By Lisa Autz
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Honoring the art of public speaking and assembling has been embedded into Western civilization for ages. Historic figures such as Karl Marx, William Morris, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, and Marcus Garvey all spit their take under the fundamental right of citizens to gather together to hear and be heard.
Even further back in history, the Ancient Greeks considered oratory to be one of the highest art forms of humanity. About 3,000 years ago, Homer wrote in The Iliad that “to speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right.”
The spoken craft of liberty, however, was only recently articulated into the declarations of our modern countries. Nevertheless, the ongoing expanse of the World Wide Web continues to breed grounds for infinitely layered online forums and interactive comment chains that can make it seem like personal expression or debate has turned to the desk or sofa, away from the public sphere.
But in a famous park in the heart of London, the ancient tradition lives on as a physical place where people draw together in lively debate at Speaker’s Corner. For centuries, the space has bridged different ethnicities and ideologies of men and women standing up to dissent, denounce, canvass, or convert the public on a myriad of political and social issues.
Stemming from the 1800s, Hyde Park was used as protesting grounds for the Chartists, or working-class, to demand civil rights for the plebeians of society. Their voices sparked a movement and eventually led to the Parks Regulation Act of 1872. Upon its passage, Parliament granted the Park Authorities the right to permit public meetings for protest and debate within its grounds.
Peter Bradley, director of Speaker’s Corner Trust–a registered charity in the UK that seeks to establish open public debates around the world–spoke with BTR about how the act of robust, public discourse plays a vital part in maintaining a healthy democracy.
“Politicians can’t act in a vacuum, we need people to be expressing their opinion,” says Bradley. “In a democracy it isn’t enough that they guarantee your rights,–they’re like muscles that need to be exercised, whether it’s on global issues or the direction of your local town.”
Practicing rights to speak freely is an exercise routine and Bradley believes society must stay on rigorous track. Such exercising becomes especially essential when you acknowledge how the millions of people in the world who still lack the privilege to assemble and be heard. For instance, the Speaker’s Corner organization recently traveled to Nigeria, a nation known for its political corruption, to establish a much-needed sphere for residents to question the government’s army.
“Nigeria was a place that desperately needed, not just forums to negotiate with the political classes, but a place where everybody’s heard, a beacon of true freedom,” says Bradley. “The people were incredibly enthusiastic. Though the country has huge problems, there has been an enormous appreciation for Speaker’s Corner.”
Despite the fact that Nigeria is a federal republic with a constitution that grants the freedom of speech, the population has not culturally adapted methods of debate. Commoners thereby lack a substantial voice in the system.
Considering the many “awareness” days that occur throughout the months, Bradley sees every day of the year as having a reason to acknowledge people’s rights to assemble and to discuss important issues in a way that few are given the opportunity do so.
What’s the cost for this practice?
“It typically takes 240 pounds or 400 dollars to organize local organizations and committees to a Speaker’s Corner,” explains Bradley.
The organization will usually visit towns or cities and engage with a broad cross-section of the local authority, community organizations, educators, and businesses to encourage enthusiasm in the people to present speeches. At the end of that consultative process, a Speaker’s Corner committee can form in these locations, where volunteers work to lay down the groundwork.
A public space is then considered, a place where everybody is able to freely participate. It then becomes a magic space, according to Bradley, where you are the equal to everyone in that community to serve as a platform for debate and reform.
Lastly, a vital element of the program should be its resilient independence from any group or government establishment.
“The facets are made of the multiplicities of the different parts of the community and being seen as independent is key to its credibility as a real public initiative,” Bradley reasons.
The non-profit organization is small and works on a tight budget, especially with the absence of government funding and dependence on donations. Nevertheless, the group remains independent and Bradley is very confident that Speaker’s Corner will continue.
“You can see it in action every Sunday afternoon,” says Bradley. “There are some very dedicated speakers that have been there year after year.”
Every society has their version of Speaker’s Corner, according to Bradley. Their contemporary platform represents a natural part of humanity since the beginning of civilization that enriches empathy and understanding.
“If you have something to say, you say it in a public space,” he encourages.