) that comfortably accommodated the 86 attendees. A short film started proceedings – Streets in the sky – an avant-garde collage about the flats, for which we are most grateful to Leon Seth, the award-winning young film-maker who made this possible. There could have been no better way of setting the scene for the two speakers that followed.

First-up was Satwinder Samra, Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Sheffield. Satwinder considered some of the various meanings and functions of housing and pointed to the changing ways in which we think about and use our homes. Modernism hasn’t always delivered, he said, which is why we need a discursive architecture, alive to the needs of ordinary people. Legislation would help; new homes now being built in the UK are, on average, the smallest in Western Europe, and tend to be considerably smaller than those built in Britain in the early-twentieth century. The old Parker Morris (1961) minimum space standards, such as informed the design of Park Hill, are no longer legally binding and are widely ignored.

James Heartfield, author of Let’s Build! Why we need five million homes in the next 10 years, began with reference to an enterprising landlord in London renting-out below-street-level rooms, and went on to show images of the many and various ways by which people address their housing predicament, from inhabiting garden sheds and buses to the Dale Farm gypsy camp. James argued that in order merely to maintain its existing stock, the UK needs to build 240,000 new homes each year. But even this is not happening. Instead, piecemeal brownfield development constitutes the horizon of contemporary ambition, underscored by antipathy to any encroachment upon a Green Belt that is itself expanding

Both speakers talked for less than fifteen minutes, leaving lots of time for discussion. Informed opinion was plentiful, including senior officers from local government, who resisted the suggestion that the City Council was somehow negligent in its management of housing. The point was made that the North block of Park Hill was 40% unoccupied at the time it was closed. The problem was deprivation and unemployment, rather than poor management.

A theme attracting much attention was ‘densification’. James Heartfield argued that densification, as currently articulated, was problematic. Housing need is simply too great to be solved by densification in the context of a market wherein demand massively outstrips supply. The densification that flows from a defence of the status quo leads directly to box-rooms beneath the London pavement and brings down standards in general. What drives the price of housing today is the lack of housing more broadly, a situation engendered by policy makers who have for years restricted the availability of land on which to build new homes, whilst extending legislation deifying our ‘green and pleasant land.’

James’ view was hotly contested, with some pointing to developers as villains of the peace, others to the property bubble in terms of speculative activity and an overextended mortgage market. In the main, though, the consensus inclined toward densification as urbanism in action, and toward the privileging of brownfield development. Key workers may indeed be priced out of the metropolis, but could be offered special provision in order to maintain services. A balance was achievable, was a widely held view.

Surprisingly little was said about Park Hill itself, perhaps reflecting the view that the flats were the product of an era now firmly in the past. Certainly, Satwinder’s concluding points stressed the merits of going with the grain of local housing need, eschewing the sort of massive social engineering implied in the Park Hill project. James Heartfield also looked more to the energies and interests of those at the sharp end of the housing crisis. Which begs the question as to the meaning and status of Park Hill today? But that’s another discussion for another day. This one had run out of time.

The information leaflets for the event can be downloaded here:
Park Hill leaflet front

Park Hill leaflet back 


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