FESTIVAL OF DANGEROUS IDEAS

Usually held in the Sydney Opera House this weekend long Festival was held for the first time on Cockatoo Island. What was perceived to attract the largest audience was held the cavernous Turbine Hall.

The concept of a dangerous idea means different things to different people. To some it means  political correctness, to others it means bigotry or a subject so taboo that it can’t be discussed in public. I spent a day at the Festival where some of these concepts were teased out  

The first speaker Rukmini Callimachi works exclusively on Isis for the New York Times. The danger for her was the way in which she obtained sources for her journalism. In particular she followed troops into the liberation of Mosel and other areas  in northern iraq where Isis had established a state the size of England and where residual snipers and landmines were an ever present threat. She found in deserted buildings pages and pages of discarded documents. She alone collected these papers and was able to establish that the Isis state had the structure of most states. In fact, it had 14 ministries. In this way she was able to get into the mindset of Isis and thereby report about the war from a broader perspective. When she returned to the New York Times she was frequently rung by the FBI that there was credible threat to her life. Nevertheless she was able to interview in depth in Canada former member of Isis who was a wealth of material.

The next speaker was Chuck Klosterman whose topic was ‘What if we are wrong?’ The danger here was that most people have a set of paradigms which create a sense of certainty and predictability. Chuck Klosterman provocatively stated that the history of ideas is usually the history of wrong ideas. He gave examples such as the lack of success, in his lifetime, of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The critics certainty regarding the book’s mediocrity at that time was found to be wrong as today it is acclaimed as one of America’s greatest novels. Another example was Galileo who argued against the Catholic Church and the general conception at the time that the earth was the centre of the universe. He was persecuted by the Church because he argued that the sun was the centre of the solar system around which the earth revolved.

The next topic was Is privacy over? The dangers or benefits of a lack of privacy were discussed by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Zeynep Tufekci. Stephens-Davidowitz argued that some benefits could be collected for a utilitarian good. He gave the example of  suicide hotspots in various parts of the world. This could lead to an examination of why there was a high incidence of suicide and attempt to devise programs to prevent it.

Tufekci found that this data could also be dangerous as it was collected without consent, its availability was not determined, and that big corporations or nefarious government could use the information against certain individuals. Tufekci argued that a seatbelt should be put around data collection. One of the components of the seatbelt should be the consent of the person about whom the data was collected. Paradoxically she stated that as an academic and a journalist she  loved data aggregation but she felt at present the dangers far outweighed the benefits without strategically effective regulation.

The final session of Day 1 was a panel discussion entitled ‘too Dangerous’. The panel  of Germaine Greer, Megan Phelps-Roper and Ayelet Waldman discussed issues which put them in harm’s way or made them feel extremely uncomfortable. Ayelet Waldman who regards herself as well left of centre found it extremely distressing when she was pilloried by her peers. She was heavily criticised for publishing a novel advocating bad motherhood. She hated the competitiveness relating to ‘good mothers’ and also stated that she loved her husband (the novelist Michael Chabon) more than her four children. The novel and her articles on this subject provoked a storm of criticism. She said that she was taken aback but unapologetic. Furthermore she admitted that if she appeared in public with her children she became paranoid about what people were saying in the light of her fore-mentioned remarks. Controversy also followed her for advocating  micro dosing on LSD to help her get through bad days. Waldman also admitted that the most dangerous thing for her is when she finds herself  censoring or withholding what she really wants to say.

Natasha Phelps-Roper was part of an almost cultish Church, the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas. It is notorious for its extreme views on homosexuality, picketing the funerals of dead soldiers, its web page says God hates fags. The group maintain that the soldiers died because God was angry with them and that people should not honour them in the way that they do. Phelps-Roper was the grand daughter of the Minister of this Church which was also very controlling of every member’s life. The most dangerous thing that she did was to leave the Church as hate mail and vitriol followed her. In response she became a social activist arguing against the hate spewed out by her former church. She found that the most effective way to blunt the trolls maliciousness was to employ humour.

Perhaps the most controversial speaker of the day was Germaine Greer. She had been banned from the Brisbane Writer’s Festival for her views on rape but was able to expound them fully in this forum. Greer stated that a lot of women don’t understand the concept of rape. A wife who doesn’t consent to her husband having intercourse with her is being raped, or even a wife who just puts up with it is being raped. She also railed against the injustice of sentencing rapists who were poor as opposed to rich rapists. She gave the example of a Bangladeshi rapist who was sentenced to nine years jail even though in all likelihood there was no penetration. She contrasted this with Harvey Weinstein who will probably get away with all the things he had done.

Perhaps the most controversial remarks were about Julia Gillard. Greer talked about Gillard wearing pants that emphasised her large bottom and wearing ill fitting jackets. She stated that these comments were a joke but not many feminists found it funny.

There were two  dangerous art exhibitions. The first ‘Submission’ by Garth Knight was a living sculpture of erotic entanglement. The fact that sone of it was performed in the nude attracted controversy.

Riley Harman’s installation ‘What it is without the hand that wields it; x redux’ uses the cult classic game ‘Counter Strike’ to blur the lines between reality and computer games. To shock, there is much blood spattering  in the video game.

As the hordes of people made their way to the ferries one could see by their animated discussions that the day had proved a stimulating and thought provoking  experience, due in part to the high calibre of the speakers. All the discussions were ably moderated Hamish Macdonald and Marc Fennell.

Featured image- Megan Phelps-Roper. Pics by Ben Apfelbaum

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