For argument's sake

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2012, 12:00am


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In this era of instant communication and dislocated chirruping - an era when one of the most popular methods of interacting with others just gives you 140 characters to encapsulate the subtleties of any particular thought - you might think an event that consists of a large group of people sitting around in a room talking about a serious subject for 90 minutes would be a tough sell.

Happily, not for Yana Peel. As the Hong Kong chief executive of Britain-based debate organiser Intelligence Squared, she's one of the more visible people involved in the revival of the oldest intellectual sparring format of all. Speakers propose and oppose a motion, there are questions from the audience, and then there's a vote, and that's it.

With debate titles ranging from 'Money Can't Buy Happiness' to 'The World Needs Less Democracy, Not More', and speakers including A.C. Grayling and David LaChapelle, no one could accuse the debates of being intellectually lightweight. And yet, despite the superficially old-fashioned format, despite any Hongkongers' chronic time poverty, despite - or perhaps because of - the challenging subject matter, the events have been sold out from the start.

Technology might be reshaping the way we communicate, but, says Peel, that new shape has a gap in it. Our communication has become less personal, less human. We're less often challenged by something we don't want to hear, and therefore less likely to change our minds, to listen to reason - the hallmarks of civilised debate.

'I think the abolition of the town hall meeting has created a need for this environment, to recreate something that's happened since ancient Greek times,' Peel says. 'After you finish school, there's no environment in which to challenge your own views. Ironically, in this era in which we're all on Facebook and so on, there's this hunger for live events.'

With modern media and communications technology, 'there's a confirmation bias', she says. 'We often turn to the media to seek out the view we want to read. You either watch Fox or you watch Al-Jazeera. There's no opportunity to have your preconceptions challenged and see the other side. But people come to our debates with an open mind. My goal is to get two sides of an argument out to people as much as possible.'

Born in Saint Petersburg, Peel grew up in Toronto, attended university in Canada and Britain, and then worked for seven years on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs in London. In 2003 she set up art foundation Outset, which harnesses business funding to support new contemporary art.

Then, four years ago, she moved to Hong Kong. Already on the boards of both the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum in Britain, she was invited by ArtHK director Magnus Renfrew to join the board of the art fair, but decided she wanted her contribution to involve something a bit more interesting. A six-year season-ticket holder for Intelligence Squared's debates in London, she realised the format was perfect for ArtHK, and so came about the inaugural art fair debate: 'Cultural Treasures Belong in Their Country of Origin'.

'Here I was, just showed up, and I was wondering what would push people's buttons,' she says. 'But there was a great turnout, and it disproved the idea that people only go to the art fair to buy art.'

She's organised debates at each subsequent art fair; this year's, which takes place at the Convention and Exhibition Centre on May 18, is titled 'Contemporary Art Excludes the 99 Per Cent'. It will even be accompanied by an 'Art for the 99 Per Cent' stall at ArtHK, selling low-cost artist-branded items aimed at those of us so obviously poor that the salespeople from the galleries ignore us.

The success of the initial ArtHK debate confirmed that there was an appetite for intelligent discussion in Hong Kong. Feeling that Intelligence Squared represented the gold standard in debating, Peel decided to bring the brand to the city.

'Here was a chance to show that people in Hong Kong are interested in content and not just commerce,' she says.

'For the first debate, we got 600 people, the feedback was really enthusiastic, we had a lot of interest from sponsors, and then Deutsche Bank said: 'We're going to help you bring this to the community'.'

Since then, Intelligence Squared has brought nine debates to Hong Kong. 'After every one, people say 'That was the best one',' says Peel. But one that seemed to really hit the mark, she adds, was the most recent, 'Let the Bad Guys Be: Foreign Intervention Does More Harm Than Good'.

'It was fascinating,' she says. 'It happened at a time when the subject was very topical, and it touched on whether it made sense to go into Libya, whether it made sense to go into Iraq, and so on.'

So far all of the debates have been on subjects either cultural or political, but Peel says she's keen to expand the range. Some mooted motions: 'Mandarin Should Be the Official Language of Hong Kong'; 'There is No Such Thing as a Free Press'; and 'Human Life Should Be Prolonged Indefinitely'. The organisation 'will debate anything', however controversial; the most popular debate in Britain, she says, was 'The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion'.

She's keen to stage debates in Cantonese and Putonghua as well as English, and is also talking about taking the organisation to the mainland and Singapore, which could be an interesting proposition given the debates' atmosphere of free-wheeling intellectual freedom. In addition to Hong Kong and London, Intelligence Squared has operations in Australia, Greece and Ukraine.

Among Peel's favourite debaters so far have been Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry, Niall Ferguson, Patti Smith, Rob Lowe and Eliot Spitzer. Her fantasy debating team, she adds, would include everyone from political heavyweights such as Bill Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi, Thaksin Shinawatra and Chris Patten to artistic notables such as Leonard Cohen, Haruki Murakami, George Clooney and Ai Weiwei.

'The most important skill in a debater is to listen,' she says. 'It's a great skill to remain calm and bring people round to your point of view. For me, the biggest winners are not so much those who win by the biggest margin as those who sway the most people around to their viewpoint.'