Can an Idea Be Dangerous?

And Ekman’s critique of the practice is certainly provocative. The title of her talk emphasizes “trafficking” in children, but her main argument against commercial surrogacy is that it resembles prostitution; they are two industries, she says, “that sell the female body in different ways.” Whereas prostitution promotes sex without reproduction, surrogacy promotes reproduction without sex, Ekman argues. Both employ large numbers of poor women. “How come in prostitution and surrogacy you need to actually go to all these poor countries and fool people into it? I mean that tells you something also about the nature of the job,” Ekman says. “In one way [surrogacy is] worse, because it doesn’t take 15 minutes and you can forget about it.”


“If you’re somebody who has had a child through some kind of surrogacy and somebody’s saying to you, you’re the equivalent of a human trafficker, it’s very confronting,” Mossop says. “Because it goes to these primal … very strong feelings that people have about having children, people find it quite threatening.”

Which is part of the point. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas is “not really designed to offend,” Mossop says. But offense is practically baked into the conceit of systematically challenging deeply held beliefs specifically because they are deeply held. Mossop notes that last year’s program included a speaker who was a twice-convicted killer speaking about the effects of incarceration. “This was obviously something people thought was absolutely outrageous,” she says. Speakers in previous years have articulated moral justifications for torturing terrorists and flogging prisoners.

* * *

Talks like these have inspired boycotts of the festival; still, ticket sales have risen steadily, more than tripling from 8,000 in 2009 to around 25,000 this year, according to Mossop. But this year marked the first time that an event had to be canceled because of controversy. The original schedule included a talk by the Muslim activist Uthman Badar titled “Honor Killings Are Morally Justified.” A public backlash ensued within hours of the agenda's release in June. “It is a truly dangerous idea,” Pru Goward, the minister for women of the Australian state of New South Wales, told Australian radio at the time.* “We have millions and millions of women in the world who fear honor killings.” A statement from the Sydney Opera House blamed the talk’s title for the backlash, saying it did not represent Badar’s views—he had intended to discuss how the notion of “honor” is used to justify killing in any number of circumstances, including war. But the curators canceled the talk the same day, citing the level of public outrage. More specifically, Mossop tells me: “You cannot put a speaker in a situation where they’re going to confront that. And the whole thing had become such a distraction from what he really wanted to talk about.”

So is it packaging that makes an idea dangerous? Absent provocative lecture titles, would the event have to be rebranded the Sydney Festival of Unusual Perspectives? And what would that do to ticket sales? “There is an imperative to make a festival have an impact … and project a sense of excitement," Mossop says. "But certainly we know that we have to think that the titles may travel on their own with no context.” 

The Badar episode, Ekman notes, indicates the risks of trying to get attention for ideas in an era of Twitter outrage. “You’re always at this fine line, because if you’re just, you know, not provoking anyone, nobody’s going to hear about you,” she says. “But if you go too far, you are called … homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic … and all of a sudden you’ve crossed a line, apparently."

With unprecedented ease in spreading ideas comes an imperative to watch what you say, at a time when retweets have career-destroying power, Ekman says. "I think that in itself is dangerous.”

This post originally misidentified Pru Goward as Australia's minister for women. We regret the error.

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Kathy Gilsinan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers global affairs. She was previously senior editor at World Politics Review.

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