Dangerous Ideas in 2013

Last week the Wheeler Centre brought Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas to Melbourne as a one day pop-up festival.

The thought that an idea could be seen as dangerous in a democracy like ours, where freedom of speech is granted as an undocumented but largely assumed right, seems odd. But some of the speakers brought their top game and challenged that notion outright by speaking about fighting against convention in order to progress as a society.

But whose society? All the speakers, five of them in Melbourne, were American. Understandably the Wheeler Centre chose the biggest names to bring from Sydney for the special event, but it did mean that only Australian voices were heard in the southern city, while Sydney had a greater international range.

Obviously the Wheeler Centre had a difficult choice to make between selling tickets with big name international thinkers and supporting Australian voices. They chose the former and it’s a small shame because it might aid our own dangerous idea: the self-fulfilling cycle of reducing our self-worth by encouraging us to listen to foreigners rather than speak ourselves.

The point of the overwhelming American presence on stage was made by the day’s host, and director of the Wheeler Centre, Michael Williams. In his role on the day he took on a refreshing no bullshit approach and, unlike so many people who take on the tasks of hosting, at no point did his interaction with the guests devolve to sycophancy. He challenged ideas where appropriate and, almost more importantly, made jokes where appropriate.

Williams was Australia’s representative on stage and he did us a great service of showing that we can hold our own in an international forum.

The focus on US ideas was most painful during the talk by Kirby Ferguson, creator of the popular video series about art and appropriate, ‘Everything is a Remix’.

Kirby’s discussion on conspiracy theories was entertaining at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. He dismissed conspiracy theorists as “goofy” and failed to discuss the harm they can cause. When I pushed him with a question from the audience about the real harm that can come from conspiracy theories, referring to the Protocol of the Elders of Zion, he replied that he was only talking about American conspiracy theories.

His closed-minded talk and entertaining style were more suited to a TED conference, where ideas are shared but not challenged. The feeling in the audience was that Kirby had failed. Many questions pointed out holes in his thesis and he was more willing to dismiss them than acknowledge them.

Dan Savage started the day’s proceedings. If you’ve not heard of him, he does a very well-known sex advice column and podcast that polarises people into ignorant barrow-pushers and the more patient.

Savage spoke with honesty about his ‘monogamish’ relationship and the idea that if we’re to be a society that values marriage, we have to be honest about wandering eyes, emotions and desires.

The most valuable and unexpected idea he gave was in response to an audience member’s question about how to know who to tell about sexual preferences. His response was that not everything has to be a metaphorical closet and that truth can sometimes do more harm than good. ‘Sometimes it’s more considerate to lie than tell the truth,’ he said.

Arlie Russell Hochschild gave us plenty of examples of people outsourcing parts of their lives to third parties. Were they lying to themselves about their own lives? Were they favouring lifestyle over actual life? we don’t actually know. The professor emerita of Sociology gave us few questions and even fewer answers. Her talk was more about the presentation of a concept than the discussion of an idea.

I did wonder if Hochschild’s book, on the same topic, would have more discussion of the impact outsourcing is having on the home and family unit, or if it’s more of ‘here’s a thing, and here’s another thing.’

I knew nothing of Hanna Rosin’s work going into her talk except that her book and talk had the particularly controversial title of The End of Men (And the Rise of Women). My notes for her talk are the shortest of all the speakers but that shouldn’t necessarily reflect badly on her. On the contrary, I was so engaged by her thesis of society’s changing gender roles that I wouldn’t have been able to write quickly enough and still keep up.

It was the first time I had heard a woman speak about the problem with men: that we have trapped ourselves into thinking or acting in a way that’s expected of us. In working classes the idea of work that men should do is still common. It’s common in other classes but not as crucial in a time of great unemployment for unskilled labour.

She is also rethinking a lot of her thesis. That one’s ideas can change is so rarely acknowledged in these sorts of events. By the close of her time on stage it was clear that men were in danger, not of being ended, but of being stuck in a limbo of uselessness.

I could have listened to Hanna Rosin talk about the way she sees the world for another three hours.

The long day of thinking and judging was already at the length of a full work day. But at 8pm we were about to receive, for me, the most anticipated guest of the day.

David Simon came on stage dressed like a writer. He’s not a fancy man but he is an honest man; an honest man who could jokingly equate Karl Marx to MC Hammer and then depress a full theatre with the idea that by allowing uncontrolled profit growth be our society’s goal, we have forsaken the social compact that companies engage in when they first go into business.

Simon mourned the death of democracy in the US, saying that “the electoral process has been purchased.” He spoke about the failed war on drugs, the financial incentive to increase incarceration numbers and the problem of everybody wanting healthcare provided for them but nobody wanting to pay for it to be provided to someone else.

His talk was reminiscent of the opening chapters of The Grapes of Wrath where we discover no one is responsible for the current state but we have all played a part.

In a conversation I had with Michael Williams before writing this, we discussed the problem of inter nation guests versus local ideas. It’s a tough choice for the director of an organisation that has the word ‘ideas’ in its motto.

I would argue that we just admit that a festival is a time to have a bunch of imported ideas presented to us. The Wheeler Centre spends the rest of the year presenting us with local ideas. They presented us with a bunch of guest speakers we otherwise would not have heard.

I don’t think it’s incumbent on the Wheeler Centre to throw a token Australian into the mix at the cost of having a fresh voice in a rare opportunity. It’s incumbent on us, the idea seekers, to make more of the resources available to us throughout the year.

At the end of the day of a lot of thinking, talking and listening, it was clear that we all have a lot more work to do (especially Kirby Ferguson). I look forward to next year’s pop-up festival of imported ideas so that we can learn from them and incorporate those lessons into our own thoughts and actions.

In the interests of honesty and openness, I should point out that I have a financial relationship with the Wheeler Centre as a donor/patron/friend. Also, clearly, I know Michael Williams personally because of Melbourne.