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Giving Controversy a Voice: The Festival of Dangerous Ideas

We’ve heard it all before – never discuss religion, sex, ideology or politics if you want to keep the peace and avoid violence at the conversation. But let’s face it – for those of us who are passionate about such issues, they’re all we WANT to talk about. So what if someone gets punched out? It’s all about stimulating the MIND, my friend.

Intellectual conversation is exactly what the Festival of Dangerous Ideas aims to encourage, and we couldn’t be more excited that such an event is about to exist. Taking place this Saturday and Sunday at the Sydney Opera House, a mental battlefield is sure to arise among the supporters and opponents of such hot topics as Religion poisons everything, Yes to Child Labour, No to the Minimum Wage, Polygamy and other Islamic Values are Good for Australia and, what is destined to be one of my favourites, People With Flat Screen TVs Should Stop Whingeing about Capitalism.

Germaine Greer

We can just feel the tension rising, and nobody’s even said anything yet. It’s like heaven for the heavily opinionated – and pretty damn interesting for everyone else. There’s even a segment on how Freedom is the most dangerous idea of all, presented by everybody’s favourite feminist, Germaine Greer. And she’s not the only name that might cause a stir – Christopher Hitchens, Tony Jones and Dambisa Moyo will also be having their say.

Presented by the Sydney Opera House and the St James Ethics Centre, the festival has been curated by the Opera House’s Dennis Watkins and St James’ Simon Longstaff, who started working on the inaugural event in October of last year. Dennis says the idea for the event arose after a conversation about the lack of public platforms for stroppy speakers.

Naturally, with such a program on the cards the planners know they are about to provoke a reaction which is likely be adverse in many circles.

“What we want is honest and robust reaction. We want debate. We don’t want to play it safe,” says Dennis.
“Of course, what some people see as dangerous others see as business as usual. We’ve already had complaints about Keysar Trad’s talk on Polygamy and people haven’t even heard what he has to say.”

Determined that a brave and honest society is a better place to live, Dennis says the brainchildren behind the event wanted to create a forum where current issues were paid attention to and the speakers were challenged to challenge society.

“We want to encourage people to think about matters they would prefer not to think about, revisit their position on familiar topics, and discuss the ‘undiscussables’.”

Christopher Hitchens, photo credit Christian Witkin

In a world that treads on political correctness as though it’s the edge of a cliff, one could argue that such open discussion is exactly what is needed right now. Dennis claims that an idea becomes dangerous the second it has the potential to change the course of events, ideals or actions.

“Dangerous ideas challenge the status quo, cause a ‘frisson of tension’ when discussed openly and are often ideas about which people think, but think twice about expressing. They have consequences if acted upon,” he says.

“A dangerous idea will sometimes cause us to question the value of free speech and tolerance – it will prick us, take us to our limits and challenge the extent to which we privilege candour in our culture."

“In many cases, experience decides what’s dangerous and over time societies develop rules and taboos to avoid danger. But new experiences and new thinking are the catalysts for growth and our guest speakers will explore ideas that give us a chance to reassess where we are and where we want to go. We may even want to go back to values and ideas which have been discarded, ignored or forgotten.”

Don’t worry – the point isn’t to just absorb or get angry. You can actually voice your anger, too! The will be question and answer sessions after each discussion and a free soapbox event, which will give everyone the chance to speak, listen and respond.
And then at the end of the weekend, you can laugh it all away at Dangerously Funny, where comedy’s finest will reminisce on the past couple days and perhaps help us to take these matters a little less seriously – if for only a night.

Dangerously Funny's all-star cast

The festival takes place on Saturday, October 3 and Sunday, October 4 at the Sydney Opera House.
For the full program and prices, head to the festival website.

words: Seema Duggal


September 30, 2009 at 9:19 AM belinda suzette said...

wow what interesting and delectable fun.
wish i could be there.

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