It’s the most fantastic luxury to be able to spend a day (or two days even) walking around chatting to like-minded people and listening to feisty speakers talk about politics, economics, culture and the state of the world in general.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs places self-actualisation at the top. And it’s true: only when all other basic needs are met, are you able to indulge, retrospectively and introspectively, in thinking about what being “you” might really entail.
So, there’ve been some brilliant speakers so far at Names Not Numbers, taking place in London for the first time this week, delivered under the broad theme of “The True Human”.
David Aaronovitch (above, interviewed by Helen Brocklebank) talked with charming honesty about the books that have most made an impact on him (ranging from Resurrection to Cold Comfort Farm).
Most tellingly, and as if to put an indelible Sharpie line under the theme of the conference, Anthony Seldon chastised us all for being neither happy nor truly present, gave us some breathing exercises and told us to go out and do good in the world:
“Most of our lives we are asleep. The journey of life is about falling awake.”
Needless to say, the tiny, bright-eyed, yoga-loving Sir Anthony was my favourite speaker. And I’m loving the Names Not Numbers conference as a whole. But I couldn’t help but get a sense we’re all fiddling while Rome burns.
Economist after economist talked about increased fragmentation, constitutional crises and global political risk. In a new report by Tina Fordham, who gave an after lunch talk, one key socio-economic risk is the financial instability of the previously well-off: in 1970, 72 per cent of US aggregate income went to middle class households. In 2014, it was just 43 per cent.
(“They’ve bankrupted the working class,” as my Glaswegian anarchist hairdresser puts it. “Now they’re moving onto you lot.”)
We are all existentialists now, said Charles Leadbeater: a gloomy (but not necessarily wrong) prognosis that defined us all as free agents in a deterministic, seemingly meaningless universe. Leadbeater pointed to IS and other idealogically-driven political groups as examples of this growing trend.
The keynote session was “Silo Mentality: The Human Condition?”. Inspired by Gillian Tett’s 2015 book (Silo Effect), the panel debated the post-modern irony that in an increasingly connected world, we are ever more in silos. Tett argues this is down to our primitive need to find comfort in tribes, relating to the Dunbar’s Number.
One panellist talked about how open-minded the Brits were. And how they had traditionally travelled to other countries to “meet people not like themselves”.
I’m not quite sure that the people in other countries over the past few centuries have taken the Brits’ arrival to be quite so friendly and open-minded. That this statement in itself went pretty much unchallenged left me a bit gobsmacked.
It reminded me of Napoleon invading Russia in War and Peace: “But I will be a loving ruler”. Or even that great line from Bette Midler in Beaches: “That’s enough about me – let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”.
Here we all are, listening to (mostly) white, middle-class speakers talking to a (mostly) white middle-class audience. It’s all very friendly and convivial. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe they could have invited Jen Dziura, author of this article on White Privilege (or others) to have knocked us out of our bubble a bit.
Social media was meant to change everything, the Internet was meant to change everything. But it hasn’t. We still revert into tribal groups, into our silos. I’m not quite sure what can be done about that. Your answers on a postcard please…