Between 09:30 GMT on the 22nd October 2016 and 20:30 GMT on the 23rd October 2016, the Institute of Ideas’ annual Battle of Ideas took place in London’s Barbican, hosting some 400-plus speakers and casting a spotlight on free speech and a number of critical contemporary issues.
This year’s festival has now come to and end, but recordings of a selection of debates can be found below.
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. Its 400-plus speakers are from across the world, across the political spectrum and across disciplines, from the humanities to engineering.
The times they are a-changing
2016 has certainly been a turbulent year so far. The stasis of recent decades has been replaced by a sense of unpredictability. Ballot box 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, recent 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 of the world’s 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 tensions in and surrounding Eastern Europe. It may be that, on the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, there is a chance to argue about 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 which jostle for recognition and check each other’s privileges. At the Battle of Ideas this year, the Institute of Ideas 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.
In praise of cultural appropriation
The rise of identity politics has led to controversy about cultural appropriation. A variety of people, including popstars, yoga instructors and owners of Mexican-themed restaurants, have 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 perspectives of people different to themselves. To do otherwise would mean the end of universalism, solidarity and creative innovation. The Battle of Ideas promises therefore to be a living embodiment of cultural appropriation. It recognises 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. It opposes both the fashionable, faux-internationalist identity of the cosmopolitan citizen of the world and the claim that only people who are members of a particular culture are able to understand that culture. Similarly, it believes 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 that we are prepared to transcend our own cultural ghettos.
Antidote to echo chambers
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 with those they disagree with and to try on new hats, however uncomfortable they might be. In 2016, the festival’s slogan was “free speech allowed” and was intended as an antidote to today’s climate of offence-taking.
This year’s festival has now come to an end, but recordings of a selection of debates have been uploaded to Time to Talk and can be enjoyed by clicking on the links formed by the titles:
- The new populism
- What is the truth about “post-factual politics”?
- Who are we? Identity politics dissected
To access a full programme of events on the Battle of Ideas’ website, click here.
A full list of speakers can also be accessed by clicking here.
There are also a number of satellite events taking place in the UK and throughout the rest of Europe in September, October and November and you can access a full list of these by clicking here.
Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS