Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Left on the streets of his dreams he would cry and he’d rage, for the stage… On the Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Sydney Opera House viewed from the side
Sydney Opera House viewed from the side (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is returning in 2013.  It was established in collaboration between the St James Ethics Centre and the Sydney Opera House as a platform for some of the world’s most controversial, fresh, and cutting edge ideas.

In this spirit of being controversial, fresh, and cutting edge FODI has given us such controversially fresh and freshly controversial events as Christopher Hitchens debating Cardinal George Pell (‘Does religion poison everything?’ ‘No, without religion we are nothing!’ — cutting edge!).  Australia’s best and brightest thinkers have appeared, such as Greg Barns.  Chris Taylor and Julian Morrow from The Chaser appeared in its second year (so fresh) as well as Geoffrey Robertson (was I even born when he was last relevant?).  And no pseudo-intellectual experience would be complete without Julian Assange appearing with his supple and nuanced political philosophy.

Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way.  Maybe you need to have the usual popular guff in order to sell tickets in order to afford the lesser-known, genuinely interesting thinkers.  Indeed, that’s the only way to explain the 2013 lineup which includes Chris Berg, Julian Burnside, Annabel Crabb, Satyajit Das, and Joe Hildebrand.

Joe Hildebrand.

Here’s the event that Joe Hildebrand is in:

A Rational Fear is coming to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas for a one-off idea smack-down. Rabble-rouser Dan Ilic (Hungry Beast/Can of Worms) hosts a fast-paced topical comedy panel show featuring some of the funniest brains in Australia.

A Rational Fear is 60 minutes of cutting-edge sketch, standup, and interviews. Like the love child of The Daily Show and A Current Affair or Q & A on crack, A Rational Fear takes a look at what the media and society say we should be scared of, and laughs in its terrifying face.

In this special ‘Festival of Rational Fears’ edition, join journalists Tracey Spicer and Joe Hildebrand, comedians Lewis Hobba and Veronica Milsom, and host Dan Ilic as they dissect, join dots, and spew out spurious theories that are bound to set the sails of the Opera House alight with laughter. [Source]


The problem with FODI was always going to be the ancient problem of foxes and hedgehogs.  You’ve got a few people who know One Big Thing (hedgehogs) who are invited to events and are basically expected to contribute through their one lens.  They’re usually hard to sell unless they’ve got a reputation for saying the same thing over and over again to the same audience who’s happy to pay money over and over again to hear it being said each time (Lawrence Krauss, for example, or Julian Burnside, or Dan Savage).

And then you’ve got the people who will happily opine on every single topic no matter how little they know about it (foxes).  These are the people that event organisers can always summon, who’ll always say something, and will always appear intelligent.  They’re usually journalists or think tankers.  Where foxes used to be polymaths, our modern foxes are just pathologically opinionated.  If anything, our modern foxes are hedgehogs in disguise: they actually know only one big thing (‘freedom of speech!’ ‘free markets!’ ‘liberty!’) and then interpret everything they see through that lens.  A hedgehog in fox’ clothing.

When you set up an event as ‘Controversy for the Sake of Controversy’, you drive away the really great thinkers who’d come and challenge the audience.  How great would it be to get Igor Primoratz talk about capital punishment, terrorism, or the philosophy of sex?  Or Howard Morphy on the role of anthropologists in Native Title claims?  &c., &c., &c.?

But, on the other hand, if you set up an event as ‘Controversy for the Sake of Controversy’, there’s an expectation that the event will actually challenge the opinions of the audience.  For a celebration of ‘Dangerous Ideas’, the ideas expressed are disconcertingly safe and mainstream.

Finally, there is the puzzle of how ‘Dangerous Ideas’ are presented to the audience.  The prevailing wisdom is that you have one person there representing one ‘side’ of an argument and another person representing the other ‘side’, then you get them to argue.  Better yet, they try to ‘win’ the conversation by ignoring whatever is said by the other side.  This style of discussion is what causes nonsense asylum seeker debates and new atheist rhetoric: you’re encouraged to agree wholeheartedly with Your Guy, else you’ll seem like Bad People.  This is the heart of the affectation of authenticity.

In the end, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas will be directed by the not-so dangerous idea that if it’s popular and sells tickets, it’s a success.  This is a shame, because if there were ever a platform which could prove that people would pay to see genuinely interesting ideas being discussed by exceptionally fascinating people, it would have been something called the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.

At any rate, given Lawrence Krauss’ threats towards women who’ve accused him of sexual harassment, I won’t be attending the events of a festival which invites him as a guest.

7 responses to “Left on the streets of his dreams he would cry and he’d rage, for the stage… On the Festival of Dangerous Ideas”

  1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks it all sounds like a load of wank. What does “dangerous ideas” even mean? Leaving a table saw running without a proper guard is a dangerous idea. Perhaps Professor Krauss’ threats are the closest thing that qualifies – although I’m sure they probably mean something like “dangerous for society” as said in the voice of Rik from The Young Ones.

  2. I think Mark makes some good points. I am doing a session at FODI, but I am planning to carry out a dangerous idea by speaking about some dangerous ideas other than the idea I am expected to discuss. It will be interesting to see if I am shut down.

  3. Will drop in from time to time to check for announcements about your upcoming event: “Festival of the really fucking dangerous Ideas”.

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