LONDON - Is demographic diversity in the workplace necessary? Is the free exchange of ideas threatened by identity politics? Is there such a thing as Trumpism? Is Vladimir Putin an international supervillain, or is the West responsible for a new Cold War? Is the #metoo hashtag, in which women share their experiences of sexual abuse, a sign of female strength or victimhood?
These were just a few of the topics discussed this past weekend at an extraordinary event in London called the Battle of Ideas.
Organized by a British think tank called the Institute of Ideas, the event is a unique intellectual festival held here every year since 2005 (with smaller satellite events in other European cities and a few in the United States). It used to be held at the Royal Academy of Arts; in 2012, it moved to the Barbican Center, Europe’s largest center for performing arts, which is almost massive enough to be a mini-city. This was the fourth time I attended as a speaker.
With five time blocks each day on Saturday and Sunday and nine to 12 concurrent sessions in every block (and a few more events in between), it was certainly like no other conference I have ever attended.
The Battle’s organizers, led by the indefatigable Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, cannot be easily pegged as left or right. They are strongly and passionately libertarian on cultural issues, particularly freedom of speech, but also personal freedom in general. They tend to be skeptical of traditional Western foreign policy with its interventionist bent. They question the liberal elite consensus without embracing authoritarian populism. Their views on most issues are an eclectic mix — often iconoclastic, but not contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.
Above all, though, their commitment is to debate itself. No cow is sacred, and the kind of diversity that counts most is diversity of ideas. While the speakers came from a healthy variety of backgrounds, there was no bean-counting; I spoke on two panels where I was the only woman, two with a female majority, and one that turned out to be all-female — ironically, the one on whether diversity is necessary. (Fox, who chaired the session, quipped that she had thought of adding a male speaker for the sake of inclusiveness, but decided against tokenism.)
That session in a jam-packed auditorium also was a model on how to productively debate a highly sensitive issue. While Fox and some speakers, myself included, leaned toward stressing individual diversity of viewpoints and experiences as most important for both culture and the business world, demographic representation had its eloquent defenders, including Amali de Alwis, CEO of a nonprofit organization that promotes women in technology and entrepreneurship. Working for equality and inclusion, de Alwis said, is a never-ending project because society’s notions of equality evolve.
At a time when political debate, especially in America, seems to be mainly a race to the bottom while universities are increasingly dominated by “safe spaces” and skittish about hosting potentially offensive speakers, the Battle of Ideas provides a safe space that matters: a space where disagreements can be civil, and controversial ideas will not be shouted down. If there’s one thing I would put on my wish list for 2018, it’s an American version of this intellectual festival. We live in a time that needs it more than ever.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.