Battling for her Beliefs – A conversation with the ‘FANTASTIC MS CLAIRE FOX.’
By Lizzie Soden/Greg Scorzo
Re-visiting our chat with Claire Fox from 2016…
Claire convenes the Battle of Ideas Festival at the Barbican in London. This year it takes place on the 13th and 14th October ’18.
Claire is the director of the Academy of Ideas, based in the UK. She established the AOI to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint. She has a particular interest in education and social issues such as crime and mental health. She is a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio programmes such as Question Time and ‘Any Questions?’ She is also a columnist for TES (Times Education Supplement) and MJ (Municipal Journal). As if that weren’t enough Claire is also an Executive Board member of the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction (IRDR), UCL, and a Fellow of Wellington College.
We talked to Claire at length about the festival. We were interested in talking to her because she is, like us, difficult to classify politically. She is both unabashedly unorthodox and surprisingly common sensical. Claire is also a fierce advocate of free-speech and refreshingly clear in the way she expresses herself. You could even call her counter-cultural considering much of what culture is today. As is obvious, we love counter-culture here at CULTURE ON THE OFFENSIVE.
So here’s our chat to Claire about the Battle of Ideas Festival, how it works, as well as some of the urban myths and controversies surrounding it. We talked about intellectual freedom, identity politics, censorship and the current fetish for taking offence.
Culture on the Offensive : So, tell us about the Battle of Ideas? What’s the thinking behind it?
Claire Fox: It’s a weekend festival with approximately a hundred panel discussions, full of speakers. It’s an entirely public event. The idea behind it is it’s an event where the public can come in and join in the conversations. So although there’s 400 speakers who come from different disciplines and countries, they’re not there necessarily there as “experts” who have been chosen just to lecture at people. Nonetheless, they have a lot of knowledge and interest in what they’ve been asked to talk about. The speakers are there as a catalyst for a public conversation. It’s a conversation WITH the public.
Coto: How does that work in terms of the format being used?
CF: When we started this 14 years ago, we prioritised chairing things quite tightly. We wouldn’t let panellists, however famous, speak for more than 5 to 7 minutes. Then we ensured that there was a lot of discussion from the floor. Having been a speaker and an attendee at many debates, what one often finds is that the panel discussion goes on a long time. Then they say, “Now there’s plenty of time for the audience to participate at the end.” when there’s only 5 minutes. Then, the audience has to ask questions to the panel. What we say instead is that any thoughts from the audience are allowed. They don’t necessarily have to be questions.
Coto: So that creates more of a conversation.
CF: Yes, we’ve thought quite carefully about that. It’s very deliberately that way. Also, we’re quite specific about what we mean when we talk about “the public.” When we first started this, people said, “Oh, if you allow the public to come, all sorts of lunatics will wander through the door. How can you control who gets in?”
It seems like people had two conceptions of the public. The first was that the public would be people who were out of control, constantly saying awful things to the speakers. It would be impossible to contain what were called “eccentric contributions.” The second conception of the public was a group of people who would never come to our debates anyway. Ordinary people supposedly wouldn’t want to come for a weekend to discuss ideas and politics.
So one of the things we did in response to these conceptions was to refuse to make each session its own stand-alone event. By that, I mean you’re not allowed to go, “Oh, I’d really like to go to the discussion on robots and then leave.” You have to buy a day ticket or a weekend ticket. That means if you come, you’re gonna be exposed to more than just the thing you’re interested in. We’re trying to encourage people to be intellectually curious, to go beyond their own interests.
Coto: That’s interesting because, before social media, everybody used to watch television. You’d sit and watch a night of TV where you’d watch whatever was part of the broadcast schedule. So you’d see things you weren’t necessarily interested in, and be exposed things you didn’t necessarily control. Now, a lot of young people only look for things on the internet that they either are familiar with or agree with. So it’s good to have an environment where people think, “I might as well have the patience to find out about something I’ve never thought about before.”
CF: Yeah, one time we had a major scientist who was speaking on behalf of a pharmaceutical company. At that stage, we were doing the Battle of Ideas at the Royal College of Art. We had something called “Breakfast Banter” which would last about 45 minutes. It was meant to be about an issue where people may or may not know anything about it. This banter was on poetry. This scientist was sitting in the front row, about ten minutes before it was about to start. I thought, “What are you doing here? You’re a scientist.” That was perhaps a bit unfair of me. But as it turns out, this person has a secret interest in poetry. As a consequence of going to that event, he ended up offering to help out a new project called “Poet in the City.” He became one of their trustees.
He always tells me it’s something he would have never dreamed of doing. But the Breakfast Banter expanded his horizons about poetry. It was the classic “corporate scientist goes poet” situation. But on the other hand, we’ve had poets pop in on our sessions and become fascinated by robotics. Things like that happen all the time. The programme, in a way, is designed for that. There’s a choice of 10 things to go to, at any given time. Sometimes there’s 11! It’s ridiculous. The way it’s set up, you can only go to 5 or 6 events in a day.
So you could say, “Why is there so much stuff?” The answer is something like this: This is like a music festival. The idea is that you wander around with your armband on, and you can meander into things. You can take a risk of saying, “I’m not just gonna stick with things I know. I’m gonna engage with something I’m not familiar with.
So although we organise these debates in strands, normally, only about 25% of the audience in that strand stays within their preferred topic. Usually, what happens is people are tempted into something completely different to what they came for. Sometimes it’s because they hear a stranger at the coffee break talking about some brilliant speaker they’d like to see. That’s what you want. You want to encourage people to move beyond what they think their interests are.
Coto: Do you find people ever get bored of talks and walk out? Or is your policy, “Once you’re in, you’re in.”
CF: We don’t say, “Once you’re in, you’re in.” But we hardly get any walk outs. The public, despite what many people said, have an appetite for this. People are very serious about it. I don’t mean that in an overly earnest way. I mean, people are serious about getting to grips with things, thinking about issues, and they want to ask questions. They want to share their insights and interact with the speakers. It’s true that over the years, we’ve had a handful of drunks who’ve come in and been silly. But generally speaking, that’s not what happens. We’re constantly finding new audiences. That’s really important because a lot of major institutions came around to our way of thinking. There were lots of institutions, once we started, saying, “Oh yes, you’re right. We need to do more public engagement.”
But they still had a very targeted view of who the public was. They’d go out and say, “We want THAT public.” It’s like they wanted to control the public. We’ve never done that. We just advertise what we do and let people know about it. But we’ve also gone for marketing that doesn’t target the usual suspects. We know that there’s a big audience for book festivals. These festivals get hundreds of thousands of people. This audience, who are already engaged, are fine. But they aren’t people we’re necessarily targeting. We’re targeting the sort of people who normally wouldn’t go to this kind of event.
Coto: That’s really good. What would you say to some of the conspiracy theories and suggestions that seem to occasionally surface and float around, that the Battle of Ideas is something the “Academy of Ideas” have staged to promote your particular ideology? One of the criticisms levelled at you is that the composition of your panels is designed to promote your political agenda. Meanwhile, the other people on the panels aren’t necessarily aware of this.
CF: Well, it’s true that on the panels, there will always be somebody I agree with. That’s because I’ve got a political point of view, and there are people I am genuinely enthusiastic about. One thing we’ve never said is that we’re just an events organising body. We don’t pretend neutrality. However, we do practice fairness in how the debates are conducted. But we don’t tell a chair not to have an opinion. We tell our chairs that it’s OK to have their own point of view on display. But we’d never have a situation where the one person on the panel I agree with is given half an hour, where everybody else is given far less time. But I hold my hands up to the accusation that I have a particular political outlook. It’s true.
When I started the Institute of Ideas, I felt that a number of ideas had been squeezed out of the public debate. Not just my ideas. Many ideas. And I’ve always thought that was ridiculous. So we try to create panel debates within which there are a multitude of views. There will be people in those debates who come from a political tradition that I come from, and who I tend to agree with and a majority who I vehemently disagree with. It’s the nature of debate.
Coto: The idea that any discussion salon is ever neutral is questionable. It doesn’t matter whether it’s set up by the Guardian, or the Daily Telegraph, or Spiked. You can’t run any event and be truly neutral. So the people who accuse you of bias are guilty of the same thing themselves. Everybody sets up an event for a reason. The Guardian for example, who may complain about your bias, also wheels out Owen Jones at nearly every event that they do.
CF: What we do is write provocation blurbs for the website and our brochure. If you’ve read those blurbs, the agendas in them are an attempt to dig deeper than merely stating the obvious. The blurbs try and ask awkward questions. But the answers to those questions involve a fair fight, on the day. The audience, who I don’t consider to be idiots, and who I don’t always know, mostly are intelligent. But they don’t all wind up agreeing with me. You can have an agenda, but that doesn’t mean your agenda wins the argument.
We always lay our cards out on the table. We’re coming from a pro free-speech position. But there’s a lot of our speakers who would argue against us. A lot of the people in the audience will listen to all the different views. Some of the audience will agree with us and some of them won’t. Sometimes, coming to one of our events hardens people who disagree with us even more. And it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not like everybody votes on something at the end.
So yes, there is an agenda. The organisers inform the agenda, and we are those organisers. We have a list of pro-enlightenment values that we like. But it’s still open to anyone. Of our 400 speakers, there’s probably about 10% who I have been involved with politically.
Coto: Isn’t everybody old friends with people who think the same as them politically. We all still often connect with those we met in our formative years. All politicos presumably know and work with old friends they used to go on demos with, and spent hours having long rambling political discussions with.
CF: There are many people with us I know personally, who I have a lot of regard for. And then there are people who I’ve admired politically, over a period of time, for different reasons. A regular speaker at the Battle of Ideas is Vicky Pryce. She’s a lib-deb pro-Remain economist, who I don’t agree with about anything. But she takes debate seriously, and she’s always come along, participated, and never backed off from an argument. That’s hugely important to me. That’s why there will be, and there are, lots of people like her who are regular speakers for us. There are people I know who sometimes say, “This person is speaking with the Institute of Ideas. That must mean they agree with Claire Fox, who runs it.” But they don’t. It’s a free space for people who respect the need for having arguments in the public sphere.
Coto: As you say, you’re very motivated, as an organisation, about things like free-speech; having no idea being beyond discussion. You’re not into censorship. One thing many people might wonder is, “How do you define free-speech?” Lots of people have different conceptions of free-speech, at the moment.
CF: For me, free-speech is “free-speech, with no ifs, ands, or buts.” I don’t think there are things that can’t be said.
Coto: So would you be ok if a Battle of Ideas participator got up and launched scathing and threatening personal attacks like, “all you people are fucking assholes! I fucking hate you! I wish you all were dead! In fact, I’m gonna have my friends find out your addresses, and we’re all gonna kill you!” That is obviously pretty common on the internet because people can vent anonymously from behind a keyboard.
CF: Well, if they did that, they probably wouldn’t get invited back to the Battle of Ideas. (laughs) But if that ever happened, we’d cope. We’re strong. I mean, something like that has never happened before. Free-speech, for me, doesn’t necessarily mean that I have to give a platform to the most hateful people around. Doing that would be moronic. We’re not under any obligation to have a BNP speaker on our panel, even though we would defend their right to free speech. Those people don’t have much to contribute.
But on the other hand, we’ve had lots of people who have views I disagree with. There are speakers who say things that make me cringe. They’re not what you described, but if something like that actually happened, what’s the worst that could happen? Everybody would just think they were an asshole. They could say, “We’re gonna get your names and addresses and kill you!” But then, nobody would give them those names and addresses! So that would be the end of that. You’d just think, “What a stupid thing to say. Why aren’t you addressing the issues at hand?” That’s what the chair would probably say to that speaker. I mean, there have been people on panels who argue, “I think democracy is a problem.” That’s horrible, but these days, that’s a major Remain argument. Sometimes people on panels say, “I don’t think democracy works because you can’t trust uneducated people to make decisions.” I find that highly offensive. There could be somebody who says, “Immigrants who come to this country rape people!” All of that could be said on a panel and we aren’t going to try and censor any ideas, however offensive I personally find them. All of this is being said in the public discourse at the moment, in some places.
Coto: (Laughing) Like the U.S?
CF: Yeah, The point of the Battle of Ideas is to expose an idea like that in the open. Then somebody in the audience or the panel can come back and say “That idea is ridiculous.”
Coto: As we mentioned before today, in the age of the internet, there are keyboard warriors who seem extremely keen on making threatening remarks. We just published a piece on Brexit that was very controversial, because at the beginning, it does a parody of the ‘disgruntled’ Remainers. (Obviously not all Remainers.) It ‘parodies’ how those Remainers view Brexiters with a totally bigoted attitude. This obviously demonstrates complete double standard as they are mostly accusing ALL Brexiters of being bigoted. (No doubt some of them are.) But ironically, some Brexiters just read the first few paragraphs, without getting the joke. People are getting very defensive nowadays. They seem to be losing their sense of humour. Not sure Chris Morris would go down too well today. They take the article seriously even though those paragraphs have things in them that are absolutely absurd. It actually gets progressively absurd, very quickly.
They read the first bit, react emotionally and go hysterical and say horrendously awful things. It actually totally proves the point of the article. It creates discourse, which is so intensely vitriolic. The author was accused by one person, of needing to be in an asylum. Another person said the author was paralysed. That’s a very odd criticism. Maybe the person who said it hates disabled people. (laughs.)
CF: I still defend the free speech of trolls to be dickheads. But that doesn’t mean I want to encourage that. I think, if anything, a lot of that behaviour is encouraged by an atmosphere of censoriousness. It almost creates a stultifying environment that dickheads react against. But there’s also horrible things people say online. When you have a face to face public debate, the abuse levels go down. Sometimes people, in person, still say quite sensationalist, insensitive things about me, or things that I think. I see that those people are coming to the Battle of Ideas and I think, “Oh God!” But then, I’ll sort of take them on in a discussion, waiting for the attack. When I make my points, they often back off. It’s like once they get confronted with the truth, they don’t know how to keep repeating what they now know is a lie. They become unsettled.
Sometimes people “No Platform” my events. But I’ve always been much more interested in having my political opponents on panels. I think that’s exactly what the Battle of Ideas should be about. But not everybody wants to have a discussion. There is an increasing social problem, especially during free speech debates, when people who want safe spaces won’t speak outside of a safe space. They won’t debate, on a panel, with people who disagree with them. Hearing the alternative point of view threatens them.
Coto: Yes, of course, the panel isn’t a safe space.
CF: Once I went to speak at a big debate with a famous environmentalist. It was so obvious that I was the “tick box” global warming sceptic. I was also a woman, so that was even better for them. The whole audience, was by and large, an environmentalist audience of about three hundred people.
Coto: Well it certainly sounds like THEY had an agenda. (laughs.)
CF: I know. But in the middle of that debate, when I started speaking, people start hissing. They started saying, “Why was she invited?” I would talk and the panellists would say to me, “That’s outrageous! You can’t say that!” But I said, “Look, you guys don’t agree on everything. You’ve been arguing amongst yourselves about whether or not you can trust the IPCC’s latest findings. But because you all come at this debate from an environmentalist perspective, your disagreements are allowed. Because I come at it from a slightly different perspective, I’m somehow unacceptable.
Very often when people put panels together, they invite somebody who they think is crazy, to contrast with all the sensible people on the panel. I’m often that crazy person. The audience is like the sensible members on the panel. So the event is a kind of echo chamber, apart from that one crazy person. Then what happens is if the crazy person is convincing in any way, and the audience starts to change their minds, the organizers get even more angry at you. The organisers have hired you to be a clown. When something happens when somebody in the audience or on the panel says, “Actually, I think Claire Fox has a point”, it then often gets really really nasty. We have genuinely tried not to do that.
Coto: Yes, you don’t create an echo chamber. You’re not the ones who book and buy the tickets.
CF: Yes, but also, we try not to, in bad faith, have an opponent that we want to function as the crazy person on the panel. I say that in all seriousness. We don’t go, “Ok, we’ve got 3 free speech people. Now, we need one lunatic.” We try and get the best speakers. People who are subtle and worthy of being paid attention to, regardless of what they believe. I don’t want to do a typical panel debate, where there’s a horrible atmosphere that’s biased in our direction. We want it to feel genuine.
Coto: Do you think the echo chamber effect, on the left especially, is getting worse?
CF: Much, much, much, worse.
Coto: It seems like there’s no dissent allowed.
CF: It’s horrible. Absolutely horrible. There’s not a sense that anyone is actually listening to people. I don’t mean that in a relativistic way, where no ideas actually matter. I mean left people today are closed off to the idea that there may be things which are different to what they already believe. Having said, I also got a really nice email from a lefty student at St. Andrews who said, “I just read your book and I wanted to thank you. As a gay activist, the political world I’m involved in has turned into a nightmare. It’s a nightmare of intolerance, and safe spaces, and echo chambers.” He was very nice.
Coto: I think the left is gonna change. People are getting sick of this.
CF: Yes, lots of left-wing people are feeling this very acutely.
Coto: When you bring it up this intolerance in discussions with lefties, lots of them feel so relieved. They don’t feel so alone.
CF: Yes, that relates to the Battle of Ideas. The Battle of Ideas is a symbol of opening up this discussion. We’re not frightened of discussion. The worst that can happen is you’re offended. We had a difficult panel last year on identity politics. We had Julie Bindel and a limited number of people to share a platform with her. But it was really important to me that she was there. Now let me tell you, Julie Bindel and I disagree on everything, apart from free speech. We did the panel differently than we normally do. Everybody on the panel was critical of identity politics for different reasons. It was the panel vs the audience. The audience, by and large, said why didn’t you have a disabled person? Why didn’t you have a trans person? I said, it’s because we don’t do identity politics, so you’ll have to live with that.
But we gave the audience plenty of time to speak. We had a bloody row. But it wasn’t the panel who stopped the row, so the makeup of the panel didn’t stop the argument.
Coto: If anything, they probably provoked it.
CF: It was also a row between me and the audience. Sometimes that’s the way things work out.
Coto: In a bizarre way, identity politics is kind of taking people from the left and bringing them into the Spiked magazine world. (An online magazine with strong links to the Institute of Ideas.) Five years ago, we were much more conventionally left-wing, and when we saw what the left was doing, it became difficult for us to understand where we were on the political spectrum. We found a lot of our fans and people who write to us are left-wing people who don’t like the left anymore. They don’t know where they are now. There’s almost an existential turmoil they have about not knowing how to label themselves anymore.
CF: That’s certainly how I feel.
Coto: You are generally called a libertarian. The term “libertarian” is interesting. In America and Britain, “libertarian” means very different things. It’s difficult to understand what it means. We used to be quite happy with the way we understood left and right. We were quite happy with the fact that most people on the left used to universally join together to fight causes, where they were LGBT causes, the miners strike, or anti-racism. Now, it’s not like that anymore. If some evil right-wing guru wanted to separate the left and make them fight with each other, they would have invented identity politics. The left is eating itself up by being so internally divisive.
CF: I know!
The horrible thing about identity politics is how much it’s a shift away from what progressivism traditionally stood for. Progressivism was originally about transcending biology, transcending one’s personal culture, and going beyond the colour of your skin. Now if you say, “I’m colour blind” people will call you racist. The whole thing is crazy. And it’s created a really unpleasant atmosphere on the left. But for Battle of Ideas, it’s really hard to get someone who is into identity politics to speak on a panel about identity politics.
Coto: It’s like a religion. It’s like a religious script that they’ve bought into. Some kind of worthy moral stance.
CF: And it’s also not that helpful, because proponents of identity politics tend not to debate. So this year, we’re gonna try and do identity politics again, but in a different way. We’re gonna try and be more philosophical about it. I’ve got Julian Baggini with us, who is critical of it, but who is also sympathetic in some ways. He’s done philosophy around it. He’ll be facing off against Brendan O’Neil, who is much more hard-line in opposing it. But identity politics is always difficult to do well, because you always get complaints about lack of representation. People you’d like to be on panels won’t do it because you don’t have a demographic composition they approve of.
But say, you do a panel on something like Artificial Intelligence. You’ll have lots of people on the panel who will disagree with each other about whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. The panels will be mixed a lot, but they don’t necessarily fall into left vs right.
Coto: Nothing does anymore.
CF: I recently did an interview with LBC where they introduced me as a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. That’s tiresome. Plus the presenter didn’t know who I was. He kept assuming I was pro-Jeremy Corbyn, and was actually shocked when I said what I thought. I wasn’t actually attacking Corbyn, but the presenter assumed I would agree with him as I was on the left. But you get a sense that I wasn’t what he thought I was. Then later on, I did an interview on the Westminster Hour, which to be honest, I think I shouldn’t have done. They introduced me as a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. I thought, “Fucking hell, not again!” It feels like an easy way of labelling that’s not relevant today.
Coto: And then you get told “You used to be a revolutionary! But now you’re a right-wing libertarian, in the pockets of corporations!”
CF: Exactly. I can’t win. But this is a way people caricature me. It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s understandable it happens. For the last 15 years or so, the left has really changed. It’s not what it was in the past. Even though I had massive arguments within the left, I never had any problem identifying myself as being on that part of the political spectrum. I loved it. When I look at what the left is today, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I would never deny that I’m from a left-wing background. In fact, I consider myself a kind of leftist. But that’s an almost useless thing to say to people. It’s like saying I used to be in the Revolutionary Communist Party. You say it and people think, “Oh then you agree with X, Y, and Z.” I normally don’t agree with X, Y, and Z. X, Y, and Z on the left today are things the left never actually espoused anyway.
Coto: Sometimes you go through this existential crisis where you think, “Oh my God! I’m going right wing!” And then you think, “No, I’m not. I’m pretty much how I’ve always been. It’s the left that’s gone fucking mad.” People on the left today are probably the most conservative, the most bigoted, and the most authoritarian people in politics today.
CF: I agree.
Coto: Let’s talk about the education side of Battle of Ideas. It seems like in education today, there’s a lot less room to debate viewpoints. When we were at school, we had a debating club, and an environment where students could come into the debates from different perspectives. Everybody knew all the papers had different political biases, and there was a consciousness about trying to unravel that. It seems like there’s less of that today, in both universities and secondary schools. Do you find that when young people come to the Battle of Ideas, that they are kind of close-minded?
CF: Yes, that’s one of our bigger problems. From a school’s point of view, a lot of political education takes the form of personal health and social education. It’s often just a messaging service, for a set of politically correct, often scare-mongering ideas around sex, health, bullying, and all these kinds of things. Before, there was always a little space in the curriculum to talk about what was in the newspapers and have genuine debates. That was good for young people. You were doing more than just your lessons.
There’s a lot less of that now. There are discussions of current affairs. But it’s all about saying, “YOU MUST BE AN ANTI-RACIST!” or something like that, as opposed to debating the issues. And there’s a much narrower range of acceptable ideas introduced to students from the time they start school until age 18. So in some ways, a lot of teachers use The Battle of Ideas. I think that’s a positive thing. They turn our debating competition for teens as a way of introducing the younger generation to the idea that there are lots of debates to be had. The young people can get quite a shock at how open our debates are. But for the teachers, I think that’s why they bring their students to The Battle of Ideas.
I think that young people are cynical about newspaper news. They’ll often say they don’t believe what they read in newspapers. But they’ll often not be cynical about Google news or AOL news or what they’ve read in the Huffington Post. It’s a very weird thing. Kids think newspapers have all these old-fashioned biases, yet the web news they get is supposedly neutral. I once taught a group of young people who wanted to be journalists. When I asked them what they wanted to write about, they didn’t have any ideas. They just wanted to be “journalists.
I told them journalism has traditionally attracted people who want to seek the truth. Even the most trashy show biz journalist likes a good expose of a star, and doesn’t just want to do PR for them. But the kids had no interest in truth-seeking.
But this is one of the areas where, for example, in our Debating Matters camp, we always make sure we have students read newspaper articles that they agree with and disagree with, before they watch one of our debates. The point is to get young people to see that intelligent people can have completely contrary points of view. That reinforces the idea that their favourite newspapers aren’t just true, by default. That’s what we’re trying to get over to young people. Increasingly, we’ve found that a lot of the students who come to Battle of Ideas react in a “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT!” way. They do that, despite how upfront we are in promoting freedom of speech. But we’ve gotten more and more of that reaction, especially as of late.
(editors note: Our COTO team have been judges for Debating Matters, which is an impressive initiative. It has been focussed on an ambitious nationwide school’s competition, and has recently moved into prisons. We can reliably report there was no brainwashing of young and/or impressionable minds going on.)
Last year, people at the Battle of Ideas were standing up saying, “You can’t say that!” Some kid stood up and said, “Let’s have votes for 16 year olds” in a debate on democracy. Then nearly every kid kept asking that same question, over and over again. Finally, I said, as the chair, “Believe it or not, this session is not just about you. Can every 17 year old stop standing up and asking for the vote. This session is about the crisis of democracy, and that’s not just about the rights of 17 year olds.” They were outraged when I did that. There was a palpable hate in the room. But what was important is that, despite how angry they were, they were strong enough to cope with those feelings. Later on, a teacher came up to me and said what I did was very bad for morale of the students; that I should have been more encouraging. I said, “That wasn’t the point of the discussion. It wasn’t about votes for 17 year olds. It was about stuff that was much more important than that.”
I got badgered for it on the panel. I told the kids I didn’t agree with them. They kept saying, “But you’re not listening to us! You’re ignoring what we’re saying!” But it was endemic of a tendency in many young people today. They just EXPECT to have their views reinforced not challenged. They expect you to give them the answers that would flatter them, rather than something else. They want you to say, “Oh yes! The crisis of democracy is all about you not being able to vote. It’s not about anything else.”
Coto: Do you think this is specifically a problem with this generation of young people? Or do you think young people have always had these tendencies?
CF: I think it’s a problem with this generation. This generation is not arguing a coherent opposition to the previous generation. It’s actually arguing a narcissistic version of the previous generation’s ideas. They’re just making those ideas more about themselves. It’s the same stuff as the previous generation. It’s not like they’re challenging anything. All they do is just make everything more about them.
Coto: We would question tarring the ‘whole’ of this generation with the same brush, but there is definitely a trend. Many young people also think it’s ridiculous. The narcissists are often shouting the loudest though. That’s because they are narcissists. (laughs.)
It’s interesting because we love popular culture but we are finding an abundance of a new disturbing kind of censorship seeping into the mainstream domain. The “you can’t say that” brigade is out in force. It’s reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 thought police. However there are so many double standards. It seems words are harmful but behaviour and attitudes filled with inconsideration and contempt are a right. We watched the Big Brother with Christopher Biggins for example with horror.
CF: I watched a lot of if that series. What happened to Christopher Biggins was horrendous.
Coto: You wonder, “Who are these producers? In my head, I just imagine a bunch of 20-year idiots looking for somebody to take down. There’s almost bloodthirstiness in this kind of political correctness.
CF: There is.
Coto: In some ways, the removal of Christopher Biggins, who just happens to be gay from the house over ‘biphobic’ language seemed like satire. Allegedly he’d also previously made a quip, which could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, but it was obvious the intent of that was not to upset or attack anyone. He was mortified to think he may have. It was so absurd.
What he said about bisexuality, again, wasn’t actually offensive to anybody he was talking to. All Biggins said in conversation with a Mob-wife Renee Graziano (you couldn’t make this stuff up,) was a comment, (with which she concurred by the way,) that he had a ‘problem’ with bisexuals, in that he felt being bisexual was just a fashionable trend. Presumably as an older Gay man who faced extreme prejudice in his youth, it was a big deal for him to come out as Gay. He may feel youngsters today are flippant about this and don’t understand. Renee concurred and said they should make their minds up. Their view was that you are either Gay or Straight. It was his opinion based on his life experience. You can argue whether he was right or wrong. However somewhat predictably he got a warning from ‘Big Brother’ about this, as his words might have upset or caused offence to the viewing public. The inference being the public cannot cope with hearing views that they might disagree with, especially not poor bisexuals. Apparently those views need to be banned and censored. Bisexuals can’t cope otherwise..
Biggins later asserted that AIDS was not actually a Gay disease, as was loudly trumpeted in the early 80’s, but instead a bisexual disease. His thinking was that people who went to Africa and slept with women who were infected, came back and had sex with gay men. No doubt there were many routes for HIV to spread into the gay community but this was surely one of them. It was a viewpoint. Again Renee agreed. She was not kicked out. He was ordered to leave immediately, presumably losing his fee. Then the next day, Biggins was all over the internet, cited as being an evil person who was biphobic. He was totally demonized. He was even on the ‘Africans Against Hate’ website. The least hateful most affable and caring man in the house, who has lived through and survived horrendous homophobic times and who was nurturing to all the others and much loved by them. They could not imagine why he had been asked to leave.
CF: It would be laughable if not for the fact that nobody thought anything about destroying Biggins. They destroyed his life, his reputation, and his career. So it’s ok to destroy a leading gay icon.
Coto: He was in the Rocky Horror Picture show!
CF: Yeah, he was generally understood to be a very positive LGBT role model and campaigner for Gay rights. They destroyed him over something that wasn’t actually offending anybody in the house. Whereas things that actually did cause offence were unpunished. In contrast you saw a really animal-like portrayal of sex. I’m not saying I have a problem with that, but there was this gross exploitation of a sexual situation that everybody thought was perfectly acceptable. Not only was it tolerated, it was encouraged and incited by the producers of the show.
Coto: Well sex sells doesn’t it?
CF: Stephen Bear, the contestant who behaved like a psychopathic sadist and made everyone cry, got to stay in the house.
It’s hard to know whether Stephen Bear won the show because the people who voted for him were just taking the piss out of the show. In a way, it was maybe naughty to vote for him, because he was so hated in the house. Everything about Bear was weird and unpleasant. So you’ve got that side of youth culture, which exists alongside thin-skinned safe space culture.
Coto: There’s a weird facet of the kids on Big Brother. You see it with the TOWIE kids too. They really don’t give a fuck about the previous generation’s sexual etiquette or conventions. That could be a positive thing. However the idea of sexual freedom has been interpreted as being allowed to do what you want, when you want regardless of whether you offend people, or even hurt people. ‘That’s their problem.’ That’s inconsistent with not being able to ‘potentially hurt or offend’ with words. It’s that narcissism again. “Me, me, me!”
They see sex as something that is like sitting down for a meal, or having a conversation. Detailed descriptions and crude discussions about it are totally acceptable. No-one bats an eyelid. They view it as a physical pleasurable act in much the same way many might see their favourite sport. There’s no semblance of linking it to intimacy or privacy. They don’t give a fuck about the middle-class fear of ‘rape culture.’ It’s not on their radar. The women are often the sexually aggressive ones. They were demonstrating blow-jobs on bananas in Big Brother and getting their tits out. They publicly shame and belittle men who have small penises and revere those with large ones in a way that is totally callous. They are belittling someone for a part of their body they have no control over and just happened to be born with. Laughing at a woman’s body part in this way however is akin to murder. You would be accused of body-shaming. If you question any of the behaviour you would be accused of slut-shaming.
CF: But everybody knows there are things you’re just not allowed to say, because Big Brother doesn’t approve. Full blooded, gratuitous, sexual discussion is fine. I find it disturbing how everyone, throughout the show, trots off to Big Brother. They’re like, “Big Brother, I want to complain. Big Brother, I have an issue with so and so.” There’s something about that, where you’re doing what you’re told by Big Brother, it’s like a metaphor for how lots of young people think today.
Coto: That sort of censorship is now part of the mainstream today. Even the Daily Mail do it. It’s like there’s a relationship between the censorship and the things they don’t censor. It’s like they’re saying, “Ok, you can bully people. You can humiliate them. You can make them cry. You can get naked. You can do all this stuff. You can even be violent on occasion, and break the official house rules. But in exchange for all that freedom, you can’t use bi-phobic language.”
CF: Yeah, everybody knows these rules. It’s not just on Big Brother. You can see this when you go into schools today. It’s not just a small group of prissy middle class people. Everyone knows these rules today. And it’s arbitrary what you get punished for and what you don’t. All it takes is somebody else deciding that you’ve been offensive to a particular identity group. This can destroy people, and society is happy to accept this.
Coto: Also, suppose you are biphobic. When did being biphobic or homophobic or racist or sexist or anything like that become so much worse than all the other things we happily allow people to believe? Let’s think about another view, which, if false, could actually seriously harm people. Let’s say your view is, “I want to slash benefits for disabled people.” If you believe that, people will say, “Well, I don’t agree with you, but you can still be an alright person.” But if you make biphobic comments, you’re a horrible asshole. Why is there this double standard?
CF: It’s completely arbitrary and it’s always changing. In the future, if you want to slash benefits for disabled people, that could make people hate you too. The other day, some bod on radio 4 said, “I was just about to say ‘lazy eye’ but I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that.” Apparently, you’re not allowed to call people lazy anymore. Once I told a joke where I was talking about somebody saying something “off colour.” But then I stopped myself and thought about how somebody had just been done for using that phrase. Also, there’s this really awkward acronym – POC which means “People of Colour.” You would think that would be offensive, but that’s actually the politically correct thing to say.
It’s fucking mad.
You can’t know what’s going to be offensive next. It’s like you’re tongue-tied, a lot of the time. So what the Battle of Ideas is trying to do is find ways of telling people we won’t police their language in this way. What I always say during my introductory speech is, “This is a place where you can dare to think out loud. If you think out loud, you’ll sometimes say things you don’t agree with yourself. You’re trying out ideas. You’ll have to ask yourself whether you think the things you are saying.” There has to be room for people to do this.
Even if it’s something horrible, my attitude is: just say it. Let’s discuss it. You don’t want people to be constantly manicuring what they’re saying. You don’t want the statements of people to be so slick, that what they’re saying becomes anodyne and meaningless. The Battle of Ideas is meant to be an antidote to things that create this atmosphere of self-censorship. You want people to be able to say things that are meaningful.
COTO is a platform for expressing and exploring fresh, maybe controversial, but definitely thought provoking ideas that allow people to understand contemporary culture in new ways.