When I was about 12 years old my parents started something, quite accidentally, that became an important institution in Canada.
On Wednesday evenings my Mum and Dad would invite people to join us around the dinner table. The conversation would flow seamlessly through the global economy, the markets, politics, art, music…no topic was spared. It soon became known as The Nicholson’s Wednesday Night Economic and Political Salon — or more affectionately, Wednesday Night.
Week after week diplomats, artists, politicians, bankers, clerics, writers, professors, industry leaders, NGO Founders, union leaders, celebrities, at least one astronaut, sex workers, and students would gather round the table to engage in civil discourse.
Everything is off the record. Dad chairs and moderates the discussion with an iron fist, which de-risks the discussions and ensures a productive evening. He sometimes deliberately provokes. If discussing the rights of fetus, we would have a priest, a rape victim from a women’s shelter, a professor of Medicine Ethics and Law, and of course every opinion in between. It assured the room that the entire spectrum of the debate would be heard.
It was and is a celebration of disagreement, with respect, understanding, and camaraderie. As tense as it could get, intermissions would allow for refilling of glasses and renewing of friendships.
Thursday mornings were always the most educational for my sister and me. We would sit around the table with our folks and digest the feast of the previous night’s debates. My parents actively encouraged us to sit in the inner circle and always insisted we speak our minds, and defend our thoughts. There was no shame in being wrong. In fact, there was no “wrong.” Looking back I realise my values were taking shape, constantly being refined. I learnt to argue — not for the sake of being right, but for the sake of getting to the root of a question.
But on Thursday morning we no longer took sides. We acknowledged how well an argument was put forward. I could vigorously defend the death penalty but then reflect on the words of wiser people and those who took the other side the next morning. Gradually my rigid position would adjust in the face of more information.
No one handed me a bible and said you’re now a Christian. No one said here you go, you’re now a Liberal, or a feminist, or a separatist. You are simply taught to question, to listen, to reflect and repeat.
To me, this is how humans evolve. By conversing…by constantly challenging the status quo. Were that not the case, we would still be ruled by the Old Testament and would still believe the world was flat. We would not have celebrated the Renaissance, Modernism, Cubism, and all the other movements that challenged and drove us to new worlds of thought and living. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights would not exist.
There are forces at work which we should be wary of. We live in the echo chamber of social media. We seek affirmation of our beliefs, rather than question them. We are less bendable than ever before. We decide what we want to think, who we pray to, how we vote, and we cut off anyone who opposes our doctrine.
At the same time, the world is changing at an accelerating pace: machine learning, AI, planetary colonization, and gene therapy. Whether we have a bright future or a dark one will depend on how we address the moral implications of our inventions, how we define the ethical boundaries, and apply the laws that govern our behavior. This requires the participation of our collective brains. The problems we face demand innovative, congruent solutions, and we need the voices of all to contribute — the business community, the scientists, the creative, the renegades, the curious and the bold. Those who believe that everyone has something to contribute and that we can be better, kinder, and more compassionate.
My father once pondered whether Wednesday was of any importance. To me, the contribution is infinite. It literally evolved the human race, and continues to do so week after week.
In fact, it’s being going on for the last 1856 Wednesdays. That’s 36 years…and counting.
And this is why we are building 1880.