In a rapidly changing world, debating ideas matters more than ever.

Fifty years on from the protests and turmoil of 1968, today’s turbulent times are at least a match for those of the Sixties. In 2018, Western societies appear to be in the midst of seismic change. From the apparent tearing up of the international rule book on economic and political relations to the emergence of new ‘populist’ parties challenging established political norms, everything seems in flux.

Undoubtedly, we face novel challenges. Ten years after the financial crisis, we confront the threat of trade wars while economists and politicians seem incapable of solving our longstanding ‘productivity puzzle’. Traditional liberalism seems to be eating itself, with today’s ‘progressives’ leading the charge in illiberal assaults on free speech. The UK government’s sluggish response to delivering Brexit seems driven by avoiding disruption at all costs, yet the vote seemed to reflect a desire for a shake-up. Big Tech and social media, once heralded as offering exciting possibilities, now stand accused of subverting democracy, making our children mentally ill, degrading political discourse and facilitating hate speech.

Grasping the possibility of change

This turbulent atmosphere can be unsettling. The future feels uncertain, the old guidelines seemingly useless. In these circumstances, it can be too easy to become confused and fearful. But we should be wary of scaremongering, such as when commentators compare current events to pre-Nazi 1930s Germany or talk ominously of toxic, irreconcilable civil tensions.

Perhaps we need a new approach: to grasp such changes as an opportunity, as a way of escaping social and political stagnation. At the very least, the unravelling of the technocratic era of TINA – There Is No Alternative – presents us with new possibilities to reboot society. Political norms may have come unstuck, but that does give us all the chance to shape the future.

The Barbican, one of Europe’s leading arts centres and home to the annual Battle of Ideas festival, has seized the moment and the theme of its 2018 season is ‘The Art of Change’, exploring how artists respond to, reflect and potentially effect social and political change. In turn, this year’s Battle of Ideas aims to understand today’s turbulence and encourage attendees to grasp this historic moment with hope and optimism.

We need to talk

However, just when it seems opportune to assess new ideas about the best way forward and listen to the perspectives of others, talking to each other has become more fraught than ever. All too frequently, people retreat into ‘echo chambers’ or lash out against adversaries. In public life, it seems that our ‘tribes’ keep to their own, reinforcing each other’s views and rarely listening to, never mind understanding, the views of others. When we do interact, it is more often to trade insults – ‘fascist’, ‘cuck’, ‘misogynist’ – than to seriously argue, even empathise, with each other.

The Brexiteer / Remainiac divide can feel insurmountable. And now that the Culture Wars have arrived in the UK with a vengeance, antagonism around identity politics seems perniciously divisive. Not only are those with a different point of view vilified – rather than challenged through debate – but there are frequent attempts to silence opponents from speaking at all, especially if taboo topics are broached by someone from the ‘wrong’ identity.

The Battle of Ideas strives to break out of these ‘identity silos’. Indeed, exploring the Identity Wars is one of the festival’s key themes this year, from feminism after #MeToo to the new politics of race. Our 400-plus international speakers, with a wide range of expertise and points of view, come together in good faith to test their ideas in public, precisely to enhance the quality of public discourse.

Drip drip…shush shush

Despite the ghettoisation of discussion, there is a palpable desire for more intelligent, in-depth discussion. People instinctively know that today’s challenges need to be debated and interrogated beyond soundbites; ideas need to be thrashed out beyond caricature. It is notable that at both the Labour and Conservative party conferences, fringe events were packed while frontbench politicians addressed sparse audiences in the official halls. Yet despite this recognition of the need to talk, talking has never been so heavily policed. We live in a climate where ‘you can’t say that’ is normal.

The slow drip, drip of low-level, seemingly trivial stories indicate that you have to be careful of what you say, who you offend. It may be easy to lampoon Manchester University Student Union’s vote to move away from ‘noisy appreciation’ (traditional audible clapping) because it can ‘trigger anxiety’ and ‘discourage’ some people from attending democratic events, whereas ‘jazz hands’ allegedly encourages an ‘environment of respect’.

But such outlier examples mask a deeper climate of censoriousness. In one shocking case, 24-year-old postgraduate Angelos Sofocleous sparked outrage for writing a tweet deemed ‘transphobic’ by fellow students and faced disciplinary action from his university, was ‘forced’ to resign as president-elect of Humanist Students, and was sacked from his post at Durham University’s philosophy journal Critique after just three days.

The stifling atmosphere of intellectual policing on campus is now seeping into institutions and public life more broadly. One ludicrous example recently was the revelation that a senior Metropolitan Police detective could face the sack for alleged racist language after using the phrase ‘whiter than white’ in a briefing to colleagues.  The context, a well-intentioned pep talk about the need for police officers to be above reproach in carrying out inquiries – hence, ‘whiter than white’ – received a complaint that was passed to the police watchdog for investigation; the inquiry may take up to 12 months to complete.

Meanwhile, South Yorkshire Police became just the latest force to use social media to issue threats to the public to watch what they say. The force’s tweet to its 166,000 followers to ‘please report non-crime hate incidents’ gained worldwide notoriety as a step too far. But the sense that if you misspeak, you may be accused of hate speech, that the police are watching, has a chilling effect.

Join the debate

The Battle of Ideas is precisely an antidote to such stifling of open-ended discussion. Since 2005, the festival’s slogan has been FREE SPEECH ALLOWED, a crucial retort to today’s climate of offence-taking. It is an invitation to those who are willing to challenge and be challenged, and leave the comfort of the bubble. But this is not an invitation for you to come along and passively listen to panels of experts. One of the most distinctive aspects of the Battle of Ideas is the level of audience engagement, where the most searching questions and smartest insights often come from the floor, not the panelists. If you are worried about the quality of public debate and want to really be part of the discussion, come along and join in.

We aim to kick-start passionate, serious-minded public conversations with free-thinking, inquisitive, opinionated attendees. Between us all, we will try and untangle everything from the bastardisation of political language to understanding international relations – both beyond and including Brexit. We’ll be tackling the ethical rows that embroil science, medical research and technology. We will probe the effect of change on the modern family, ask thorny questions about arts funding, examine the impact of drill music on violent crime, and much more. If this whets your appetite and curiosity, do come along.  See you at the Barbican on 13 & 14 October.


The Battle of Ideas festival takes place at the Barbican in London on the 13th and 14th of October. For tickets and more information, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.

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2 comments

  1. Claire, this is was a really great read. Inspiring and hopeful.

    Is there a Battle of Ideas conference in the United States that is similar to this one? Also, I am curious about the number of American writers there are in Areo Magazine. I use some of these essays in my classroom and often have to teach students the British counterparts to American political terms, movements, and policies (e.g. Labour Party as the U.K. version of the U.S. Democratic Party).

    I think many Americans are wanting to engage with one another at the level of discourse represented by the writings on this site, and I’m wondering what we can do to advance the goal of making it happen.

  2. Interesting points. It seems like catch-22s all of the way down the line. Be reasonable, and no one will listen, or respond reasonably. Be vocal and risk censure from some corner or another. I think we have an encompassing appeal to power language, which is the shrill one-up-manship, brinkmanship of accusatory derring-do.; who can be the most proper or improper, maybe “virtue signaling” all entwined with the virtuousness of being crude. Power language, in this sense, is different from power-ful language, which is incisive, accurate, precise, insightful, and on-point. Many are attracted to bold signifiers, but have lost the sense of the underlying structures, connotation, denotation, associations, and context. There is much parroting, and less thinking going on. Thought is taking on new forms, but it is doing so by way of a sort of rowdy exodus out of the land of reason. Perhaps this is all the energy and abandon of desperation.

    I’m not really sure, but I think there is something to this idea of finding a way to thread the needle’s eye of change, to retain and refashion meaning in logically- and semiotically-accessible ways, and to bring that into the realm of constructive dialogues. Seismic upheaval is a comparison I, too, have used, as well as tectonic shifts and social convulsions. It seems there is ideological attrition at work, that is: we are still in the concept phase of so many assumptions and assertions. Their relevance, accuracy, and reaching impacts have yet to be evaluated. History can teach us much, but history only rhymes. It does not replicate itself exactly. We have iterative rounds yet to go, and yet we don’t know exactly what they will look like, what their costs will be, and how we will learn and grow from them. It will take time for a new paradigm to gel.

    I think, at its core, we may be facing the listlessness and uncertainty of a post-post-modern world in direct friction with attempts by many to escape from a unknown future. We have yet to start rebuilding robust new systems of meaning, and this butting up against revisions of old systems, said revisions being thin paeans, superficial, nostalgia-oriented, and ultimately false, yet again.

    I, too, perceive a new sort of intellectual/ideological Darwinism at work, an opinion I arrived at before reading this article. So, none of the “new” systems are really very strong. Nascent, but they all exist in an ecosystem competing for buy-in, intellectual purchase. Comfort is not enough, reassurance is not enough – that is the way of the con job – there must be substance to these feelings, something which provides both tangible security and reasonable mobility. I have never considered myself a socialist, but I am starting to the see what is, perhaps, the inevitable necessity for greater social safety nets, individuals’ equity stake in society, and accountability for wealthy people and powers.

    Without the basic means of life, no idea is more than an ephemeral seed on the breeze, lacking ground to root in.

    If those means are increasingly limited, then proportionally so are the related socio-cultural structures, including meaning, sense of purpose, personal freedom, and commitment to community. The implications are clear to see in any place where want underlies the motive towards fanaticism.

    To secure means for the many is to secure the circumstances for the many to become constructive collaborators in our summed human fate.

    Yes, I am a huge Star Trek fan.

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