The Battle of Ideas festival, initiated by the Institute of Ideas and supported by a wide range of partners, is back to our new home of the Barbican for a third year. This will be the tenth weekend of free thinking, dissent and open-ended public discussion - and never has it felt more necessary.
Untangling the ideas that shape policy and culture in today’s climate of intellectual disorientation can seem like an uphill task. While European politicians quibble about whether President Putin’s aide was right that Britain is a ‘small island nobody pays any attention to’, in the real world it’s the people of Europe who feel that nobody is paying attention, wherever they are from. Watching today’s managerial politicians vacillate and bicker, it could be tempting to shrug and conclude ‘the world has gone mad’. One minute Western elites are gung ho for ‘pro-democracy’ militarism in Libya, the next they are applauding a military coup to restore democracy in Egypt; and, seemingly without blinking, they balk at intervention in Syria. It can seem impossible to grapple with what drives such decisions and actions when they seem obscured by pragmatism, divorced from interest or principle.
Campaigners can seem equally muddled, expressing outrage, for example, at the state’s ‘war on journalism’ following the Miranda affair, while celebrating the state’s harassment of tabloid journalists in wake of the phone-hacking scandal. How do we make sense of a world where feminists, in the name of women’s liberation, call for illiberal censorship of everything from newsstand magazines to offensive comments on Twitter? How do we decide on our attitude to what should be private or public (a core theme of many of the debates at the festival) when activists worry about Facebook, Google and the secret services spying on us, invading our privacy, while demanding total transparency of all institutions (with scant regard to the fact that they too might deserve a space to operate beyond prying eyes).
Ironically, transparency has become a prominent way in which to understand underlying trends. If we can only see what lies beneath, surely motives will be revealed? ‘Show us the minutes, your tax returns, pay cheque, the inner-workings of your institution.’ And woe betide those who say ‘mind your own business, that’s private’. However, while whistleblowers are lionised for leaking endless discreet documents, is there a danger that such ‘information dumps’ become a lazy substitute for thoughtful analysis? What is more, demands to know every single detail of what goes on behind closed doors can also feed a climate of mistrust. Too often we conclude that everything not revealed is malign, that all emails not scrutinised hide some awful secret. This can encourage a conspiratorial position of assuming the worst of motives, of encouraging us to finger-point and snitch, rather than confront the more challenging task of having open and honest debates about why the world is as it is, or of rebuilding trust.
One way we can demonstrate our trust in each other is by taking each other’s arguments seriously. Inevitably, thrashing out difficult ideas, shaking up orthodoxies and debating such a potent mix of issues will lead to arguments and clashes of deeply held opinions at this year’s Battle of Ideas. If such debates were conducted on social media, no doubt they would be dubbed as Twitterstorms, with ‘victims’ declaring themselves outraged, hurt and offended and demanding a complaint button. But fostering a genuine atmosphere of intellectual freedom means we must be more robust and trust each other to cope with being challenged. We all have an obligation to convince others of the force of our own views rather than closing down the opinions of others; equally, we all have an obligation to listen to new ideas with the possibility we might – just might – be wrong. The Battle of Ideas fiercely declares the right to be offensive, not as a green light for gratuitous insult, but in the interests of the pursuit of clarity in the battlefield of ideas and a commitment to the transformative potential of debate. The festival’s slogan is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, and we mean it.
It is far more constructive to open-mindedly engage in difficult discussions than to become estranged, alienated, cynical; and it is far easier to point the finger of blame at the past and our baby-boomer parents than to take responsibility for shaping the world as it ought to be. It is one thing to reject today’s anodyne, managerialist leaders and another to reject authority per se, to abandon idealism altogether. But if you would rather attempt to comprehend how and why public life is so strangely esoteric, and start to work out what is needed to rectify things, the Battle of Ideas is the place to be.
Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas and on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2014