Why the Battle of Ideas 2019?

Join us as we get to grips with a world in flux.

We live in tumultuous times. This year’s Battle of Ideas, our fifteenth annual festival, feels more important than ever, offering a vital space for interrogating ideas and getting to grips with a rapidly changing world. The Battle of Ideas is the place to be if you’re open to being part of civilised and passionate debate.

Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan
Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan

Public life depends on constructive dialogue. We need a space where ideas, beliefs and policies can be scrutinised. But at the moment, debate on a wide range of political and cultural issues can be ill-tempered – some would even say ‘toxic’. On some issues, debates seem to have become more ‘tribal’, with different sides closed to other people’s point of view. But, hearteningly, amongst many people there also seems to be growing openness to new ideas and willingness to question orthodoxies. If you’re looking for answers to the big questions thrown up by contemporary politics and culture, you’ll love the Battle of Ideas.

One of the major themes of this year’s festival is democracy. From proroguing parliament to demands for a written constitution, this year has thrown up difficult questions about the limits to democracy and the boundaries between politics and law. Today’s big issues defy easy characterisation. Footloose politicians jump between parties. Voters cast aside old ballot-box loyalties. Well-established political labels such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ rarely seem to mean much. Together at the festival, we’ll grapple with these new developments and try to get a better understanding of a complex world.

Few recent developments raise more questions than the rise of Extinction Rebellion, whose protesters have filled streets in the UK and beyond. While the protesters, including school strikers inspired by Greta Thunberg, take the moral highground, the police and politicians trail in their wake. One big question at the festival will be about who has moral authority today, and why. It certainly seems right that society explores solutions to climate change. But the ‘climate emergency’, as it’s now called, also seems to fit with a trend to label all manner of problems as ‘existential threats’. Indeed, new terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’, ‘Brexit trauma’ or ‘toxic masculinity’ seem to attach medical labels to social issues. How can we avoid a paralysing impact on young people – and indeed wider society?

The ability to raise difficult questions and unfashionable opinions is essential to a vibrant public sphere. That’s why our festival mottos – ‘free speech allowed’ and ‘free thinkers welcome’ – are not just slogans but statements of intent. This does not mean that ‘anything goes’. We ask festival attendees to be both tolerant and open to listening to all views, but equally be prepared to express opinions and to judge what is right. We think that whatever your own views, truly creative discussion comes about when we accept there can always be another side to the story, that others hold opposing views in good faith and they might even have a point.

But that debate is often cut off by our censorious climate. Today, showing an ‘offensive’ old comedy film or tweeting an ‘inappropriate’ opinion can land you in hot water. Our ability to judge for ourselves is often undermined by the raging Culture Wars. This year, there have been vicious rows about everything from the validity of the ‘Western canon’ of great works and the morality of listening to Michael Jackson’s music to whether WhatsApp conversations should remain private. On the seventieth anniversary of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, not only are the words we use more heavily scrutinised than ever, but policing language is seen as a way of changing behaviour and evading tough issues. More than ever, we need freethinkers rather than ‘correct’ ways of thinking.

No political, cultural, scientific or technological issue should be beyond debate. In fact, concepts that we thought we knew the meaning of – like class, community or identity – have changed in recent years. Ask 30 different women what feminism means to them and you might well get 30 different answers. New challenges abound, too. For example, how do we ensure sport is egalitarian and open to transgender athletes without compromising on fairness? Why are so many issues understood through conspiracy theories – and where does this fit with our view of experts and expertise? With synagogues being targeted and anti-Semitism on the rise in British politics, how do we tackle one of the oldest prejudices today? Many such questions lead to a fundamental challenge: how do we build solidarity in the twenty-first century?

The Battle of Ideas festival is the place to stretch your intellectual muscles. Get out of your comfort zone and get stuck into the debate. Have a brilliant Battle.

Alastair Donald and Ella Whelan
co-convenors, Battle of Ideas festival