Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Claire Fox (Founder & Director, The Institute of Ideas) & Angus Kennedy (Manager, The Institute of Ideas)

21.08.2009 - Interview conducted by Mailin Obermueller & Diana Leca


Claire Fox is the Founder and Director of the British think tank the ‘Institute of Ideas’ (IoI). Her political activism began during her time as a university student, when she joined the Revolutionary Communist Party. Remaining an active and important member over the next twenty years, Fox notably co-published the party’s magazine ‘Living Marxism’. It was not until her appearance on the BBC’s ‘The Moral Maze’ however, that she rose to public prominence. Fox’s controversial style ensured her a place as a regular panellist on the show, from which point she quickly expanded her media presence to include her own web-TV program called Claire Fox News.

While some individuals tend to become less opinionated when they enter the public eye, growing more careful of invoking controversy, Claire Fox rather deepened her ability to incite heated debates. Despite voicing often disquieting positions, in person Fox appears both relaxed and humorous, as well as unexpectedly soft-spoken. Her colleague at the IoI, Angus Kennedy, joined her for the interview. Manager of the Institute’s websites, Kennedy, alongside Fox, is one of the organisers of the IoI’s ‘Battle of Ideas’.  This annual festival (occurring this year from the 31 October to the 1 November) is held in London and provides participants with a forum where, in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, ideas can be expressed and contested in an explorative, uninhibited manner. The event thus captures the ethos of the IoI: to expand the boundaries of public debate.

While in Berlin, the two colleagues granted the following interview to CD-News.

Could you tell us a little bit about the primary aims of the Institute of Ideas (IoI) and why you deem these to be particularly important?

Claire Fox: The Institute of Ideas was set up in the United Kingdom in the year 2000, with the aim of stirring up intellectual debate and discussion in Britain. At the time, the media was accusing academia of dumbing down and this had some resonance with us; we feared that rather too frequently political and cultural discussion was overly superficial. In fact, we didn’t even feel that academia was creating a space where people could seriously interrogate ideas anymore. So we wanted to provide people with a forum to recreate public intellectual life and start asking some awkward—or perhaps better questions about topics that were passing as orthodoxies.

You are an ardent proponent of free speech, which, although important, also entails being allowed to express offensive ideas and opinions. In your view, is the right to free speech more important than the right to live a life free from, for example, racial prejudice? Should there really be no boundaries?

Claire Fox: Freedom of speech is hugely important and there should be absolutely no boundaries. Actually, part of what is important about free speech is not your right to speech: it’s the audience’s right to listen. And I, as the audience, want to be able to decide for myself from a range of presented views what is and what isn’t appropriate for me and what I think is offensive. Having somebody decide for you that you won’t every hear certain views because they could be offensive not only insults your intelligence as an audience, but assumes that if you hear somebody give a racist speech you are going to just go: “oh! I’m a racist now”. Whereas actually, hearing somebody say something racially offensive, or incite you to racist violence, might be a catalyst for you coming to realise just how despicable racism is.

Angus Kennedy: The idea that if a racist tells you their theory, there is a danger that you’ll suddenly become a racist is really quite funny. I mean, are we so susceptible to strongly expressed opinion that we have to wear ear mufflers all the time? I think that type of attitude shows contempt for our ability to take arguments in; listen to them; judge them; form our opinion; and argue back or say, “I don’t agree”.

Claire Fox: Exactly. One has to be confident about one’s own views and feel that one can win the argument. And the irony is, if you somehow suppress free speech you don’t eradicate offensive views. You simply don’t allow them to be uttered in the public sphere—which is not quite the same thing.

There is also the case to be made that racism is a perfectly legitimate political opinion; it’s just one I disagree with. But I don’t think you can just ban it. To simply demonise one set of politics that you don’t like is incredibly dangerous for anybody who cares for our free society, because who is to say that in the future your views won’t be demonised by somebody else? So I think that if you want to deal with controversial views, you have to do so in the public sphere and make a more convincing case, politically speaking.

Angus Kennedy: I think you could describe racism as making a certain kind of sense in terms of being an ideology that can win people over. And yes, if you ban it, it will simply go underground and you won’t have won an argument with anyone that changed his or her views.

Claire Fox: Of course, it’s true that if somebody says something deeply offensive, ignorant and insulting, it’s not very pleasant. But it’s a rather demeaning view of people to suggest that they will then just collapse under the weight of that insult. And importantly, I think that when talking of arguments that are offensive in the sense of their being very hurtful, you have to be aware of the danger of conflating thought and action. The sort of mentality that says hate speech is equivalent to hate action loses the distinction between the two andthis is hugely dangerous as it gets you to the thought police. And then you have people who start to say: “you’re not allowed to think like that”.

But there is a real difference between what you think and what you do. A person might say: “I hate Blacks”, but that is still different from that person going out and killing somebody because they’re black.

Angus Kennedy: And this difference is a crucial one, as it underpins how we operate our legal system. We trust we won’t be banged up for having ideas that somebody—the state or whatever—thinks are incorrect. Rather, it has to be proven that you not only did the deed, but that you had the motivation to do it; that you had thought and action coming together in something that is a crime. We rely on this distinction being made as a crucial freedom.

Which specific issues do you feel are currently overrepresented in the media in an uncritical and conformist manner?

Claire Fox: Well, one example from what we have just talked about, is what I see as the panic and over-reaction in Britain concerning the rise of the British National Party and fascism. It’s completely overstated—and to the extent that it creates an atmosphere where you would think that racists are on the march. It’s led to some quite illiberal attempts at suppressing free speech actually. To be honest with you, my opinion is that yes, there are disaffected people who vote for fringe parties, but these are not actively and necessarily racists.

But to name the probably greatest issue of our time that is uncritically over-represented in the media, I would have to say climate change and the environment. It is endlessly—and boringly—rammed down our throat as the only and most important issue of the world. But I think it is exaggerated, overstated, and actually really dangerously holding back debates about development in the developing world. It is outrageous that we have started to lecture and hector poorer countries about developing because of the damage this might do to the planet.

I actually think all sorts of things about climate change, which I won’t go into now, but the main thing is that there is no debate on that subject at all. Anyone who tries to raise even the odd query about it is immediately written off as a ‘climate change denier’—and that term ‘denier’ is obviously meant to imply that you are like a holocaust denier—and we all know where we go with that—or that you’re an absolute lunatic.

It is also having a very damaging impact on political discussions about one’s attitude to nature. Personally, I still maintain the humanist position that people shouldn’t bow down to nature, but rather take control of it. It seems we are leaving this view behind however; but if there is going to be a big philosophical shift from humanism to being intimidated by the natural world, then we should at least discuss it in the public sphere.

Angus Kennedy: The fact that the whole thing should have become an issue of free speech is odd, really. What I mean is, while I am convinced man-made climate change is happening (we wouldn’t be up to much if we weren’t having an impact on nature after all), I am far from convinced that this is necessarily a good or a bad thing. And yet, saying ‘man has acted on nature’ seems to automatically carry the weight that something bad has occurred. This is because nature is held up as this pristine thing that should remain un-violated. And this to the extent that some people are even arguing that sustainable technologies like wind-farms should not be built on mountains because it ruins the mountains!

That type of thought completely misses the point in my view. After all, human beings are natural as well: but specifically human natural beings. In order to clarify what kind of environment and world we want to shape politically, socially and naturally then, we, as humans, should make decisions through debate on how we want to interact with nature.  That debate won’t happen if you can’t ask questions such as: “should China be able to develop nuclear power to the same level as the States”?  And without these discussions we won’t move forward at all. In which case, the only remaining option seems to be to regress—or in some cases to almost welcome apocalypse, with this horrible feeling that it’s all wrong and that we’re all bad.

You just mentioned a greater need for debate. Does the Institute of Ideas ever purposefully challenge orthodoxies, even if the individual working there might agree with them, in order to get debate started?

Claire Fox: Yes, I think we do. There is always a danger, of course, that you can look over-facetious and like a contrarian. That’s my only reservation. We’re not trying to have debates to have everyone arguing.

Angus Kennedy: We’re not hunting down orthodoxies for the sake of it: “there goes one, let’s kick it!” We’re not quite like that.

Claire Fox: Our concern is rather that, starting thirty or so years ago, quite a lot of contemporary political positions became stock arguments, orthodoxies and mantras. This has contributed to a significant downgrading of intellectual life. And we don’t want the stupefying of public life, because you really cannot underestimate how important intellectual life is. Without a vibrant, challenging, questioning society, progress becomes impossible and you can’t move society on.

I also think that particularly for young generations, a lack of debate is just boring. At some point they either become the kind of young people who just repeat the orthodoxies—in which case they become boring too—or they realise this repetition is happening, become disaffected, and withdraw. Which is obviously not good.

To have the human creativity necessary to solve problems like climate change, we need to bring all the minds of the world together and have a constant flow of questions. People need to follow their curiosity and demand more from society.

With regards to that, it has been argued that contemporary forms of cultural production, like the Internet, provide an abundance of platforms to express opinions and debate topics. Where then do you find a balance between valuing intellectual or expert opinion and motivating young people in general to express themselves?

Claire Fox: I think that’s a very interesting question, because it actually relates to another orthodoxy we make a conscious effort to attack: which is to say that we do not think that all opinions are equally valid or equally interesting.

I am very enthusiastic about new technologies’ capacity to allow other voices to be heard, because it is undoubtedly the case that that there are some very interesting thinkers, speakers and writers in the world, who aren’t necessarily reflected in mainstream society. And new technology has facilitated my ability to access and publish them.

But one of the things which, slightly controversially, we have—or I have—argued is that the ‘youth voice movement’, which says that all young people are interesting because they’re young, is a ridiculous notion.

Angus Kennedy: There seems to be this desperate desire to engage with and find out what young people in particular are thinking—an urge to listen to the voices of the young as it were. But if you try to do that, you’ll only hear a burble and a babble. If you want to listen to what people are saying in terms of content, through any forum you like, then great! But don’t just value it because it was said by young voices.

Claire Fox: I think that there are different degrees at which you can value contributions and so you should assess them according to their own terms. The fact is that very often, young people are not that interesting because they are not that experienced. And you certainly shouldn’t patronise them by saying that they are interesting because they are young, because that’s not anything they’ve achieved: it’s just their age. Plus, they themselves are not likely to learn to improve if they are congratulated every time they open their mouths and express an opinion. Writ large then, the whole opinion-mongering that goes on online—and I’m not trying to suppress it or ban it—but it’s not something I want to get overexcited about it. I do not think that the flourishing of intellectual life is everybody telling everybody else their opinion on anything, because often those opinions are uninformed and not very interesting.

Angus Kennedy: Yes, people have to realise that intellectual work and individual self-expression are not of the same weight. Posting how you feel on Facebook—that kind of emoting—is not to be equated with someone spending twenty years writing a book and developing his or her ideas. What would be interesting would be somebody responding to that intellectual work by arguing it through and challenging it, for instance in a public debate or another book. But there seems to be less of that. What you get instead is that while you’re watching the news, for example on what’s happening in the Iranian revolution, there is this ticker tape running underneath that says “text us, email us and tell us what you think”. But I don’t care what ‘you’ (the audience) think, because ‘you’ don’t know anything about it! I’m watching the news to find out something that I would not have access to otherwise and I am relying on the journalists’ expertise and objectivity to give me facts. And then I’ll use all of that to make up my own mind, for myself, without any need to know ‘your mind’.

Claire Fox: Something I find quite interesting is that if you talk to mainstream news journalists at the moment, a lot of them will tell you that increasingly the quality of an article they've written is assessed by how many people have responded to it online. Now this is really insulting. It totally ignores the possibility that even though we might not have commented on a piece, it could still be a brilliant article that hundreds of us have read. Thinking that quantity of interaction tells you anything about quality signals the loss of confidence in the power of ideas to inform and move us, without us having to visually respond. These days you can't go see a play without someone trying to interact with you—to “move away from the old passive arts audience”, as they say. As though unless you're jumping up and down as an audience, you're being passive. But just because you're sitting quietly doesn't mean your mind is passive. Such an attitude is insulting to us as an audience.

You briefly mentioned the protests in Iran before. How would you respond to the idea that freedom of speech is at root a Western ideal? And if that is the case, do you feel that it should nonetheless be advocated globally?

Angus Kennedy: Well, I think it's a universal ideal and so it’s irrelevant where it came from. Historically I suppose, you could argue that it's a development from the West; but it might have developed in China or Africa or in Scandinavia for that matter. The point is that once it comes into existence—once it’s there—it’s everybody's. Free speech for example, was one of the great gains of the modern world and a tremendous breakthrough for humanity. Everyone should have access to it. But this is not the same as saying: “We Westerners are going to come and teach you free speech”.

Claire Fox: I'd say the same. I also think that cultural relativism and identity politics, which ironically originated in the West as well, have largely led to people getting themselves into a complete mix-up. I say ironically because these new intellectual trends in Western thought are undermining the view that Western civilisation and its gains are things that should and can be universally accessible.

The rise of Islamism is a topic that has received a lot of attention over the last years, also in terms of questions regarding freedom of speech and cultural relativism. What are your views on this?

Claire Fox: First of all, we have to untangle certain things: there is the rise of political Islam in the West and its consequences in relation to 9/11 and 7/7 and then there is how we deal with it. In Britain at least, people say that we are facing the problem of radical Islam coming into the UK; this is dangerous, because the first thing to understand is that most of the individuals who were involved in the attacks were Western-educated rich kids. And if you actually look at the support for radical Islam in British universities—and there is some—the people involved are second-generation British Asians who became cynical and disillusioned with the West. They've got nothing to do with foreign affairs. I see these youth movements as expressing the same nihilism that I see within a number of different political movements today; it’s an anti-human sentiment, which in this case expresses itself through radical Islam.

Angus Kennedy: I thought there was an aspect or implication in your question asking ‘should people be careful about what they say’. And part of me thinks, “no”. We obviously should always be thoughtful about what we say, but if there is a real difference of opinion, we should not be afraid to express that and argue it out in an open contestation of ideas. In some cases that takes a physically violent form, which leads to wars. And that is tragic. But although I’m not endorsing war as a matter of settling political differences, I am saying that we can't run away from political differences. And actually, freedom of speech is one of the things that makes verbal arguments possible and with that the recourse to the gun less likely.

So you would advise a greater open contestation of ideas?

Claire Fox:  That would be part of it, but my point is also that we tend to see everything through this one prism of Islam now and that is problematic. For instance, the fact that there are certain young people becoming radical Muslims at British universities, does not mean that what we have to do is tackle Islam. Rather, we need to back off from this over-obsession with Islam, because I feel that it’s actually turned it into to a very attractive or trendy way of expressing disengagement with society. Honestly, the British elite is so obsessed with the rise of radical Islam that if you wanted to be a stroppy, anti-establishment rebel, you'd grow a long beard or don the veil. Most of the girls who are wearing hijabs at British universities have mothers who immigrated who are asking them: “What are you doing putting that on?” I’ve even said: “Look, I effectively did the same thing; I was a punk too”, at meetings with Islamic societies. I really think most of these girls are just having a strop!

This idea that we have to be respectful of their religion then, is misplaced and rather ridiculous. What we should be doing is to not panic and not be intimidated. Particularly now, where there is a so-called ‘battle of ideas’ or ‘culture war’ going on—where I get told at Islamist society meetings that it’s Sharia Law vs. Western civilisation—if we don’t champion the gains of Western civilisation in a confident way, how can we expect anyone to want to defend them elsewhere?

Instead of this however, whole gains of the rule of law are being smashed to smithereens in America and Europe. Free speech is attacked, eaten away and corroded right here at home. And then we say, “I don't understand why nobody believes in free speech in these “backward countries”. Effectively, everything the West stands for has been undermined in relation to the war on terror and it makes us look pathetic. So I say: if you want to be a symbol of free speech, then believe in it!

By not standing up for its own values the West is committing suicide. We’re not being attacked from without—there aren’t bombs going off everywhere you look. The war of terror is more about our own implosion than it is about any individual threat from Islamists.  And I'm much more worried that the West is being culturally destroyed by its own fear of shadows and it’s loss of intellectual confidence.

A clear warning. Thank you both very much for you time.

For further information on the Institute of Ideas, see:

For further information and details on how to attend the Battle of Ideas, see: