Diversity of Thought – how much is too much?

Kilkenny 2018

This weekend the annual Kilkenomics economics and comedy festival in the gorgeous tiny city of Kilkenny.

I write this on a Sunday morning musing on diversity of thought and “how much is too much?”.

We learned that Andy Haldane (Chief Economist of the Bank of England) has found that Economist talk and listen less to those outside their profession than any other social science. My own experience is that the lens of traditional economic models places quite some limits on their thinking, though that is the ‘sandbox’ they play in, so I have openly been keen to see different thinkers at the festival.

Yesterday, though (again, as I write this on Sunday morning though), an episode occurred with one show where one person was so, so offensive to many that people got up an left. It has me musing on “how much is too much”, as one particular panellist showed up and expressed extreme views so distasteful that some people got up and left. I stayed, and these are my thoughts and reflections.

It was a small and intimate venue of not many more than 50  seats, common at this festival. Not a spare seat.

The discussion began smoothly with reasoned and eloquent openings to the topic by each of the two people on this unusually small panel (there was also a moderator literally in the middle).

However, things then changed. One of the panellists then, calmly and quietly, started spouting views of such extreme nature that the energy in the room changed. This person clearly had a handful of acolytes that had come to the festival to be there to hear them speak, so they occasionally loudly voiced approval, yet the rest of the room dropped into stunned silence, though some soon got up and left, they were so upset by this.

In the first rant, they managed to say something that massively offended the moderator. You could literally see the blood pressure rise for the moderator, who did confront the insult and at the same time stayed professional and kept going.

The other panellist was at their first time at Kilkenomics, from a far distance away, likely the youngest person appearing, and though someone with very strong academic training in Economics, not someone in the Economics bubble, so they were clearly not ready for this individual and their assault on the value and mores of almost everyone present.

As I start my Sunday here, it now first occurs to me that is was odd that this was the only two person panel I saw all weekend. Were others invited and declined, leaving this “rookie” to sit there and face this troubled individual alone? This brings to mind to me a quote from 1770 from the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke:

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

A powerful phrase that has been adjusted and repeated for many years as :

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

So, back to the panel, where only one other panellist was there to face the focus of this clearly troubled individual and their stream of extreme views.

My sentiment this morning was that the most powerful action the other panellist did was to simply be present, to give their own viewpoint while this person gave there very strong views.

After the show, I stayed back to walk this other panellist (a new friend made already at the festival that weekend) from that venue to their next venue and show to be on yet another panel.

My reflection to them was not about what they said, what they did, but about their BEING. Anything they did say will be forgotten long before the impact of their serene presence under such an assault to the intellect and senses.

Their presence was grace personified. They were, at all times, respectful, listening to the other person, whilst being unwavering in not only speaking their truth but being their truth.

In fact, as things went on and they continued to respond to the surreally extreme views and barbs thrown out into the room with calm and grace, the language and views simply became more and more extreme, as if that extremist (as he certainly was) felt determined to get an emotional response.

They failed. The young panellist remained graceful and calm, their presence itself more than enough to counteract the troubled extremist sitting across from them.

Reflecting now this next morning, this was such a powerful reminder to me of the power of presence.

It was their ability to respond rather than react, or as Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning (one of my many articles referencing that favourite book is here):

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Now, back to the original question of “how much is too much?”. I sense we all will have out individual answers, and sometimes it may feel like too much. We need to know ourselves and know how far we can and how much we wish to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. This is applicable in all areas of life, and certainly applies when it comes to hearing and listening to views we don’t agree with.

At one level by opening ourselves up to alternative views sometimes we may hear things we viscerally disagree with. When that happens I hope we each have the grace shown at that show. The other extreme choice is, though, to never pay attention or listen to anyone we don’t already agree with. That is also something to be wary of, as without alternate views we cannot stretch and grow.

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