Category: Previous Events

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

South Bank University Atheist Society's banned 'flying spaghetti monster' image. Apparently 'unacceptably offensive'.

South Bank University Atheist Society’s banned ‘flying spaghetti monster’ image. Apparently ‘unacceptably offensive’.

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 been intellectual workshops where new ideas have been forged and tested, often as a direct challenge to the status quo. In this culture both old and new ideas have had to justify their claims to truth or relevance by free and vigorous debate. However, in recent years, there has been a tendency within British universities to shut down this process when some currently controversial ideas or opinions are expressed on campus.

So-called “No Platform” policies have been introduced at many institutions which limit the right of individuals from, for example, far-right, Israeli or islamist groups to speak on campus; Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” is currently banned from being played at many student nights due to its sexism; atheists have been prevented from displaying anti-religious cartoons at some universities; at Sheffield University the sale of The Sun has been banned from the Student Union shop and representatives of the students’ union attempted to prevent the Israeli deputy ambassador from speaking to students on campus; whilst at Sheffield Hallam a Muslim cleric was banned from speaking in 2012.

The worthy aim of defeating racism, sexism and other forms of intolerance is cited as the justification for restricting the public airing of opinions and images regarded as bigoted. Offensive and inflammatory ideas are restricted in order to protect vulnerable groups from hostility and prejudice on campus. Moreover, the restriction of free expression and the control of what we say in public is promoted as a means of extending much-needed respect to those who have historically suffered from prejudice and discrimination.

Nevertheless, who gets to decide which ideas are worth hearing and which are beyond the pale? Are campaigners’ claims that the potential of some ideas to cause harm due to their ‘offensive’ nature being used to stifle controversial but legitimate opinion?  It is indeed a paradox that the imposition of illiberal restrictions on free expression is justified as a defence of ‘liberal’ and ‘tolerant’ values.

Significantly for the academy, might this trend toward the ‘ethical’ curtailment of free expression of difficult ideas have a negative impact on the intellectual culture of university life? Supporters of academic freedom have long prized their ability to defeat erroneous ideas by subjecting them to free, rigorous debate and reasoned argument. But what (if any) are the boundaries to free expression in the university? Despite the apparent isolation of campus life do these censorious trends have implications for wider society? Join us to debate where exactly the limits to free speech on campus should lie.

Our panel includes:

Vanessa Pupavac - Dr Pupavac is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham. She has also previously worked for the UN Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia and other international organisations. Her research encompasses international human rights and development politics and she is author of Rights: From Free Speech to Linguistic Governance (Palgrave, 2012).

Nicola Moors – Nicola is the editor of the University of Sheffield’s student newspaper, Forge Press, where she is also studying journalism.

Simon Renwick – Simon is editor of Canvas magazine, an award winning online politics journal produced and run by students at the University of Sheffield. Canvas believes that modern political culture is best served by reasoned debate and analysis and a variety of viewpoints. Canvas ‘allows all writers the freedom of expression to tackle topics in the way in which they feel is most appropriate without restrictions from editors or fellow writers (with the exception of inciting hatred)’.

Abdi-Aziz Suleiman – former President of the University of Sheffield Students’ Union.

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.

‘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.

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 in particular the basal ganglia was a decision making machine, processing information and choosing options in a materialist and determinist manner. Psychologist Dr Tom Stafford questioned the deterministic interpretation of much of recent research, and philosopher Professor James Lenman, speaking last, made the case for free will. This was merely the prelude to a broad ranging and lively discussion with contributions covering everything from the role of social interaction in human conciousness to the relation of traditions of art and literature to scientific thinking.
Dan Clayton kindly filmed the event for us and his Youtube video is embedded below. Many thanks to all who attended and for a very enjoyable salon. We look forward to seeing you all at Channing Hall on 30th October for our next salon event.

‘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.


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 


Event report: Surviving Madness: The pros and cons of the ‘survivor’ identity 25/10/12

On Thursday 25th October, more than 100 people fitted into the Exhibition Space of the Jessop West building for Sheffield Salon and Off the Shelf’s latest debate, Suviving Madness: the Pros and Cons of survivor identity.

The debate took its lead from Manchester Metropolitan University academic Ken McLaughlin’s latest book, Surviving Identity: Vulnerability and the psychology of recognition. He was in conversation with Pete Bullimore, from Hearing Voices Sheffield, a local activist for people with mental health problems.

Ken began by outlining key themes of the book. He spoke about the “survivor” movement in mental health, a movement that sought to give sufferers a degree of autonomy and control over their illness and treatment, defining themselves as “survivors” of the coercive aspects of the psychiatric system. Ken documented how this form of identity has blossomed in recent years, expanding from groups such as domestic violence survivors into other aspects of life such as ‘verbal abuse survivors’.

Ken argued that this form of self-identification and definition with previous suffering had problematic outcomes, now limiting peoples’ scope for autonomy and independence after being increasingly co-opted by the state and other institutions. It also had the effect of individualising peoples’ experiences and suffering – unemployment becomes and individual psychological setback to be endured, rather than a social problem to be solved. He linked this rise with the decline of traditional forms of identity, such as trade unions, churches or political parties.

Pete Bullimore spoke next, discussing his own experience in psychiatric services after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in his 20s. He spoke about the dehumanised way that psychiatric patients can be treated, and how he was able to come off his medications through peer support and friendship. He argued for the importance of autonomy – “just because the voices tell you to do something, doesn’t mean you have to”.

The discussion then went out to the audience with many questions and different opinions being voiced. In particular, there was a lot of discussion as to whether ‘survivor identity’ is necessarily a bad thing. One contributor argued that it destigmatises mental health issues and another pointed out that since their diagnosis is a major facet of their personality, why shouldn’t it be something they openly talk about?

There was also extensive debate of the role of traditional psychiatry within the management of mental health issues. Some contributors raised the issue of the lack of insight that some patients suffered, and one person with mental health issues spoke about how supportive medical intervention had been necessary and useful when acutely unwell.

Another point of discussion was the dominance of the biological model of mental health in today’s culture. Some people suggested that reducing multifaceted distress to simple chemical imbalances missed the true cause of much illness, but others defended the current “bio-psycho-social” medical model of mental health practice.

The discussion set up plenty more scope for further debate, and provided a great forum for this important issue to be raised.

Don’t mention the war? History, mythology and a new construction of British identity

Basil Fawlty demonstrates a previous incarnation of
British ‘inclusivity’ to his German guests.

Wednesday 28th November 2012, 7pm to 9pm at the Exhibition Space, Jessop West, University of Sheffield, 1 Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield S3 7RA (opp. Henderson’s Relish building, map here).
 £5 / £3(concessions), all welcome. Doors open 6.30pm.

Tickets are available on the door, but a secure box office with tickets for this event is available in advance here.

Don’t mention the war! It is ironic that Basil Fawlty’s memorable line sums up much about the British attitude to the Second World War. For over 60 years we have been constantly reminded of the conflict and its legacy. The war is now the central plank of the British story. How Britain thinks of itself, and projects itself to the wider world, has been deeply influenced by the nation’s remembered experience of the war. The war remains a perennially popular subject of history books, movies and TV programmes, and recent years have seen the further development of the idea of the 1939-1945 conflict as a ‘People’s War’ and becoming increasingly inclusive in its scope.

Initially popularised by left-wing writers such as George Orwell and JB Priestley, the ‘People’s War’ represents the struggle of a popular alliance of folk, from all walks of life. Its genesis was at the British defeat at Dunkirk and during the Blitz, when Britain ‘stood alone’. It strongly incorporates the idea that the victory over the Axis powers in 1945 was only achievable through this all-class alliance. And, that this led, directly, to the post-war settlement of the Attlee government, the NHS, the welfare state and the transformation of the old Empire to a progressive Commonwealth. The ‘People’s War’ embodies the virtues of a people stoically looking forward, through adversity and suffering, to the building of new, more equitable foundations for society in a post-war world. The inherent sense of fairness and decency of the British, combined with an implacable moral opposition to the kind of oppression and genocide witnessed during those dark years of the war, are often cited as fundamental components of the ‘national character’ that was forged during the war.

Popular histories now inform us that men and women of all classes, creeds and colours, from the four corners of the Empire, put aside their differences to combat a uniquely evil foe. Utilising elements of the same motif such as the remembrance poppy and the NHS, Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony managed to creatively repackage the entire national story – and what it means to be British – for a new era of inclusivity and diversity. Ed Balls attempted to weave the ‘People’s War’ motif and its association with the Attlee government into his speech at this year’s Labour Party conference. Chiding those who had suggested that 2012 had been ‘Britain’s greatest summer’ he reminded his audience of ‘an even greater summer still: the summer of 1945 – the end of six hard years of war – when our nation welcomed its heroes home from the battlefields of Europe, Asia and the Atlantic, and celebrated together the defeat of fascism’.

But does this idea of an inclusive and righteous ‘People’s War’ stand up to closer scrutiny? Are we projecting our current preoccupations and anxieties onto the past when we suggest that all elements of society came together with the explicit and self-conscious aim of slaying the dragon of fascism? And, does this narrative play down the deeply divided nature of British society and its Empire during the 1930s and 1940s? James Heartfield, whose new book ‘Unpatriotic History of the Second World War’ thinks so, and he aims to debunk what he sees as the many myths that have been constructed around the war. He argues that if we choose to dig below the surface of the ‘People’s War’ we might discover that the national unity it celebrates was, actually, rather illusory, and that a ‘People’s War’ in which 60 million perished – including the victims of the Holocaust – would be better understood as ‘a war against the people’.

The development of a new popular history of the Second World War, as a battle of many peoples, fighting side by side against the evils of fascism and militarism may be attractive, especially as part of a general project to establish shared values within a multicultural nation, but it may also be misleading. In these anxious times, the ‘People’s War’ narrative provides a degree of certainty not available to us elsewhere. The Nazis of yore may have been morally repugnant, but is that precisely their attractiveness to us today? Do they provide us with a welcome respite from the uncertainties and difficulties presented by contemporary moral relativism?

In the company of our panel of speakers, all recognised authorities in their field, this Salon hopes to examine the important contemporary issues of national identity that now rest on the idea of the ‘People’s War’. Join us in a wide-ranging conversation that hopes to explore our contemporary preoccupation with the Second World War and what this might mean in a society searching for a coherent national identity.

Our Panel:
James Heartfield
James is a founding director of the think-tank Audacity. He writes, lectures, and broadcasts on development and regeneration. He got his Ph.D from the Centre for the Study of Democracy at University of Westminster in 2010 and has worked as a journalist, for a television company, as a lecturer and editor. He enjoys public debate, and speaks widely. His many publications include ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained (2002),  The Aborigines’ Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1837-1909 (2011), and his latest book is Unpatriotic History of the Second World War (2012).

Dr Peter Thompson
Peter has been teaching at the University of Sheffield since 1990, when he was appointed to build up the provision of politics and history options within the Department. His background is a somewhat unusual one: he left school at 16, joined the army for 5 years and then worked as a lorry driver, before commencing undergraduate study as a mature student in 1983 at Portsmouth Polytechnic. His interests have always been in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification.

Peter is also the Director of The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies, which was established at Sheffield in 2008. In 2013, Duke University Press will publish, in association with Slavoj Žižek, his edited volume  – The Privatisation of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia. He is a media commentator on German affairs, having appeared in several Radio 4 programmes and a Channel 4 documentary on British attitudes to the Third Reich. Peter publishes regular columns in the Guardian and in its ‘Comment is Free’ section on a variety of issues related to Germany and the philosophy of religion. 

Professor Bob Moore
Bob Moore joined the University of Sheffield in 1999 and is Professor of 20th Century European History. His research is in the field of twentieth century European history and in addition to his post at Sheffield he has held visiting fellowships at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, the Center for Advanced Holocaust Study at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Institut d´Etudes Politique (Sciences Po) in Paris. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the Dutch Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap.

Bob’s publications include Crises of Empire. Decolonization and Europe´s Imperial States, 1918-1975 (with Martin Thomas and Larry Butler) (2008), Prisoners of War, Prisoners of Peace: Captivity, Homecoming and Memory in World War II, (edited with Barbara Hately-Broad) (2005), and Colonial Empires Compared, edited with Henk van Nierop (2003).

Dr Adrian Bingham
Adrian read history at Merton College, Oxford, and stayed there to study for his D.Phil. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and his main research interests are in the political, social and cultural history of twentieth-century Britain. He has worked extensively on the national popular press in the decades after 1918, examining the ways in which newspapers both reflected and shaped attitudes to gender, sexuality and class. Adrian’s publications include – Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life, and the British Popular Press 1918-1978 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), and Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

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