The Battle of Ideas festival was set up 10 years ago, initiated by the IoI and supported by a wide range of partners, to encourage free thinking and open-ended public discussion. In 2014, this feels particularly apposite: we need serious thinking to deal with serious times.
It is easy to become disorientated by contemporary events: society can feel as though it’s spinning out of control, with certainties shaken daily. From modern, Western youth cheering on medieval-style, barbaric beheadings in the name of destroying Western civilisation to the frightening return of Cold War-era tensions which are stoking up the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, how should we interpret today’s world? While the authority of traditional institutions is in decline – a decline that recently even threatened to dismember the UK – policy pundits breathlessly emphasise ‘megatrends’ that include everything from the unstoppable data revolution to ticking demographic time-bombs. It is easy to feel over-awed, to react to such a state of affairs with existential panic.
How then to make sense of things? Some people retreat to the well-worn political formulas of the past. Yet what might once have been useful categories, from class war to left/right divides, become dead dogmas when thoughtlessly trotted out to explain new, complex trends. Conversely, others emphasise that change is so dramatic, we can now dispense with past intellectual gains, dismissing as irrelevant profound insights of thousands of years of human thought. This either leads to provisional, ever-changing pragmatism or, in the quest for certainty, a new faith in science as a silver bullet for social problems. Stephen Hawking may have proclaimed that “philosophy is dead” because it hasn’t “kept up with modern developments in science”. But in an era that confuses evidence and data with knowledge and morality, the Battle of Ideas is happy to stand with Bertrand Russell’s maxim: “The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived… from the habitual beliefs of his age.”
In this context, this year’s Battle of Ideas festival advocates unashamedly the virtue of philosophical thinking, to help us ask the right questions, to seek deeper truths beyond political clichés or scientific evidence. Of course, such an approach is risky; as Hannah Arendt noted, “thinking itself is dangerous”. And in 2014, it is also unfashionable, likely to be gagged by those whose reaction to today’s challenges is to avoid argument by silencing opponents.
When British prime minister David Cameron recently declared the need to win the ‘battle of ideas’ against Islamic State, the call to arms struck a chord. But within days, he beat a cowardly retreat from winning hearts and minds. Those Enlightenment ideals of freedom and democracy are betrayed as much by draconian banning orders as any extremists. And it’s not only the authorities who tell us “you can’t say/think that”. The phrase “It’s offensive” has become a ubiquitous cry of modern-day censors. Debate has never felt more constrained and stifled, with more voices but less room for dissent. Those who challenge orthodoxies are often written off as contrarian or become victims of intolerant twitch-hunts. So the Battle of Ideas festival aims to be an antidote to this censorious climate, by asking difficult questions rather than repeating easy answers or silencing opinions we don’t agree with.
We shouldn’t be frightened of other people’s opinions. We should welcome them as a way of cultivating our own ability to make difficult judgements. Indeed, one of the festival’s key themes is the problem of today’s avoidance of making judgements. Dare one lay claim to Truth or Beauty, and inevitably you’ll be met with the response, ‘but who are you to judge?’ But serious times mean we need judgement more than ever. Beyond black-and-white simplicities (paedophiles are bad; Islamic State is evil), it’s crucial we can discern insightful from ignorant opinions, wise choices from the shallow and kneejerk. And the prerequisite is being a free thinker. According to JS Mill, the only way any of us can become a “person whose judgement is really deserving of confidence” is “because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct” and by making “some approach to knowing the whole of a subject… looked at by every character of mind”.
And how else to hold each other to account, if we don’t judge? If you don’t judge me, I expect respect for my opinion because it is my opinion, not because it’s worthwhile. When I make a judgement about what I consider to be beautiful or good, I invite a response from you and others. We may disagree. Indeed, disagreement is what makes judgement so necessary; and without the possibility of disagreement, no judgement is worthwhile anyway. But it is also the potential for agreement that makes judgement so powerful. The point is: can I convince you?
If you are prepared to have your views held to account, judge other opinions on intellectual merit, to “enlarge (y)our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom”, then the Battle of Ideas is the only place to be.
Claire Fox, director, IoI and on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2014