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The limits of heterodoxy - my review of the Battle of Ideas
On Sunday, I attended the Battle of Ideas (BoI), the annual UK festival which features debates between famous intellectuals; this year, Peter Boghossian, Matthew Goodwin and Kathleen Stock spoke. BoI is predicated on the view that mainstream politics and media excludes important perspectives, related to problems with freedom of speech. Let us call this the heterodox movement, though others call it the intellectual dark web or anti-wokeism.
I had a great time. The panels were extremely stimulating, covering topics such as cancel culture, populism and identity politics. I did little mingling, keeping to a smaller circle of friends, but everyone I met was extremely nice.
Yet I have thoughts about the festival, building on reservations about the heterodox movement which I have had for a while. In short, I am unconvinced that the festival was a battle of ideas, reflecting the logic of audience capture and unconstructive attitudes towards disagreement.
I attended several panels, but a session on populism embodied problems. This featured Lord David Frost, Tim Montgomerie, Freddie Sayers and others. These are impressive figures, yet the five-member panel did not feature one speaker making a liberal/Remain case against populism.
At a festival which is predicated on intellectual exchange, this is curious. Whilst BoI might have problems finding speakers - the festival could have a better reputation among liberals - it is difficult to believe that no one could be found. In previous years, BoI has been more diverse, panels featuring speakers from across the spectrum.
There were related problems. Frost argued that the term ‘populist’ was primarily used by elites to dismiss opposition - I am sympathetic to elements of this argument - yet did so (like other speakers) without reference to the voluminous academic literature on populism, much of which is critical of Brexit. Given the elegant definitions of this scholarship – the Harvard political scientist Jan-Werner Müller defines populism as a movement that views opposition in pathological terms - this was grating. Ironically, certain panellists made comments which suggest that they would regard such literature pathologically.
Alas, this is a wider trend in heterodox circles. Recently, some dismissals of the rights of pro-Palestine supporters have been troubling; in an important piece, Andrew Sullivan chronicles the extreme and contradictory positions of US ‘free speech campaigners’. Given their usual emphasis on freedom of speech, the hypocrisy is galling.
Whilst some argue that the heterodox movement has never been motivated by freedom of speech, but by culture war, I disagree. I know several people in the movement – some read this Substack (!) – and am convinced that their motivations are genuine. At its best, the heterodox movement provides homes for those unfairly ostracized by liberals. Given recent trends, such spaces are vital.
Yet the movement is just as vulnerable to audience capture as others. As I have argued on this Substack, processes such as affective polarization (the division of society into antagonistic groups) and conflict extension (the newfound ability of non-elites to think in ideological terms) are affecting movements across the spectrum. At BoI, one got the sense that birds of a feather were flocking together. During the populism panel, a reminder that Frost resigned from the government over the December 2021 lockdown received the loudest cheer.
The heterodox movement may suffer from tension between its promotion of freedom of speech and the values of supporters. Whilst causes such as Brexit and lockdown opposition can have libertarian rationales, support for them is associated with authoritarian values. Famously, support for Brexit is highly correlated with support for the death penalty. Historically, authoritarians are intolerant towards different viewpoints, reflecting a psychological need for order. This may be changing – as I have argued, liberal intolerance characterizes contemporary, postmaterial societies – yet I suspect that it remains a key problem.
Whilst liberalism goes through a censorious phase, the heterodox movement remains crucial; I will continue to engage with it. But judging by BoI, it has its own challenges.
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