I went to a debate last week at the main Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road. The topic was ‘secularism’ and its many meanings, in the light of recent controversies about faith schools, aggressive atheists, anti-burqa legislation in France, and of course the state visit of Pope Benedict to the UK.
I don’t want to summarise the content of the discussion here (good though it was), just to comment on how well the evening worked. It was a genuine debate. Eight people sitting round a table having their say. Chaired in a way that allowed the conversation to flow, and move in unexpected directions. Plenty of time to hear from the floor. People not afraid to speak their mind, or admit that their mind was not yet fully formed; people prepared to say something uncertain or unsettling.
There were no votes; no winners or losers. Everyone, I think, came a way a little more enlightened. It reassured me that public debate about controversial issues is still possible, and that there are people willing to argue and to listen.
The debate was organised by the Institute of Ideas. Their big ‘Battle of Ideas‘ weekend is coming up on 30-31 October. Take a look at the amazing selection of topics up for discussion that weekend, in a single venue. This video is from the run up to last year’s Battle of Ideas.
Claire Fox, the director of the Institute, explains the vision here:
The Battle of Ideas festival, now in its sixth year, is very much about a PUBLIC conversation. Since its inception ten years ago, the Institute of Ideas (IoI) has sought to interrogate orthodoxies and debate the challenges facing society, and to make these things public activities. We put an emphasis on audience participation, and the festival is open to anyone with intellectual curiosity and the courage to think critically.
This public orientation may not seem so unusual these days. The rhetoric of public engagement is all pervasive. In politics, much is made of maximising the public’s involvement: ‘People Power’ is the slogan of the UK’s Big Society. Everywhere from science to the arts, participation and crowd sourcing are buzzwords. At the IoI, though, we are sceptical about this flattering rhetoric. Many initiatives look like paper exercises in connecting to an imaginary public. When confronted with the real thing, too often our leaders recoil in horror. When the last Prime minister expressed his contempt for ‘that woman’ in the infamous Bigotgate incident, he gave a glimpse of what those who run society really feel about ordinary people. How dare we offend today’s politically correct etiquette or ask awkward questions?
The rise of an illiberal liberalism silences genuine public challenges to received wisdom. One arena where this intolerance of unfashionable ideas is clearly expressed is in discussions about religion and how secular society should accommodate it, or not. We will tackle these topics head-on at the festival. As the name suggests, the Battle of Ideas is not afraid of dissenting opinions and encourages people to speak their minds and battle over difficult issues. The festival’s motto is FREE SPEECH ALLOWED.
What faux engagement initiatives lack is any content to inspire and engage the public’s minds and passions. Historically, what has moved millions to act upon the world and change things for the better has been big ideas, such as freedom, progress, civilisation and democracy. Today we are offered the thin gruel of ‘evidence-based policy’. When we are told that scientific research demands particular courses of action, ever increasing areas of politics are ruled out-of-bounds for democratic debate; ideas and morality are sidelined by facts and statistics. In contrast, the Battle of Ideas is a public square within which we can explore the crisis of values, and start to give human meaning to trends too often presented fatalistically and technically.
Despite the fashion for ‘localism’, we need to expand our gaze beyond our own back yards. With this in mind, on the IoI’s tenth anniversary, we are launching the Battle of Ideas as an international project. We have a series of Battle Satellite debates in India, the US and Europe, and have invited as many international speakers as resources have allowed. We not only look abroad for intellectual renewal, but also to the past. In a strand of debates on history, we assess whether we can make the best that has been thought and known a source of future inspiration; standing on the shoulders of giants and reinvigorating their ideas for a new era.
One such idea worth rescuing is the ancient Greeks’ notion that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Today, such humanistic thinking is under threat, from those who warn that human-centredness is no more than hubris, that man’s ambitions are destructive, that we cannot trust politicians, bankers, cricketers, even each other or ourselves. Sessions will explore what these ideas mean for our attitude to human life or for our ambitions to engineer our future and use the huge gains of science, technology and biomedicine to solve problems associated with ageing, with the economy or even natural disasters. Is man guilty of playing God? Or would any lessening of our aspirations mean simply accepting our fate? We welcome attendees who are free thinkers, who have verve, passion and idealism, and a dose of irreverent scepticism; who believe mankind has a future worth fighting for. LET BATTLE COMMENCE!
It’s pretty expensive, but I hope to go for as much of the weekend as possible. Maybe we can set up a ‘Bridges and Tangents’ stall or poster-board!