The brouhaha over the proposed honour killing talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas has led to some commentators suggesting the festival is past its use-by date or simply bourgeois political titillation with no revolutionary potential — what Tom Wolfe called radical chic. Those criticisms were all reasonable reactions to the talk in question but unfair to many of the other talks which are genuinely timely, interesting and challenging.
Any festival with Pussy Riot and Salman Rushdie on the bill is going to snatch a few of my dollars. And anyone who thinks Pussy Riot is merely radical chic has no doubt spent less time than they have in Russian prisons. At a time when the West is trying to decide if Putin’s incursions into Ukraine are worth worrying about, we could do worse than hear a few words from dissidents who live under his regime. Lydia Cacho and Masha Gessen’s talks will share their experiences of the real dangers they face for their ideas as, of course, will Rushdie, who lived under a fatwa, in hiding, for many years.
These are people whose talks will give us an opportunity to think about the danger they face, why we face so little of it, and how we can remain such a safe place for ideas. The dangerous ideas of the international visitors should prompt us to consider how we can preserve our freedom, democracy and safety in a world where so many ideas can still lead to death.
What the fuller view of the program reveals is that the single most dangerous idea in this world is that you should be free. Those whose ideas expose them to danger are pursuing their political enfranchisement, their emancipation from indenture, their liberty to love whom they please. Masha Gessen can’t be free to be gay in Russia. Lydia Cacho writes about the predicament of women whose freedom is stolen from them in Mexico. Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in prison for performing a song that demanded political freedom. This is not mere posturing for the concert hall crowd.
The festival has been criticised for looking in some odd places for its supply of sufficiently dangerous ideas. The trouble with trying to find an idea that is dangerous in Australia is that we don’t generally suppress ideas here. While I’d like to see fewer restrictions on free speech including repealing the sedition laws, with few exceptions it’s not actually dangerous to simply discuss an idea here. Amnesty International hasn’t declared an Australian prisoner of conscience since Albert Langer and not during the 20 years leading up to that case. We have, globally speaking, remarkably free speech.
This was ably demonstrated by the chap whose talk on honour killings was cancelled. He has gone on a slew of media programs to discuss the speech he couldn’t give and espouse his various views and the only danger he experienced was the sort of danger that sunlight poses to bacteria.
He is a sterling example of how free speech allows those with bad ideas the broadest latitude to makes fools of themselves.
This storm in a chai cup shows us that democracy eliminates the danger associated with thinking. A genuinely dangerous idea — an idea that puts the thinker in actual personal peril — cannot exist in a free country because the greatest danger faced by thinkers even of ideas as stupid as honour killing is usually ridicule.
What the best of the international speakers show is that the most dangerous idea of all is not just radical chic. It’s the same idea that has been dangerous all over the world for thousands of years: that we have the right to be free.
Our local speakers might be better off addressing how we can remain such a safe place for ideas.
To this point, Mark Latham has turned his mind, asking whether government should only be shrunk to a size that can be effectively supervised by citizens.
It’s a timely provocation given most critics of government are unhappy that it is doing too little without fully exploring the trade-offs associated with ceding more and more of our authority and freedom as individuals to a growing state.
It would be great to see more speakers addressing the topic of the citizen and the state. Given the luxury our freedom affords us to discuss any and all ideas without danger, freedom itself is surely a topic worth its own moment in the spotlight.
Cassandra Wilkinson works at The Centre for Independent Studies.