Birmingham Salon

Does Free Will Really Exist?

Takes place on Thursday 8th March 2018, 7.30pm to 9.00pm at The Woodman, New Canal Street, Birmingham B5 5LG (near Millennium Point)

When you make up your mind to do something – whether it be trivial or life-changing – is it really you who decides?  

Free will is at the core of our being.  But aren’t some events in the universe simply caused by earlier events rather than happening of their own accord? 

In what sense then do we have free will to make our own independent choices? Philosophers and scientists have spent more than 2,000 years debating this question and no definitive answer is in sight.  Are their debates just a pointless exercise in philosophical navel gazing, a waste of intellectual energy, or does the free-will debate have deeper implications in our lives? 

From the 18thcentury Enlightenment onwards, Western thinkers saw free will as distinguishing us from other animals, and gave all of humanity a common identity.  However constrained one person’s freedom might be compared with another, we all must make choices. This allows us to recognise all people as beings who share the same sort of internal lives as ourselves. 

Recent surveys show up a widening gulf between professional philosophers, scientists and graduate students on the one hand and the general public on the other. Less than 14% in the first group believe in free will, whereas over 70% do. Are we commoners deluding ourselves by holding on to a belief which implies that we are special, or it is the experts who have got it wrong?

Chrissie Daz is a school teacher, cabaret performer and author on transgender and gender variant identity. 

Dr Greg Scorzo is a director and editor of the online magazine Culture on the Offensive. He has a PhD in meta-Ethics, and has taught a wide range of philosophy seminars between 2008-13, including Plato, political philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind.

We thank the Woodman for hosting this event, and look forward to seeing you there.

Slavery and Anti-Slavery in British History

Takes place on Thursday 30thNovember 2017, 7.30pm to 9.00pm, at The Island Bar, 14-16 Suffolk Street, B1 1LT

Entrance fee: £5

For centuries Britain’s record as the leading opponent of slavery has been part of the country’s identity, and its claim to stand for justice and liberty. Indeed, groups and individuals in Birmingham played a prominent role in the anti-slavery movement. But more recently historians have been pointing to Britain’s history of slave-trading rather than that of anti-slavery. Once-lauded British heroes like Admiral Nelson and Cecil Rhodes are today pilloried as enslavers. Cities that once made their wealth from slave-trading, today get the tourists in to museums and exhibits decrying the slave trade. 

Though the slave trade has long been abolished, modern-day campaigners keep re-discovering it. 
‘Slavery’ today is used to mean all kinds of coerced work, from that of prostitutes to live-in maids – a powerful rhetorical device in framing contemporary campaigns. In the arts, the appetite for films, plays and novels about slavery is stronger than ever. Something about the slave as a figure seems strikingly relevant today. In this Salon, historian James Heartfield will try to shed light on the appetite for slave histories in the present day. 

James Heartfield is the author of a number of historical books about the British Empire, the most recent being The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society: A History

Recommended Readings:
Olugosa, David. Black and British: A Forgotten History. Macmillan, 2016
Williams, Eric. Capitalism and Slavery. Nabu Press, 2011

Revolution! Thinking About the Centenary of the Russian Revolution

Sunday 1st October 2017, 1.30pm - 6.00pm, at Centrala, Unit 4, Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley Street, Birmingham B5 5RT 

Entrance fee: £7

At the centenary of the 1917 revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia, Birmingham Salon looks at the enduring legacy of this and other past revolutions.

Buy your ticket on Skiddle now.

The afternoon's itinerary:

1.45 pm - 3.45 pm

Film screening of Every Cook Can Govern: The Life, Impact, and Works of CLR James

CLR James, the Trinidad-born revolutionary wrote about Toussaint L'Ouverture leading the 18th century revolution in Haiti in his acclaimed work, Black Jacobins. The film focuses on his life, writing and ideas, and interweaves never before seen footage of James with testimony from those who knew him.

4.15 pm - 5.45 pm

Live debate: The centenary of the Russian revolution – what is its legacy?
During 10 days that shook the world in October 1917, the Red Guard, armed factory workers, soldiers and sailors took over the telegraph office, Winter Palace and other key buildings in the then capital, Petrograd. The revolution ultimately failed. But does that mean that the Bolsheviks, and those who fought for Peace, Bread and Land, were wrong to overthrow the old regime?

What impact did the Russian revolution have on the 20th century world? What is its relevance to today? Does its ultimate failure mean that we must simply give up on the idea of a political struggle for social change? Or should we instead reflect on how better to go about building a new society?

The debate will be chaired by Helene Guldberg.


Dr Mike Fitzpatrick: Doctor and writer, former GP and veteran left-winger

Christopher Read: Professor of 20th Century History at the University of Warwick. Author of Lenin: A Revolutionary Life (Routledge, 2005) and War and Revolution in Russia: 1914-22 - The Collapse of Tsarism and the Establishment of Soviet Power (Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave 2013)

The Rise of the New Traditionalism

Thursday 8th June 7.30 pm
at The Victoria, John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN

Continuing our series of Salons based on topic proposals from Salon regulars, Vincent Gould will introduce a discussion on the rise of the new traditionalism.
According to several conservative commentators, populism is the new punk, and young people are turning to the right in droves. This idea has been ridiculed by the mainstream media, but a national exit poll reveals that the number of young people who voted for Trump is higher than first thought, so perhaps the idea is not as strange as it seems.
How has the right managed to utilise the new media in such as effective and unexpected way?  Conservatism has been packaged online in a way that teenagers respond to.  They have even had their own pop star in the shape of Milo Yiannopolous. 
What should we make of this phenomenon and where is it heading?
This article looks at the number of millenials voting for Trump
Damien Walter in The Independent argues that the alt-right is not the new counterculture
Exploring the punk rock right
Vince Gould. Actor, satirist and musician, Vincent has lectured at Birmingham City University and been involved in many creative projects including film, music and theatre. Vince blogs at Tales from the Rear View Mirror
Rosie Cuckston


After Brexit - An Afternoon of Debate

Saturday 18th March from 1pm to 5pm
Upstairs at the Old Joint Stock, 4 Temple Row West, Birmingham B2 5NY

The EU referendum exposes the UK as a divided nation, with swathes of economically moribund territory and little sense of active parliamentary representation.  As the government leads us towards invoking Article 50 to start negotiations to leave the European Union, join us for our Saturday afternoon event – with two debates that will explore what shape our economy and democracy are in, what needs to change, and whether Brexit will help or hinder.

Tickets available here.

After Brexit – Where is the Economy Heading?

The Leave vote will involve one of the most significant institutional changes for our economy in recent times. And although negotiation terms are becoming clearer, the uncertainty remains acute.
Since the Referendum, sterling has been shaky, and Ernst and Young forecasts economic slowdown in the short term, with longer range economic health depending on overseas trade performance, which is chronically weak.
Now that May has committed the UK to leaving the Single Market, can free trade agreements elsewhere compensate? What exactly do World Trade Organization (WTO) trade terms entail? Does post-referendum stability simply belie the severity of problems ahead? After all, we have yet to leave the EU, so the impact has yet to materialise.
Pro-Leave economists argue that WTO tariffs are “relatively low and falling”. Prognoses for the Eurozone are dire in any case, and the UK has been grappling with problems such as productivity for decades.
Is Brexit simply forcing us to confront longstanding economic realities? Could it galvanise UK businesses into seizing opportunities with more dynamic parts of the world? Or is it the death knell for our way of life?

Phil Mullan
Phil Mullan combines business management with research and writing, primarily on economic matters. His next book is published at the end of March 2017: Creative destruction: How to start an economic renaissance (Policy Press). In business, he is a director of Epping Consulting, having completed eight years in senior management roles with Easynet Global Services. He was previously chief executive of Cybercafé Ltd. running the Cyberia internet cafe franchise.
Dr Huw Macartney
Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.  Huw is a political economist whose work is broadly concerned with the politics of banking and financial services.  He is the author of European Democratic Legitimacy and the Debt Crisis, and Variegated Neoliberalism: European Financial Market Integration.

Chaired and produced by Sarah Bartlett

Recommended Readings
Huw Macartney on Trump, Brexit, the London riots, and alternative economic futures

Economic forecasts from Ernst and Young as the UK prepares to leave the EU

Social Market Foundation reviews the effects of EU membership on UK growth

Macro-economic predictions from the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge

Phil Mullan in Spiked lays out a five-point plan for kick-starting the economy

After Brexit - Is Democracy Working?

The Brexit vote reveals a divided demos, conflicting notions of the role of parliament, calls for a further referendum, criticism of campaign content, and distrust in experts and politicians.
Some see the result and the ensuing disorientation among politicians and others who had predicted financial disaster as a sign of the revolutionary potential of people power.  Others worry about an extremist side to a demos that remains angry and disillusioned by the economic turbulence of the 2008 crash. 
The coincidental publication of books Against Elections and Against Democracy suggest a wider sense that something is amiss with democracy as we know it. Turnout in the referendum was 72% but in recent by-elections there is little sign of any general upward trend. Is disillusion with political parties a good or bad thing?
And is it right to question the checks and balances of our democratic system? How should we view the ire directed at the High Court and Supreme Court, and at expert advisers? 
Is the response to the surprising result of the referendum an indication that we need to reform our democracy, and if so, how?

Tom Pratt
Tom is a local campaigner - as well as chair of Unlock Democracy Birmingham. He is currently active in the West Midlands Politics of Networks, and stood last year as a candidate in the Sutton Coldfield Town Council elections. Unlock Democracy Birmingham has been active for 6 years. At present the group is campaigning for greater transparency around the Metro Mayor and the West Midlands Combined Authority.

Peter Kerr
Peter Kerr is a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on British party politics and democracy. He has authored several publications on developments in British politics since 1945, including the book Postwar British Politics: From Conflict to Consensus (Routledge). He is also the co-founder and editor of the journal British Politics.

Tom Slater
Tom is the Deputy Editor of spiked online, a current affairs magazine which campaigned for the immediate invoking of Article 50 following the referendum. He is also a regular contributor to the Spectator, the Telegraph and Time Out.

Chaired and produced by Rosamund Cuckston

A review of Against Democracy by Jason Brennan

Mick Hume argues for more, not less, people power in democracy

George Monbiot has a shopping list of democratic reforms

The US, France, and India are labelled flawed democracies in the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index

Post Socratic Dialogue on Love

Love: A Post-Socratic Dialogue

Wednesday 15th February, 7.30 pm

The Victoria, John Bright Street, Birmingham, B1 1BN

The Socratic Dialogues are the earliest forms of classical Greek philosophy, dating back to 300 BC. Nearly all of the original Socratic Dialogues are stories that repeat different variations of the same plot: Socrates wanders around the marketplace and asks different people questions designed to make the reader see that these people are full of shit. In doing this, Socrates thus exposes the right way to think about various philosophical issues, from the conditions of justice to the origins of language, and yes, the nature of love. 

On February 16th the Birmingham Salon will be listening to and discussing one of Philosopher Dr Greg Scorzo’s ‘Post-Socratic Dialogues’ about Love. Here there is no Socrates. It’s not clear who is full of shit. You have to think for yourself.

Post-Socratic Dialogues are thought experiments that unfold in real time. Unlike traditional philosophy, you don’t engage with them by thinking about universal principles and then applying them to concrete situations. Rather, you do something which is more akin to real life; you have to make philosophical judgments about a situation, and then think about how that judgment changes your understanding of the issues raised. 

The Love Dialogue will not straightforwardly endorse a philosophical position. Rather, the goal is to induce the audience to look at contrasting arguments that explore and challenge their own pre-existing viewpoints. Like the original Socratic dialogues and unlike a conventional piece of philosophy, the context of this exploration will be a conversation.

The conversation is between a couple called Janet and Joe, which challenges us to re-examine the way we normally think about love. It will interrogate the assumption that love is selfless, grounded in altruism, honesty, commitment, and an unconditional acceptance of the beloved. We will then commence a group discussion, lead by Dr Scorzo, where the audience will get to try and make sense of the paradoxes the dialogue will induce them to grapple with.

Dr Greg Scorzo is a Director and Editor of the online magazine CULTURE ON THE OFFENSIVE. He obtained a PhD in meta-Ethics, (2011) following an MA in Ethics and Political Philosophy from the University of Nottingham. He has taught a wide range of philosophy seminars including Plato, political philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind as well as developing and running his own course on The Art of Thinking.

We ask for a donation of £3 per person to cover our costs.


BIG DATA: Big Brother or Big Society?

Thursday 10th November, 7.30pm at The Victoria, John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

Everyone from the government to your supermarket wants to know all about you – your interactions, your movements through real and virtual spaces, what you like to do, how you spend your money and much more besides.  Surveillance technology has been expanding for decades, but questions about who on earth is going to sift through all this information and make sense of it are now being answered.  New developments in software are giving the state and big business the means to put all these bits of information together and map out the patterns of our daily lives.   The big society means big data!

When it comes to making evacuation plans in the event of a natural disaster, bringing greater efficiency into businesses, or developing crime prevention strategies, this is not all bad news. But who should have the right to know so much about our private lives?  How can we be certain how they will use it or who they will share it with?

Even if all our personal information can be kept anonymous are big data algorithms the best way to make sense of human behaviour?  Are we merely data points in a scientific meta-analysis? Are these techniques set to extend the power of the nudge, influencing our behaviour in ever more subtle ways? 

The debate is produced and will be chaired by Chrissie Daz

Timandra Harkness, author of a new book entitled ‘Big Data: Does Size Matter?’ will be tackling these questions and more.


Can Pornography Ever Be Liberating?

Thursday 22nd September, 7.30pm at The Victoria, John Bright Street, Birmingham B1 1BN

Pornography is one of the visual expressions of sex and sexuality.  Among the oldest surviving examples of erotic depictions are Palaeolithic cave paintings and carvings, which suggests that that looking at pictures of naked bodies is an ancient habit.

In modern times, though, there is widespread concern that communication technologies have led to the unhealthy and excessive proliferation of pornography. Does the ability to access explicit sexual images from our smartphones represent sexual liberation or corruption?

A massive growth in the production of pornography has prompted producers and performers to push the boundaries of their work in order maintain profits and stay ahead in a very busy market.  It is possible to argue that that this gives us more choice and information about sexual behaviour, but are these vivid images also confusing and desensitising? Young men say they are being traumatised by violent sexual imagery, and some young people are reported to be exposed to pornography before their first kiss.  How do we balance our responsibility to protect children and teenagers with the liberty to engage with pornography without resorting to hypocrisy?

Some feminists and seek to ban all pornography on the grounds that it leads to the objectification of women and rape.  Are the anti-porn feminists very different from religious leaders who call for women to cover themselves up in order to avoid sexually inciting men? More and more people claim they are ‘addicted’ to viewing sexually explicit material. Is this just a symptom of modern childishness, or are we enslaved rather than liberated by pornography.

The debate is produced and will be chaired by Rosie Pocklington.

Luke Gittos is law editor at spiked, a British Internet magazine focusing on politics, culture and society from a humanist and libertarian viewpoint. He is also solicitor practising criminal law and convenor of the London Legal Salon.

Jerry Barnett is an author, technologist, photographer and activist. His long experience in anti-fascist politics led him to become a dedicated campaigner for free speech and sexual freedom, and he founded the Sex & Censorship campaign in 2013. His book Porn Panic! was published in August by Zero Books.


You, Me, and the EU – Should We Stay or Go?

Wednesday 15th June, 7.30 pm 
at The Victoria, 46 John Bright Street,  Birmingham

In the run-up to the EU referendum, both sides have played up the hazards of leaving or staying, leading to a depressing and fearful atmosphere. Competing lists of professionals or chief executives in favour of either side add noise rather than illumination.

The two sides in the referendum don’t divide neatly along party political lines. This means many of us voting either way will be in the company of those we wouldn’t normally look to for leadership. Those unsure of how to vote might well have felt  patronised by the £9 million leaflet when they wanted information rather than persuasion. 

Certainly, as we’ve been members of the EU for so long, the prospect of it not being a major part of our lives is unsettling. Neither the UK economy nor that of the Eurozone is performing well at the moment. How it will be affected if we leave or stay is difficult to call. Jeremy Corbyn suggests leaving will lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights. But others on the left have argued that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is just as big a threat.

For those who want to leave, the idea of remaining within a structure that operates on increasingly supranational lines is disturbing.  If the EU is so bad for sovereignty and democracy, our longstanding membership may have made us somewhat confused in our thinking about these things. For instance, does being in favour of UK sovereignty make you a pull-up-the-drawbridge nationalist leaving refugees to die in the sea? Can we make the EU more democratic by staying in?


Roger Godsiff, Labour MP for Birmingham Hall Green - to be confirmed depending on House of Commons business

Dr Huw Macartney, Senior Lecturer, Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.  Huw is a political economist whose work is broadly concerned with the politics of banking and financial services.  He is the author of European Democratic Legitimacy and the Debt Crisis, and Variegated Neoliberalism: European Financial Market Integration.

Rob Lyons, Science and Technology Director for the Institute of Ideas and Campaigns Manager for  Action on Consumer Choice. Rob is a journalist specialising in science, technology, health, food and the environment, and the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder.

Chair: Rosie Cuckston

This is a free event.


European Demos - A Historical Myth - Section 2 dispels what it sees as the myths of the EU and Section 3 argues that the EU is in the European tradition of top down attempts at state building

Frank Furedi points out that European history includes the development of the ideals of toleration and liberty in whilst Yanis Varoufakis believes that a Brexit will give most likely give rise to nationalism and xenophobia


National Happiness, Immortality & Freedom Service: Are the UK’s Mental Health Needs too much for the NHS?

Thursday 12th May 2016.
6pm to 8pm at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, 75 Harborne Road, Birmingham B15 3DH

As part of our ongoing collaboration with Birmingham Medical Institute, we will be exploring the extraordinary demands that mental health is making on the NHS, with a prestigious discussion panel that includes Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health.

In January 2016 the Prime Minister announced ‘a revolution in mental health treatment’. The previous year, the President of the Royal College of Psychiatry had advised the NHS in England to commit to ‘the biggest transformation of mental health care across the NHS in a generation, pledging to help more than a million extra people and investing more than a billion pounds a year by 2020/21’. A Mental Health Taskforce then set about creating and publishing a five-year all-age national strategy for mental health. 

Is this revolution enough to address what Luciana Berger MP has referred to as a ‘perfect storm”? After all, patients are struggling to get a referral, waiting times across the country are far too long, and ‘global recession and austerity’ place strains on people everywhere. 

Beneath all the talk of savings and efficiencies, you don’t have to be a health economist to understand that if there is less money in there will eventually be less care going out. Much is made of legally-enshrined definitions of quality as ‘patient safety, clinical effectiveness and patient experience’.  But if the primary aim and money goes to wellbeing, happiness and preventative health, how do you fund the treatment of pre-existing conditions such as psychosis?  

Alongside austerity, the number of people detained subject to the Mental Health Act 1983 has been growing, with the CQC informing us that ‘there were over 50,000 uses of the Mental Health Act in 2012/13 – the highest number ever recorded’.  Efforts to reverse the trend of costly and distressing detention with increased freedom and wellbeing can rub up against aims for safety and the tragedies of suicide and homicide. Inquiries all too often result in calls to observe patients more closely and not let them leave hospital. Indeed if health professionals fail to deprive people of their liberty, they are increasingly likely to lose their own liberty in the event of a death. David Sellu, for instance, was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence in 2013.
So in this brave new world, how can the NHS Mental Services meet the UK’s mental health needs?

Luciana Berger MP, Shadow Minister for Mental Health

Dr Jonathan Shapiro, Chairman of Education for Health

Tamar Whyte, Peer Worker

Inspector Michael Brown, Mental Health Cop

Dr Muj Hussain, Consultant Liaison Psychiatrist

The debate will be chaired by Dr Jonathan Hurlow.

Recommended Readings