Can an Idea Be Dangerous?

An Australian festival aims to shock and provoke its audience. Does it go too far?

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What does the notion that “cat videos will save journalism” have in common with the claim that “women are sexual predators?”

According to the organizers of this weekend's Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) at the Sydney Opera House in Australia, these ideas are both dangerous. The festival, which just wrapped up its sixth installment, offers a roster of speakers on topics that could alternately be described as gently counterintuitive or, in the words of co-curator Simon Longstaff, “offensive, obnoxious, fearsome, [or] dangerously stupid.”

And while even journalists don't tend to seek shelter at the sight of a cat video, what makes all of these ideas “dangerous” to the festival’s organizers is their potential to challenge. “The original intention was to look at things that are difficult to discuss and are not discussed, that go against mainstream thought and opinion,” co-curator Ann Mossop tells me from Sydney. These can include big ideas about freedom, life, and death, or ideas that challenge everyday behavior by arguing, for example, that recycling is basically a waste of time. An idea could pose danger to any number of targets, be they a set of beliefs, an industry, or the very structure of society. But the organizers have stressed that they aren’t seeking to generate physical danger: “There has not been one incident in which the entanglement with dangerous ideas has got out of control or threatened the welfare of the audience or our wider society,” Longstaff wrote this summer. “This is despite speakers at FODI offering a range of ideas with the capacity to appall and revolt.”

But what’s the point of curating ideas with such a capacity? Why go to an appalling lecture and why buy tickets to a festival offering a variety of different ways to feel revolted? Longstaff explained: “Our objective in presenting dangerous ideas is not that these ideas be promoted or adopted, but simply that they be encountered and, thus, assessed on their merits. … We believe that ideas of all kinds are best exposed to the light of reason and discernment.”

In other words: The ideas will exist without the festival, so we might as well have an orderly process for looking into them.

Still, one man’s dangerous idea is another man’s conventional orthodoxy, as Longstaff acknowledged. “We knew that, for some people, some of the ideas would be innocuous—there is, after all, no danger in ideas with which you agree,” he wrote. The talk that kicked off the first festival five years ago was a case in point. Christopher Hitchens’s keynote address, “Religion Poisons Everything,” was provocatively packaged, but the content likely didn’t shock most of the young urban liberals who, according to Mossop, buy many of the tickets to the festival in the first place. Hitchens’s 2009 FODI talk took place five years after the publication of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, one of the founding works of the so-called New Atheist movement that Hitchens came to represent. The book was unthreatening enough to spend 33 weeks on the New York Times paperback best-seller list.

The Sydney Opera House, illuminated with a fish-scale pattern (Jason Reed/Reuters)
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This year’s program featured Kajsa Ekis Ekman, a Swedish activist and journalist with the dangerous idea that, as her Saturday talk was titled, “Surrogacy is Child Trafficking.” She has her own perspective on what makes an idea dangerous, for good or ill. “Fascism is, of course, a dangerous idea,” she tells me. “And I think not all dangerous ideas are good or should be let loose in that sense. … But then again I would say that there are also ideas that are dangerous in the good way, because they stimulate you to question everything that you’ve taken for granted, and especially ideas that question the existing economic and social order.”

Australians have had occasion to question the practice of child surrogacy in recent weeks as the story of “Baby Gammy” has unfolded in the national and international media. A 21-year-old surrogate in Thailand gave birth to Gammy and his twin sister Pipah on behalf of an Australian couple early this year. But when Gammy was born with Down syndrome, his parents reportedly took his healthy twin sister to Australia and left Gammy behind with the surrogate. The case has brought new attention to the trade of paid surrogacy, which is illegal in many countries, including Australia. But couples from all over the world hire surrogates in countries where doing so is legal or loosely regulated, as it is in the U.S., India, Thailand, Mexico, and Ukraine.  “All of a sudden, this is a huge issue here,” Mossop says.

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.

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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.