Arts Editor Sophie Maxwell caught up with Joe Kriss, an organiser of the Festival of Debate, to delve deeper into the upcoming festival and all things debatable. Here’s what he had to say:
What led to the founding of the festival in 2015?
“It was ahead of the general election really. The idea was to encourage debate and dialogue around the key political, social and economic issues of the day. I think a lot of people share a similar feeling when they look at political discourse, in the sense that they feel it is too partisan in our first past the post, party system where people are very loudly disagreeing with each other, as opposed to debating key issues and taking the best new ideas forward. We wanted to have a festival that approached things in a different way. The best way we felt we could do that in Sheffield was to create a platform for these issues to be talked about through the festival. It’s not necessarily that we endorse all of the speakers at the festival but we want to get people engaged in discussion.”
What makes 2018 the best year yet for the festival?
“The festival has almost doubled in size every year since we’ve run it. A lot of the events this year have higher capacity and we have a lot more high profile speakers involved. I think the biggest growth of the festival has been the increase in household names. It helps lift the whole profile for the festival. The other thing we’ve done is organise the festival into five strands: culture, self & identity, democracy & activism, fairness & equality, futures and science & environment. It’s a way of allowing people to find more easily subjects they are interested in. Every year we are tweaking the festival to try and make it slightly better and bigger. Broadly, this year’s festival will reach more people.”
2018 was a big year for feminism. Do you think feminism is beginning to imprint more on the festival as time progresses?
“Yes definitely. There are two phrases we come back to when thinking about programming the festival events, one being “nothing about us, without us, is for us”. I think it’s something we’ve incorporated into a lot of our individual events by asking our partners, such as the universities, museums and community organisers, to look at the diversity and the gender split of speakers at all of their events, to make sure there are no all-male panels, for example. I think it’s something you can always improve on. There are a lot of events with strong female voices in them. For example, the closing party focuses on 100 years of women suffrage, discussed by the likes of Helen Pankhurst and Hollie McNish.”
What do you think are the most prominent debates rife both in Sheffield and around the world currently?
“Of course within Sheffield at the moment it is the debate around trees. I think it’s a symptom partly of austerity and partly of the outsourcing of public services to private companies. It is similar to the debates people used to have between the state and the church now between the state and massive private companies that just exist to hoover up these massive government contracts. It throws up a range of issues surrounding who is accountable for the delivery of these services, which often comes down to the democratic deficit. Power tends to hide itself. Where is the leverage point for the community groups who live in these areas to impact power? Where power lies and how people can impact it is a really interesting issue, and the trees are the perfect example of how it exists in Sheffield.
More broadly, automation of jobs and services is also a prominent area. There are so many industries & jobs that could be replaced by automation. The repercussions of that on our education system and our economy are massive, and we have a narrow window of time to adapt and change before essentially the shit hits the fan. We need to move those conversations forward, quicker.
There are so many debates about race and gender and all of the things that make up our identity which has always been an evolving strand of our society that is progressing. We’re realising that there is a lot of work still to be done. It is a conversation happening all across the world, in regards to the MeToo movement for example.”
Discussion aids progress. In October, the university saw protests over comments Jenni Murray made about transgender women amid her performance at the university for Off the Shelf festival. Where do you stand on the free speech/no-platforming debate?
“We stand completely on free speech and we don’t believe in no-platforming anyone. Personally, I believe to encounter an opposing point of view is a good thing. Debate and dialogue and discussion is important. Nobody changed anyone’s mind by preaching to the converted or shouting at them loudly or not listening to their opinion. There has to be dialogue. We strongly believe in free speech.”
In terms of this year’s line-up, which act are you most looking forward to?
“I’m really excited for the closing party (100 Years of Women’s Suffrage featuring Helen Pankhurst and Hollie McNish) partly because it will be the 80th and last event of the festival! Yanis Varoufakis will be great as well. He is an interesting speaker that used to be an obscure but very well respected economist who has turned into a bit of a rockstar politician. Reni Eddo-Lodge. Her book and her work is so timely and important – it’s great to have a place for her at the festival. Francesca Martinez is another good one, she combines comedy with activism in a really engaging manner. ”
There are a lot of high profile speakers at the festival this year. Are there any understated events you think deserve particular attention?
“I think a really interesting event is Drugs, Harm Reduction & The Law looking at the discussions around the best way to reduce the harm related to drugs and whether drugs need to be legalised or at least decriminalised. I think a lot of people’s immediate reaction would be that any decriminalisation will lead to the increase in drug usage, but actually studies show the best policies forward are looking at solutions around decriminalising it. Really, it should be a health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.”
Do you know of any solutions that have come about from the festival and discussions from previous years?
“We’ve had a few working groups. For example, in previous years the festival has had a few events on universal basic income, which is perhaps a solution to some of the problems that will rise from automation. A group has emerged from these events called UBILab that is looking at the viability and possibility of apply for funding and advocating for Sheffield to be a pilot project for universal basic income.
Broadly, when thinking about how the festival impacts change, it is about impacting people first. This can change culture and in turn influence power. The more people who come to these events, the more they can learn about and advocate these issues to their family and friends and also to the people who are meant to represent them in our political system such as councillors and MPs. Other groups have experienced greater membership and involvement through the festival too, which helps renews support for different campaigns.”
Are you thinking about doing anymore festivals in the future?
“Yes, we’re committed to doing it every year now. We want to watch it grow and develop. In future years we’d like to develop more participatory workshop events. We want to cultivate people being involved in the discussion even more. Hopefully the festival will become bigger and better every year and we can expand outside of Sheffield.”
For full details on the upcoming festival beginning 18th April visit the website: https://www.festivalofdebate.com/ for the full programme of events.