British Company Mixes Debate and Dating

Argument and debate have had a long history in Britain — from schools and universities to parliament. But now a company has actually found a way to market debate. Londoners are paying for it — and sometimes finding romance along the way.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In this clip from "Monty Python's Flying Circus," a man has gone into a clinic, where he wants to buy an argument.

(Soundbite of "Monty Python's Flying Circus"; knocking)

Unidentified Man #1: Come in.

Unidentified Man #2: Uh, is this the right room for an argument?

Unidentified Man #1: I told you once.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you haven't.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, I have.

Unidentified Man #2: When?

Unidentified Man #1: Just now.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: I did.

Unidentified Man #2: Didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: Did.

Unidentified Man #2: Didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: I'm telling you I did.

Unidentified Man #2: You did not.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, I'm sorry. Just one moment. Is this a five-argument or the full half-hour?

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, just the five minutes.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, thank you. Anyway, I did.

Unidentified Man #2: You most certainly did not.

Unidentified Man #1: Look, let's get this thing clear. I quite definitely told you.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you did not.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, I did.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, I did.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, I did.

Unidentified Man #2: No, you didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, I did.

Unidentified Man #2: You didn't.

Unidentified Man #1: Did.

Unidentified Man #2: Well, look, this isn't an argument.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, it is.

Unidentified Man #2: No, it isn't. It's just called...

SIEGEL: All joking aside, arguments and debate have a long history in Britain, from schools and universities to parliament. And now a company is marketing debate, and just like the "Python" sketch, Londoners are paying for it. Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

At the Royal Geographic Society in west London, where the white wine is cold and the debates are hot, the first stop is the bar.

Mr. JOHN GORDON (Co-founder, Intelligence Squared): It's an intelligent dating agency where you can guarantee that you're going to meet a bright man or a woman.

AMOS: John Gordon, one of the founders of Intelligence Squared, says tickets sell out weeks in advance.

Mr. GORDON: There is an enormous sort of appetite for debate in this country. People really want to understand the issues.

AMOS: And to vote on them, too. A poll taken before and after every debate measures opinions on topics that range from the serious to the not so serious. For example, `Let's get rid of Scotland, for or against.' Or, `The best way we can help Africa is to leave it alone.' Gordon says the wording of each motion is important.

Mr. GORDON: The motion is denied in part to startle. We are often framing it with the unexpected.

AMOS: Launched in 2002, Intelligence Squared brings together some of the sharpest brains in Britain to argue the most provocative issues of the day. Katrina Olafant(ph), a London lawyer, bought a season ticket.

Ms. KATRINA OLAFANT (London Lawyer): I think there is a defection from television. The content is diminishing, and I think people have become tired with endless reality television shows. I suspect there is also a certain snob value to coming to a debate. It's now the place to be seen.

AMOS: And to be heard. Writer Howard Jacobson argued for the motion the '60s were not the beginning of sex but the end of civilization.

Mr. HOWARD JACOBSON (Writer): Sex dies when you tried to put fun in it. Civilization dies when you try to put sex in it. I was there. I saw it happen. I counted the dead.

AMOS: Journalist Rosie Boycott argued against.

Ms. ROSIE BOYCOTT (Journalist): But with the '60s came things that I challenge anyone in this room to say they'd rather be without: women's rights, gay rights, civil rights, the ability of people to join together to make things change and, most importantly, an idealism that believes that every one of us is equal.

AMOS: On another night, author Tom Bower argued for the motion Western intelligence is causing more harm than good, pointing to politicians who'd relied on faulty intelligence in the Middle East.

Mr. TOM BOWER (Author): The greatest failure recently, of course, has been in Iraq. The real problem has been that we have trusted them, we have relied on them, and that has been the danger to the formation of foreign policy. And it is that danger that has caused more harm than good.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: It's another success for John Gordon.

Mr. GORDON: The debates have worked. A debate in which people have some element of doubt in their mind as to the views that they hold on a particular subject, I'm interested in really creating an opportunity for almost any subject under the sun to be debated.

AMOS: And debated in any place. There are plans to bring Intelligence Squared to the US. Deborah Amos, NPR News, London.

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