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What were the most dangerous ideas at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas?

Emma Joyce

There was certainly an increased sense of danger at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas, with noticeably more security measures like bag checks before entering the Concert Hall and visibly more police officers on the Western Boardwalk and around the Opera House. Perhaps it was for Andrew Bolt? Perhaps it was precautionary measure ahead of Alicia Garza’s Black Lives Matter talk? We’re not sure.

What’s certain is that people took to Twitter to ask if there were any dangerous ideas at all at this year’s festival. That, and if this was a festival just for white people? Talks like the Bamboo Ceiling, India’s Age of Extremism and Black Lives Matter were among the sessions that could rebuke that statement, but we agree that there’s some work to be done for future festivals. 

In response to the criticism that the ideas at FODI didn't live up to the moniker, we’ve unpacked the the thoughts from eight talks, rating them from truly dangerous to just plain cautious. 

1. Lionel Shriver thinks we should jaywalk, but not too often
The author of We Need to Talk About Kevin and more recently The Mandibles is more conservative than her subject matter might have suggested. ‘Break a Rule a Day’ may be a sexy title, but her talk was far more straight-laced. The author divides her time between the US and the UK and as self-professed libertarian with sensible views on fiscal issues (she doesn’t like debt) she stated, “I’m seen as a right-wing nut in the UK, and in the US I’m a raving liberal.” Shriver admitted to supporting the Leave campaign during Brexit because “I resent the way the EU has come to function. It’s very micromanaging institution. It’s absurd.” But also, “I also have a mischievous side: I want to follow that story.” Host Michael Williams was quick to ask if Shriver would be keen to see Trump as president, simply to see how the story goes. She responded with “There are some books I put down; I don’t want to read that one. I feel investment in what happens in the United States.” Shriver’s talk reminded us that the law isn’t sacrosanct and it’s good to question rules. But the idea that you can do what you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone didn’t feel all-that revolutionary. Danger rating: Low

Lionel Shriver at FODI 2016
Lionel Shriver 'Break a Rule a Day'
Photograph: Yaya Stempler

2. Philippe Legrain preached to the choir about opening our borders
The single biggest determinant of your life is not how talented you are or how hard you work, it’s where you were born, said British political economist Philippe Legrain. In his talk and subsequent Q&A with Emma Alberici, Legrain spoke of the freedom to move, calling out privilege and the deep-rooted fear of the other. He said, “In every country in the world, everyone is convinced all migrants want to move there. They can’t all be right.” He went on to say that fear of immigration stems from prejudice, it’s a rationalisation of xenophobia and there are media and politicians who use this fear to drive people to risk their lives to escape war-torn countries. “Only three per cent of people live outside the country they were born, which is the same as 50 years ago,” said Legrain. Is it reasonable to discriminate against people for where they were born? Of course not. However, Legrain was speaking to an audience of people whose opinions on this matter already aligned with his own. Perhaps a more dangerous approach would have been to switch speakers with Bolt’s audience at the last minute. Surprise! Danger rating: Low to medium

3. Jesse Bering wants us to know that sometimes kittens jump from balconies, but it’s not suicide
In his talk ‘Suicide is Social’, New Zealand writer and academic Bering ran through his research into suicide as a human-animal issue. Do animals commit suicide? Bering ran through a few examples: a lovesick monkey hanging himself, a horse throwing himself over precipice and stags jumping off cliffs during a lion chase. However, Bering argued that many of the stories reported could be linked to Darwinism and anthropomorphism. Also, that suicide can be linked to the social emotion of shame, the idea that the knowing gaze causes psychological stress. He said that patients with more insight into their mental health were more likely to kill themselves, that insight was also linked to anxiety around others’ critical thoughts. “Animals can and do harm themselves. Sometimes they die,” he said. The most dangerous idea discussed by Bering was that killing yourself was an evolutionary trait, a way of removing yourself from the gene pool or when resources are scarce. In a sense, killing yourself would improve the odds of saving yourself – a complicated and dangerous idea indeed. Danger rating: Medium to high

4. Alicia Garza said nice people can be racist
It’s true, of course. Nice people are the products of our messed up society, so many nice people are also white people and they’ve lived privileged lives (whether they’re open to acknowledging it or not. Hello, Bolt). Rhoda Roberts, who gave the welcome to country for this talk, was the first to remind Bolt of his privilege. She said that the welcome to country was a tradition that existed long before white settlement, which was seconded by Alicia Garza when she said, “What can be more violent than the process of building a nation?” The Black Lives Matter founder went on to charm and challenge the largely white audience with home truths like 'representation is not equality' and if we truly want an equal society it means some will have to sacrifice comforts for an equitable distribution of resources. Garza said, “You can uphold ideas of racism and still be a nice person. Shocking, but it shouldn’t be.” We’re not all impacted equally, she said. “I don't like the word ally, but I do like ‘co-conspirators’.” Danger rating: Medium to high

Asian Arms Race at FODI
Simon Longstaff, Peter Hartcher and Sheryn Lee on the 'Asian Arms Race' panel
Photograph: Yaya Stempler

5. There’s an Asian arms race that no one’s talking about
The Ethics Centre executive director, Simon Longstaff, chaired a Sunday morning panel on the war we didn’t know we were heading for, joined by Bates Gill, Peter Hartcher and the only woman on the panel, Sheryn Lee. Countries within the Asia Pacific region are stocking up on weapons/military machinery, but this fact gets little airplay. The elephant in the room, pointed out by the panel members, was China. Essentially the amount of GDP spent on arms is up, particularly in maritime defence. Why? Things have changed. Where once the Chinese military strategy was ‘Hide your brightness, bide your time’ it is now ‘It’s time to strive to achieve’. Not to panic anyone, but other countries who have a stake on the South China Sea (Indonesia, PNG, Thailand, India) are buying more aircraft carriers, submarines, submarine stations and other scary things too. Oh, and North Korea is now a credible nuclear threat. In brief, the upcoming US elections are part of the reason why the region is suddenly more suspicious and more heavily armed. Apparently Trump is a fan of Australia – if that’s any comfort. This was one of the quietest talks on the festival program, but it turned out to be the one with the deadliest sting. Danger rating: High

6. Alexei Sayle and Richard Glover had a good ol’ laugh, said nothing
Aside from Richard Glover’s attempt at a Liverpudlian accent, there was very little to gasp at in Alexei Sayle’s Concert Hall session ‘Thatcher Made Me Laugh’. There was also very little chat about Thatcher, which seems fair, it being close to 30 years since she was in power. “Thatcherism would’ve happened without Thatcher, but it wouldn’t have happened without me,” joked the beloved comic – and that was it. The talk delved into Sayle’s family life, his rage-filled mother Molly and The Young Ones. There were a couple of sideswipes at Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French (if he’d known the latter two would go on to be so successful, he “wouldn’t have been so patronising back in the day”). But the closest we got to a dangerous idea were his views on Brexit: “The middle classes think of the EU as Glastonbury, I have no great love for the EU. [But] I was shocked by the result.” Danger rating: Low 

Alexei Sayle at FODI 2016
Alexei Sayle 'Thatcher Stole My Trousers'
Photograph: Yaya Stempler

7. Molly Crabapple taught us that trouble is the best school for artists 
Artist, journo and all-round cool chick Molly Crabapple gave a passionate talk in the Utzon Room about the role of art within a culture that is exposed to images of war through the media. She said she hates the cliché that journalism gives voice to the voiceless; everyone has a voice, we just choose to ignore some. “In Guantanamo, I used my art to get around censorship. Forbidden to draw prisoners, I drew their faces black,” she said. She called herself a bad student, and claimed that “trouble is the best school for an artist”. She also views art as a way to convey what’s really happening in troubled places like Syria or Manus Island. She showed artworks by Mr Eaton Fish, the 25-year-old detainee on Manus who is breaking through the secrecy of the detention centre through his cartoons, and asked, “is art strong enough to slash through wire?” As lovely as Crabapple was, the main takeaway from her talk was that art teaches us to see each other in all our muchness. “I don’t believe there’s an absolutely neutral eye, she said. “We must recognise our common humanity.” Danger rating: Medium

8. Jennifer Rayner said mum and dad aren’t going to fix this
If young and old pull apart in wealth, the divide will lead to jealousy and fractions in the community, said 30-year-old Rayner in her talk ‘Generation Less’. It was a mixed audience of young Aussies and boomers, but Rayner hurled statistics at them until they submitted to the notion that today is not like yesterday and we have a problem. “There’s a reason I get my parents to pick up the tab when we go out for dinner,” joked Rayner, who said that 60 per cent of millennials are renting property, wage gap has grown to $600 per week between young Australians and grey-haired ones, and one-in-six young workers can’t get the hours they need to earn a decent wage. She also said that we young’uns have a debt problem. According to a Melbourne study, 40 per cent of 20-year-olds roll over their credit card debt from month to month. (So we can’t blame HECS alone). However, the weight of homeownership debt is four times greater than the debt our parents had to take on. Host Van Badham played devil’s advocate and asked if this whole issue was a middle class problem? Rayner said it was about choice, she also said, “Mum and dad aren’t going to swoop in to fix this. We’ve got every right to be angry, but nothing will change unless we get political.” Of all the talks we attended, this one gave the practical advice, and lived up to its title. Danger rating: Medium

If you missed out on FODI, or want to relive it, you can watch the talks on YouTube.

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