What are the Necessary Conditions of a Deliberative Society ?

Key in a deliberative society is the opportunity to gather in public spaces and discuss ideas. For the first time in eight years of organising events where people share their perspectives in social spaces and discussion is fostered through friendly proximity, where I as a coordinator have had to cancel an event.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill

Instead of the advertised talk by Mike McInnes, those interested to meet and discuss what has taken place are welcome to come along to Scott’s Monument at 7pm sharp where we will go on to somewhere for a cup of coffee and conversation.
This is due to a talk offered on Autism and excipients (everything which is not the active ingredient of the medicine) in vaccines meeting with disapproval of the discussion taking place by certain members of the public. Someone felt that the event should not take place and that the discussion should not be allowed to take place in a public space as it was irresponsible.
The first venue where it was scheduled to take place was the Lighthouse Bookshop and they were approached and asked not to host the talk. Then one of the owners got in touch and said that they were not interested in hosting the discussion. As the coordinator, and having had a large number of conversations surrounding this it took a while investigating the subject matter, I sought another space to hold the event.
After booking St John’s church community hall, the person who objected to the event at the bookshop then contacted the church hall explaining their dislike for what was happening. Someone got in touch and declined the event from taking place on the grounds that he felt it might encourage people not to vaccinate.
All these things took place in the absence of any discussion, any prior communication and without any right to reply with either the speaker of the event (Mike McInnes) or the person who arranged the event (Alex Dunedin). This is unfortunate as it would have been much better to find out the objections and work through a co-enquiry about the issues (which will hopefully yet emerge).
At least two things are going on here. One which is of great interest medically and scientifically, and another which is of great interest sociologically, which warrant being examined here. Surrounding these we have larger issues of magnitude pertaining to what education and learning necessarily involve, as well as the issues of ethics which I believe should be both our means and ends.
With regards to the venues chosing not to host the talk, the view I take is that each Ragged University event is a situation where a community of individuals are gathering together in a shared space. It is on the basis of the hospitality of various venues that we gather and so their wishes are valuable.
The Lighthouse Bookshop and St Johns church community hall are both rich, important and vibrant social spaces supporting a range of communities.  The relationship I have with venues, and more specifically, with the individuals involved in running them is very important.  I respect their decisions and am grateful for the opportunities they provide.
Little of the Ragged University project is possible without the generous and kind support of places like the Lighthouse Bookshop and St Johns.  Conscientious of the values which they hold they have chosen not to host the talk as it made them uncomfortable.  As an alternative the Lighthouse Bookshop have arranged another event which people are welcome to engage in as well:

AMASE will be holding an Autism and Neurodivergent Workshop

10th July 2018 @ 7:30 pm

The Lighthouse Bookshop

43-45 W Nicolson StEdinburgh




Examining Controversy and the Practical Approach

Before I continue in my analysis of this circumstance when controversy (differences of viewpoints) has become an problem to doing a public event, I will tell you what has come about as the practical resolve to the situation.
On seeing that there were members of the public who did not want to see this discussion happening, and on also listening to people I know and respect who are on the Autistic spectrum who were keen that the event took place, I suggested that the talk took place in a public space such as Princes Street Gardens.

Mike McInnes declined to do this as he said that “I have decided not to participate in the idea of doing the Autism talk in Princes Street Gardens. It would provide those who oppose Freedom of Expression with an opportunity for a public provocation”.

Over the last few weeks I have been discussing the nuances and investing in reading clinical literature. As this is the first time when controversy has caused a talk to not take place, it affords a particularly important moment to examine the issues in relation to Ragged University as a practice.
As a coordinator, I am bound to think about all the issues which are involved in each talk ensuring that each one fits within the bounds of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is an opportunity to engage with people, the world, and be invited to encounter what they think – whether I agree with it or not – and set up the social circumstances for discussion.
In the absence of being able to do this I am obliged to think about the issues as a part of the learning process which I am engaged in. As such, the term ‘social enquiry’ comes to mind where I should document and lay out the terms of the controversy as a kind of study which can serve as a social document.

I have written a reflective piece examining the issues which have been raised to contextualise how the meetings in public spaces come about and what thinking goes into engaging any challenges which do arise.

Ragged University As An Agnostic, Open, Space For Discussion by Alex Dunedin:


It is not simple nor requiring little effort to bring all the activities that you see advertised under Ragged University together. As someone who simply wants to be able to pursue a form of simple and pleasant opportunities to develop my thinking as an individual it is important to me that all this transpires under friendly and informal circumstances.
I am personally not interested in setting up a pugilistic space, but I am keen on an investigative one but only under friendly circumstances of curiosity. You will be able to read some of the comments and thoughts which this talk has inspired from people by looking at the comments section at the bottom of the event information:


Fergus Murray, one of the people who felt it was important to them to stop the talk taking place has commented on the website and has written their thoughts of reflection on the post ‘Ragged University As An Agnostic, Open, Space For Discussion’. Drawing from the comment that he left on the Ragged University website (please see comments section at the bottom) here is an excerpt and a link to their reflections:

“In the spirit of making a genuine attempt to discuss and share thinking, and reflecting on my ‘decision to inhibit Freedom of Expression’ by asking venues to think twice about hosting a talk resting on dangerous myths, and in response to Alex’s long explanation of his invitation policy, I wrote this:”


John stuart Mill On Liberty 1869
John stuart Mill from On Liberty 1869 – Click Picture to Read Full Text


What are the Necessary Conditions for a Deliberative Society ?

How do we set up the conditions to learn in ?  What are necessary elements of learning ?  How do we create a culture of enquiry connected with a culture of discovery ?  Who should get to present which ideas ?  What is the point of questioning things ?

A deliberative society is one which gets the opportunity to encounter and an opportunity to form your own thoughts.  I will finish with an excerpt from a book by a thought provoking thinker John Stuart Mill’s Social and Political Thought: Freedom’  (pp 346) by John Stuart Mill:

“The whole intellectual and moral achievement of mankind depends on the power of rectification of errors. At the moment of their first belief, human­ity became the prey of a Pandora’s boxfull of error and false belief, but they can be saved by their only source of intellectual hope: corrigibility.

The false caution that would keep this boxed in is ultimately suicidal, but if criticism is allowed to do its work, there are potentially as many sources of mutual correction as there are intelligences. The same power of rectification not only saves from error, but is also the only firm ground of confidence and certainty:

If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for have no safeguard to rest on but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.
If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there is a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth as is possible in our own day. This is the sole amount of certainty’ attainable by a fallible being, and this is the sole way of attaining it.”