There is definitely something romantic about the lone figure stood atop a rickety soapbox, passionately holding forth against the system and possibly against the weather, a crowd gathered round, cheering, jeering and competing to be heard. I saw a bit of this on a recent trip to Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner, and sadly a little too much of the self aggrandisement that can come with it. While there was a lively atmosphere of debate, much of this seemed a little too rehearsed, both from speakers and from hecklers, who appeared caught in a sad dance of statement, reply and rebuff. I had hoped to be inspired by discussion about some of the many important topics of our time, but instead found an entirely male selection of speakers, barking at each other about who was right and who was wrong, mainly on the subject of religion. A speaker’s corner can and should be much more than this; it can be a space to share views, for free expression and yes to argue and debate, but not merely for the sake of inflating one’s ego. They must be as much about listening as they are about speaking, and the romantic concept of “great” oration needs to be challenged. If the primary purpose of a speaker’s corner is to foster notions of free expression then it seems odd to put so much value on one type. What interested me most at Hyde Park was not the speakers, but the wonderful little conversations that were happening among the crowd, chatting about the subjects presented, commenting and critiquing with quiet intelligence.
I mention all this, because Medway is getting its own speaker’s corner. I am part of a small organisation that has been set up to organise it, with support from The Speaker’s Corner Trust UK. Medway Speaker’s Corner will not happen in any one place, instead it will move about the towns, hopefully creating spaces for discussion and encouraging expression wherever it goes. We have obtained a small portable lectern, which I hope will serve as much as a symbol as it will be a platform. Those of you who are familiar with Hyde Park will know that people bring along their own boxes, ladders and makeshift stages and that they have no formal stage. The lectern is a rallying point, as well as a clear statement of purpose. It should bring people together, but not prevent alternative means of expression. Besides the stage, we hope to encourage small discussions and debates for people who would prefer to whisper than to shout their views.
We hope that Medway Speaker’s Corner will become a space to meet, exchange ideas, to think and learn. Free speech and open discussion are cornerstones of democracy. Jurgen Habermas felt it was the free(ish) exchange of ideas in 18th century cafe society that paved the way for the wider political reform that followed. Examining ideas and problems in the public sphere is vital for a flourishing democracy, where the public can make their mind up and express themselves, rather than blindly accepting what they are told to believe. Of course, speaker’s corner is about much more that politics, it is about expression, whether that be poetry, song, comedy or dance. I heard one of the best criticisms of Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner in the queue for an iced-cream. “I wish someone would just get up and recite some Shakespeare or something”. This said it all to me, free expression needs a flow from the sublime to the ridiculous or it can all get a little too serious, leaving the audience yearning for a light snack.
Medway Speaker’s Corner will be holding a launch event on Saturday 19th July, between 12noon and 1pm, near the anchor on Military Road, Chatham. After which we hope to be running monthly events in various locations. At the launch event we will have a small selection of speakers and will be encouraging anyone who wants to to get up and say their piece.
Find out more at www.medwayspeakerscorner.com