Why the Battle of Ideas 2016?

Claire Fox explains why the Battle of Ideas 2016 matters.


Regardless of Britain’s relationship with the EU, the need for a European-wide public conversation has never been more urgent. While based in London, the Battle of Ideas is unapologetically international, with satellite debates throughout Europe. Our 400-plus speakers are from across the world, across the political spectrum and across disciplines, from the humanities to engineering.


2016 has certainly been a turbulent year so far. The stasis of recent decades has been replaced by a sense of unpredictability. Ballotbox uprisings have defied predicted outcomes, however carefully pre-planned and stage managed by technocratic elites. For years, we were told the idea of substantive social change was old-style politics. We lived under the shadow of Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ and Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’. Now ‘events, my dear boy, events’ – from the Brexit vote to the Trump phenomenon and European upheavals over everything from abortion to refugees – mean that the future direction of society feels open and contestable. For too long, a change of government seemed to mean little more than changing the nameplates in the corridors of power. So the upsurge in political engagement in recent months has been thoroughly refreshing, even exciting. This year’s festival will have sessions discussing the American elections, a strand of debates to look at the state of the nation post-Brexit, and discussions on the prospects for the world economy. We will also look at international events like the attempted coup in Turkey, the soft coup in Brazil, the collapse of the ANC in South Africa and the increasing tension in and about Eastern Europe. It may be that, on the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, there is a chance to argue over different future visions of society. There are alternatives, after all.


For many young people, the first taste of history unfolding may be as disorientating as it is exhilarating. Nowhere is that clearer than in the contemporary disputes about identity. Who we are is now a constant matter of dispute. Are we European or British? Are we defined by our ethnicity or nationality? Which of the 71 Facebook gender identities will we choose? Martin Luther King’s dream that his children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character’ is routinely turned on its head. The convictions you articulate and the principles you espouse can be trumped by censorious epithets like ‘As a black woman’, ‘As a gay man’ and ‘As a Muslim’. Western university campuses are just the most visible sites where ideological battles have given way to internecine warfare between identities, jostling for recognition, checking each other’s privilege. At the Battle of Ideas this year, we will not only explore this core theme, but also attempt to reassert the universalist principle that what matters are the ideas espoused and not who is espousing them.


The rise of identity politics has led to controversy over ‘cultural appropriation’. EA variety of people, including popstars, yoga instructors and owners of Mexican-themed restaurants, has been censured for using aspects of other people’s cultural identities without permission. Novelist Lionel Shriver has been attacked just for asserting the right of authors to ‘step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats’, to write from the perspective of people different from themselves. To do otherwise would mean the end of universalism, solidarity and creative innovation. The Battle of Ideas promises to be a living embodiment of cultural appropriation. We recognise that the development of religion, philosophy, science, the arts and technology is the cumulative outcome of communities borrowing, copying and appropriating aspects of the cultures they encounter. We are opposed to the claim that only people who are members of a particular culture can understand it, and to the fashionable, faux-internationalist identity of the cosmopolitan ‘citizen of the world’. We believe that culture and politics should be about appropriating, sharing and assimilating the products of a diverse range of human experience. Let’s make a virtue of ‘stealing’ ideas, and show we are prepared to transcend our own cultural ghettos.


The Battle of Ideas encourages an audience of free-thinkers; inquisitive and opinionated attendees prepared to listen to opinions they have never heard before, to argue back with those they disagree with, and try on new hats, however uncomfortable. The festival’s slogan is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, an antidote to today’s climate of offence-taking. If you’re willing to challenge and be challenged, and leave the comfort of the echo chamber, I look forward to seeing you at the Barbican on 22 and 23 October.

Claire Fox, director, IoI
on behalf of the Battle of Ideas Committee 2016