Since its inception seven years ago, the Battle of Ideas festival has sought to debate the challenges facing society, dig beneath the surface and understand what lies behind the headlines. But this year, where to start? From the unravelling of the Eurozone to the overthrow of long-standing regimes in the Middle East, from the never-ending scandals surrounding the world’s most famous media empire to the UK’s shocking urban riots, the world seems to be undergoing a surfeit of significant events. ‘Too much news!’, one commentator complained during what was supposed to be summer downtime. And that’s without even mentioning Fukushima, Osama bin Laden and Anders Breivik. Too often, the prevailing response to such bewildering change is conservative, risk-averse and intolerant rather than critical, open-minded and thoughtful. The challenge for Battle of Ideas 7 will be to avoid knee-jerk responses by untangling what is peripheral from what matters, identifying which trends are deep-rooted and which superficial, and distinguishing inflated panics from genuine problems. Equally important is to explore these trends in their international context. Drawing on our expanded international Battle Satellite programme, people who are struggling with such issues in different countries will help us understand what is universal and what is particular.
There has been no shortage of responses to recent events. But many of these are technical fixes or understand the world through the prism of outmoded political categories. More betray today’s climate of fatalistic thinking, suggesting our choices are constrained by everything from our biology to individuals’ irrational psyches. We are regularly described as victims of forces beyond our control: Mother Nature, manipulative advertisers, greedy bankers, systemic unfairness, our genes, our neurology, our upbringing.
What these ideas have in common is an unusually limited scope for the exercise of free will and self determination. This is not just a philosophical issue, but has political implications. After the riots, David Cameron spoke of a ‘slow-motion moral collapse’. But rather than struggle with questions of morality, policy proposals have followed a deterministic script according to which our life-course is set while we are toddlers, and the solution is ever-earlier state intervention in the lives of children. What hope of encouraging true moral agency when parental authority is undermined by the notion that, left to their own devices, Mum and Dad will inevitably ‘f*** you up’? We even celebrate who we are in essentialist terms. Feminists demand recognition for women’s innate qualities; gay rights activists embrace the idea of the gay gene. No wonder Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ has become an anthem for today’s fatalistic zeitgeist.
Of course we need not be slaves to our biology. Human endeavour and ingenuity can ensure we need not bow to fate. But when even moral reasoning is depicted as a mere function of the brain, this inevitably fosters cultural pessimism. We seem conflicted about whether humans are a source of creativity or destruction. On 31 October the World Population Clock will number seven billion. Rather than this being a cause of celebration, it is widely viewed with alarm, with cataclysmic predictions of generation wars, food shortages, and environmental Armageddon. Perhaps it’s time to adopt the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius - ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ - as an ambitious aspiration, recognising our capacity to overcome apparently insurmountable obstacles.
No doubt many debates at the festival will be contentious. Indeed we invite speakers and audience alike to challenge conventional thinking. Of course sensibilities will be offended over the weekend. But let’s hold our nerve; after all, as the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions, and encourages people to speak their minds. The festival will champion tolerance, but we also recognise that true tolerance depends on a willingness to make judgements rather than granting equal respect to all opinions. Above all, though, we understand that to tolerate dissent is an essential precondition for moral independence and free thinking. The festival’s motto is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED.
LET BATTLE COMMENCE!
Stealing Picasso? Copyright and art
"The Battle of Ideas is a global treasure. Bringing together some of the world's leading thinkers for civil dialogue on an array of topics, the festival is a must-see for those deeply committed to the free exchange of ideas."
Fredrick C. Harris, professor of political science, Columbia University