The Festival of Stupid, Bad Ideas.

In the space of about 24 hours, Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas announced that it would present a talk by  Muslim activist Uthman Badar titled “Honour Killings are Morally Justified”, announced that the talk would actually in no way promote the idea that honour killings were morally justifiable, and then announced that the talk had been cancelled.

My goodness. How deeply embarrassing.

Considering the accusation commonly levelled at this Festival – that it is a Festival for comfortable middle-to-upper-class-intelligentsia types – it’s clear that the title of this talk was FODI’s idea of free publicity, an effort to reinforce their edgy, ‘dangerous’ credentials. Of course, they’ve got the free publicity, but their plan has backfired spectacularly as they’re now being nicknamed ‘The Festival of Not So Dangerous Ideas’ and are looking rather silly.

It appears that the title of the talk was simple, unapologetic clickbait, as the organisers have stated that the talk itself was not going to reflect its title at all. Hopefully this will help them to realise that cheap gimmicks and shock tactics are not the way to draw in an audience.

There are actually a couple of different kinds of ‘dangerous’ ideas. The first kind, which is the one that FODI have generally held talks on in the past, are ideas that are ‘dangerous’ because they challenge the status quo and accepted ways of thinking; dangerous because they are progressive, because they may push a society to change. Some examples from this year’s FODI include ‘Russia is a Penal Colony’, ‘The End of the World as We Know It’, and ‘Cat Videos Will Save Journalism’. (To be honest, I have no idea what that last one is about, but it sounds spectacular.)

The other kind of ‘dangerous’ ideas are, more simply, bad or stupid ideas. These ideas are dangerous because they are illogical, regressive, and may cause direct harm to people. Potential talks that could fall under this heading would include ‘Toddlers Having Fun With Power Tools’ and ‘How to Beat Up Icky Black People 101’.

“Honour Killings are Morally Justified” would fall into this second category.

I suppose I may be a member of the so-called ‘intelligentsia’, but I’m not going to fork out upwards of $25 for the privilege of listening to someone talk about completely idiotic ideas. Idiotic ideas are only provocative in the sense that they provoke intense annoyance at the waste of my time and money. If I want numbskulls, I’ll tune in to Fox News or Alan Jones and save my money, thanks.

The sad thing is that the proposed talk could have actually been quite fascinating, if it was an examination of the mindset or culture of those who perpetrate honour killings (rather than a promotion of murdering women, which is what the title suggested). But based on the title alone, I have no idea why the FODI organisers thought anyone would want to attend this talk. The idea that women are less than human, and that the murder of women can be morally justified, is really the opposite of a cutting-edge idea. In fact, it has rather been the default position of the majority of human societies for the majority of human history. And what’s so ‘dangerous’ about reinforcing already well-established power structures?

Ultimately I think most of the fault lies with the Festival organisers, for insisting on such a ridiculous title. However, Uthman Badar agreed to the title of his talk and hasn’t really done himself any favours in his reaction to the cancellation, blathering on about “Islamophobia”, “baseless hysteria” and “freedom of speech”.

Buddy, the title of your talk was Honour killings are morally justified. Now I’m sorry that you were silly enough to agree to give a talk under an incorrect and misleading title, but based on that title itself, how exactly can you qualify the reaction as “baseless” hysteria? There is, quite clearly, a base. The reaction has been entirely baseful. And if disliking the horrific murder of women makes me an Islamophobe, then I guess I will wear my Islamophobe badge with pride.

I have a problem with the invented word ‘Islamophobia’ itself. It is obviously drawing on antecedents such as ‘homophobia’ to try and present opposition to Islam as a blind, irrational reaction. It ticks me off when religious types try to equate themselves with persecuted groups such as LGBT people or people of colour. You are not born with your religion; it is an idea and a way of life that you choose for yourself, in a way that your skin colour, sexual orientation or gender clearly isn’t. I do acknowledge that many in the western world seem to have a knee-jerk problem with the idea of Islam and with people of Middle Eastern appearance; but rational criticism of Islam is not Islamophobia, any more than criticism of the Catholic Church is Catholicphobia (Catholophobia??).

Okay, cool, you don’t actually promote the idea of honour killings. Good for you! Have a cookie! However, you represent an organisation that wants to institute Sharia Law, so you’re obviously not the brightest crayon in the box.

Your ideas are not dangerous, except in the literal sense. They’re really just crappy. And entirely rational criticism of crappy ideas is pretty much the opposite of a ‘phobia’.

Unfortunately, Badar seems not to understand the concept of “free speech” either. He seems to think that it means he has a right to have paid speaking engagements, and a right to force people to attend his speaking engagements even when they have no interest in what he wants to say. He’s free to stand on the street corner and spout nonsense, and free to post nonsense on websites and social media; but freedom of speech in no way implies that FODI is obligated to pay you and give you a platform from which to speak, or an audience to speak to. A paid speech is almost literally the exact opposite of free speech, anyway.

Rather than calling on the convenient haze of ‘cultural relativity’ and wallowing in a manufactured sense of victimisation, Uthman Badar could have simply admitted that the title of his talk was a shameless publicity stunt, FODI could have changed the title to something that wasn’t completely misleading and inaccurate, and the talk could have gone ahead without all this kerfuffle. A poor show all round.

By Christ, Allah, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster… people sure are stupid, aren’t they?


P.S. The Richard Dawkins Foundation website recently published a fascinating article on the evolutionary purpose of honour killings in certain cultures. As it’s not written by an apologist for religious fundamentalism, I’m sure it’s much more enlightening than Mr Badar’s now-cancelled talk would have proven to be. Highly recommended reading.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Nick
    Jul 02, 2014 @ 17:42:37

    A poor show indeed from FODI, and particulary dissapointing since it will reflect badly on the whole event. The festival always has some good stuff to offer. Went to a particularly good one last year lecturing on the hardships of Indian agriculture. Might not sound fascinating at face value, but it’s a tale of coporate greed and and the triumph of the economists ideals over all else. Also finished with a note how much of the worlds population is essentially starving (literally and figuratively) in a world that has supposedly never produced more. Dangerously depressing if nothing else…


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