The nature and origin of human beings: Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams
It has certainly been a week of discussions, although admittedly, in Oxford it always is. On Monday, Richard Dawkins spoke at the Oxford Town Hall about secularism in the UK. Thursday afternoon, on the other hand, saw a much anticipated debate between Richard Dawkins and Rowan Williams, chaired by Sir Anthony Kenny. The Sheldonian was packed, the physics department’s live screening tickets sold out and many colleges ended up streaming the event live as well. In a way it felt as if Oxford slowed down for an hour and a half to hear two of its most well known alumni go head to head. Not to mention the hundreds (thousands?) of people watching the event live worldwide. And finally, there came the two of them. My summary of the event? Well, Dawkins and Williams surely were sitting opposite each other, but in terms of the ideas discussed they did not quite oppose each other, let alone clash. What resulted was exactly what I had expected – a very reticent and carefully worded discussion which conveyed the distinct feeling of a restrained chess game where no player had a winning mindset, because that would possibly upset the opponent, and maybe even annoy the audience. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that I wanted to see the scientist and the archbishop up in arms, nor was I expecting a discussion as animated (and as lopsided as far as intelligence goes) as the infamous Huxley vs. Wilberforce exchange of 1860. However, I was certainly hoping for a more relaxed and direct confrontation of ideas, as opposed to an overly politely crafted game of mild questions bouncing off each speaker. Anyhow, the few instances when things did get stirred up ever so slightly were quite interesting and entertaining – it’s just a pity that these moments remained merely moments and did not linger for a while longer.
On a completely separate note, I have to admit I was very disappointed with the adopted policy (by the organizers, I presume?) not to allow any photography in the theater. Well, I hear you interjecting, “You clearly did take pictures though.” Yes, I did, after much waving of hands and gesturing to calm down the theater’s ushers. I do not understand where this fear of photography stems from. Of course, I completely understand that if people were to constantly snap pictures during a debate, it would become quite an annoying distraction. But in a setting where complete silence reigned as the speakers engaged in discussion – a silence that was finely carried in the air and made everyone stand still – who would have dared to click a shutter even once to make the nearest hundred people turn their heads to frown at them? (Note: all these pictures were taken either before/after the event or during moments when the audience was laughing at some funny comment made by one of the speakers.) More baffling to me is the question as to why anyone should have to argue to be allowed to take a picture before an event has even started. So I will use this space to plug in a very simple message of mine; let us not forget that pictures can be the most enduring form of memory. Sure, an event such as this one was being filmed – but many events in the past have also been filmed, and yet in many an occasion a simple picture remained the strongest memoir. I hope you enjoy this small set of furtively snapped photos. Had I had the luxury of a bit more flexibility I would have striven to capture something of better quality, but alas, maybe next time I will manage to uphold Sekula’s ideals about documentary photography better than what was possible on this occasion.