Why the Battle of Ideas 2017?

In a rapidly changing world, debating ideas matters more than ever.

Society in 2017 is in a very fluid state. There is a palpable sense of momentous change in the air. Recent events have shown that political life doesn’t follow a preordained script, that democracy throws up unexpected results and voters are not a stage army to be called up to give a mandate and then be returned to barracks. If once we were told that we had reached the ‘end of history’, now there is a sense that the centre will not hold – a widespread feeling that, after years of political failure, the status quo is not good enough. Whether you are inspired by the likes of Brexit as a democratic rebellion against the establishment, or worried about its consequences for stability, this sense of the world order unravelling, of history being made, can be as disorientating as it is exhilarating.

DEALING WITH UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS

This new period creates both new uncertainties and possibilities right across society. We face uncomfortable questions about everything from Western values to national sovereignty, from the alleged rise of the far right in Europe and America to the pros and cons of automation and Big Data. Establishing a space and willingness to discuss these shifting trends is an essential antidote to knee-jerk posturing, whether in response to Islamist terror attacks or the horrific tragedy at Grenfell Tower. If ever we needed a sense of solidarity, a shared project of opening up public dialogue, to weigh up future options, to reflect on which philosophical and intellectual values matter, it is now. And yet contemporary trends seem inhospitable to this much-needed robust, grown-up debate. The free speech wars are intensifying, with ever more restrictions emerging daily on what we can and cannot say. Accusations of that weasly notion ‘hate speech’, cultural appropriation, whitewashing, mansplaining, triggering, etc are frequently used to chill our ability to discuss freely at the very time when we need to talk openly about how we respond to unprecedented challenges. You don’t have to be a Conservative to agree with Prime Minister Theresa May when she declared to her party conference (between coughs and pranks): ‘[We] must come together… to win the battle of ideas in a new generation …at stake are the very things we value’. Yes, the stakes are high and the importance of a battle of ideas has never been more pressing. However, despite such rhetoric, battling over ideas is in jeopardy. Winning others’ hearts and minds means a commitment to persuading those you don’t agree with and holding people to account by critically engaging with their views and policies. Yet too often, we walk away, throwing out cavalier insults as we leave.

BREAKING OUT OF THE ECHO CHAMBERS

When new Labour MP Laura Pidcock told an interviewer she would never hang out with Tory women because they are ‘the enemy’, she caused controversy. But she is not alone in preferring to avoid engaging her opponents. Too many are happy to be confined to the safety of ‘echo chambers’, unwilling to hear and discuss other points of view. As a consequence, there is an increasing tendency to caricature and defame those ‘on the other side’. We promiscuously brand people as terfs, deplorables, white supremacists or Nazis for raising awkward questions about identitarian orthodoxies. Brexit voters, who have suffered the consequences of a stagnating economy for years, are accused of wrecking UKplc by billionaire business leaders or written off as poorly educated, xenophobic dupes by enlightened professors.In response, it is too easy to lash out and label millions who voted Remain as traitors and elitists if they query the fiasco that passes for Brexit negotiations. Yet whatever side we are on, ascribing the most malign of motives to each other can mean debate is reduced to shallow name-calling and lashing out at straw men. This is less a battle of ideas than a negation of the very enterprise of intellectual inquiry and political change.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

The Battle of Ideas festival aims to be different – a uniquely open forum, where you can meet your ‘enemy’, listen to opinions you have never heard before, argue back, and even occasionally change your mind. We promise no off-the-shelf answers. More modestly, we bring together a vast range of international speakers to kick-start passionate, serious-minded discussion and public conversations with free-thinking, inquisitive, opinionated attendees. Between us all, we will try and untangle everything from the bastardisation of political language to understanding what makes modern America and Brexit Britain tick beyond the headlines. Since 2005, the festival’s slogan has been FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, a crucial rebuttal to today’s climate of offence-taking. If you’re willing to challenge and be challenged, and leave the comfort of the echo chamber, see you at the Barbican on 28 and 29 October.

Claire Fox, director, Institute of Ideas
on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2017