Battle of Ideas 2006 essay: 'Let Battle Commence...'
The Institute of Ideas was born of frustration at the limitations of traditional forums for public debate. We never believed that the narrowing of party political differences reflected popular contentment with the status quo, that the superficiality of much media discussion of ideas was simply a response to public taste, or that the routinisation of university life was an inevitable consequence of the expansion of higher education. The malaise in each of these spheres was palpable only because there was and is potential for much more imagination, and a far more serious engagement with ideas.
Over the past six years we have found that others shared our frustration, and that there is an appetite for wide-ranging, serious and free-thinking debate. We have worked with individuals and organisations involved in politics, the media, academia and other spheres, learning from all of them and seeking to bring the best of what we have learned to our own work, and especially the Battle of Ideas. But the purpose of the Institute of Ideas has never been to replace other forums for public debate. On the contrary, we hope to foster and be part of a cultural climate in which debate flourishes everywhere.
In many ways it is flourishing. Over the past year alone, I’ve lost count of the number of discussions I’ve taken part in, and not just organised by the Institute of Ideas. These have been formal and informal, from the Cambridge Union to the Artillery Arms. In big cities like London in particular, but also more widely, there is a vibrant culture of book events, gallery talks and debates. As the IoI’s Debating Matters competition has shown, there is also enthusiasm for debate among the younger generation.
And yet there is a mismatch between this public culture and the type of debate that dominates the media and politics, which is often simplistic, caricatured and boring. Think of the recent controversy over Islamic veils. In reality there is a broad consensus among Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the niqab should be tolerated but not celebrated or allowed to get in the way of someone’s job. Then there is a fascinating argument to be had about the place of religion in public life more generally, the relationship between public and private, and the meaning of citizenship. None of these more subtle questions fits into the media-political agenda of multiculturalism and the backlash against it, which requires a fixation on this particular issue and the theatrical taking of offence on either side.
Too often, politicians call for a ‘debate’ as a way of avoiding being held to account intellectually. This is a model of debate according to which we all talk about how much we respect one another’s opinions, and everything goes on exactly as before. The Battle of Ideas is about challenging this by bringing the richer culture of public debate to bear on politics. More than a good night out or an enjoyable weekend, we want to make public debate count. The Battle of Ideas is not just a festival of debates, but an invitation to look around and recognise that other crucial component of ‘public debate’: the public. It is through public debate in particular that ideas can begin to make a difference, as people argue over ideas that matter to them as citizens rather than just consumers of the media. Thus, the culture of debate has the potential to be more than the sum of its parts.
Since last year’s inaugural Battle of Ideas, I (and several other people involved in the Institute of Ideas, among others) have set up the Manifesto Club, a campaigning organisation to pursue our own ideas about how the world ought to change. Others will disagree with us, and advance different ideas. Good. We will argue and debate, and perhaps persuade one another on this point or that, perhaps not. But if any of our ideas, manifestos or programmes are to count for anything, we must be willing to have the argument out in public and engage a wider constituency.
The Institute of Ideas remains committed to that public debate. Rather than simply pointing out the inadequacy of traditional forums, we have begun in the past few years to show the potential for something richer, drawing together previously disparate strands of discussion in academia, the professions and the arts, and bringing these to a wider audience that in turn enriches and builds on these existing debates.
In pub rooms, theatres, colleges, workplaces, even churches, discussion rages about everything from the war on terror to the subtleties of art gallery hangings. If we only take the trouble to recognise it, this is an exciting time to be alive. We need not look back jealously to Wordsworth’s youth: if ‘to be young was very heaven’ at the time of the French Revolution, it is only because members of the preceding generation prepared the way. There is no time like the present to start shaping the future. The most important legacy of the Enlightenment is the idea that we humans make our own history. Whatever the limitations of our own sometimes unenlightened times then, there is no point in sitting about waiting for things to change all by themselves. The Battle of Ideas is about taking the initiative here and now.
At a recent debate I took part in, the chair commented that the notes he had about the Institute of Ideas revealed a rather combatative mindset: the Battle of Ideas, Roundtable Rumbles, Culture Wars etc. He had a point, but the combatativeness of the Institute of Ideas has never been about pantomime violence or contrarianism. Rather it arises from our recognition that ideas matter and are not to be taken lightly. Arguments have consequences and thus it matters who wins and who loses. We make no apology for the military metaphors, then, and indeed I will end this essay as the great Renaissance humanist Giovanni Pico della Mirandola ended his 1486 ‘Oration on the Dignity of Man’:
‘I see, reverend doctors, with the greatest pleasure that you are girded and ready for the contest – let us now, with the prayer that the outcome may be fortunate and favourable, as to the sound of trumpets, join battle.’
Dolan Cummings is the editorial and research director of the Institute of Ideas