SWF: A C Grayling, curtain raiser

‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’, a lecture by A C Grayling

This was the start of my 2012 Sydney Writers’ Festival. I’ve become accustomed to starting the Festival with the Premier’s Literary Awards dinner, which is always a good night out, though the last two had become a bit corporate. This year the awards evening has been moved to later in the year (not, as feared by some, cancelled altogether), so my Festival begins with this 90 minute event at the Angel Place Recital Centre a month or so ahead of the Opening Address. I’m calling it a curtain-raiser because that ‘s how Peter Shergold (from the SWF Board) described it when introducing the talk, but really it was more of an advance scatterling.

A C Grayling is the very picture of an urbane philosopher. He spoke lucidly for an hour without notes, and fielded questions deftly and courteously. Sadly I slept for maybe as much as half the talk, so I’m not a reliable reporter. But I quizzed my four companions over dinner at the nearby Wagamama and my impression is that I didn’t miss a lot by dozing off. Basically, Professor Grayling told us, we are being watched by Internet corporations who track our online activities for commercial purposes, by government for security purposes, and by journalists for partly public interest and partly commercial interests, and that this isn’t a good thing. I have listened to his interview with Richard Glover on the ABC, which is an excellent 18 minutes of radio and includes everything that the $25 lecture had to offer, including the teasing references to the Professor’s impressive hair. What we got for our money was the sense of occasion, a chance to play Spot the Famous Person (both the Art Student and I saw David Marr and Annette Shun Wah, but some of our other companions hadn’t heard of either of them, which rather spoiled the thrill).

If the purpose of a talk by a philosopher is to prompt one to think, then this one was a big success for me. During the question time, Professor Grayling talked about a village in southern Italy where, when a husband and wife have a quarrel the woman runs out into the street and the couple proceed to shout at each other, while all the neighbours come to their doors and windows to listen. These people, he said, live with a strong sense of community but at the cost of losing their privacy. That raises a much more interesting question about ‘The Private, the Public and the Line Between’ than the question of intrusion by the state, corporations and the press. I would have thought that that kind of intrusion is obviously a bad and dangerous thing – and of course that it’;s a good thing to have the dangers pointed out. But don’t we then need to think carefully and precisely about what it is that we’re protecting. Are we protecting our right to be isolated individuals, to have secrets and present a conforming face to the world? Sure, those young people who give out far too much information on facebook or twitter may be laying themselves open to attack, but isn’t also worth asking if there’s not something utopian about that rather than simply foolish? That’s what I’d have liked to hear him talk about.

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