We have probably never been good at having difficult conversations about controversial topics. But today these conversations are more important than ever.

In a world of explosive complexity, escalating diversity and accelerating change, there’s a risk that our old ideas have already become stale, and we desperately need to replace them with new ideas built to handle the monumental challenges we face today.

That’s why the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) exists. FODI’s purpose is to challenge conventional wisdom, because sometimes our ideas and assumptions need to be tested, even if to just make sure they still hold up. And should we find them wanting, FODI offers new ideas to improve upon and replace the old.

But challenging what we assume to be true, questioning what is “known,” or raising radical new ideas can be confronting, even offensive, to many ears. It can lead to difficult conversations, even if they’re precisely the ones we need to have.

The problem is that today’s world is particularly hostile towards having difficult and challenging conversations. Some cling to their old ideas and refuse to move with a changing world. Others vigorously defend their particular new ideas, preventing them from being tested to ensure they’re the best ones for our times. Both camps act like they have their backs against the wall, and the stakes feel so high that they’re unwilling to allow conversation that might challenge their beliefs – or their identity.

This is why FODI is dangerous.

FODI’s remit puts it at odds with a growing culture of outrage, cancellation and self-censoring. Yet FODI is as committed as ever to its mission, even if that means facing the fact that some people will react badly to having their beliefs challenged or recoil from radical new ideas.

To achieve its mission, FODI has a commitment to principle and transparency. One of FODI’s core principles is that not every dangerous idea is worth promoting. FODI only offers ideas that are backed by robust reasoning and evidence, and which are delivered in good faith – meaning they’re spoken with authenticity, integrity and with an intention to make the world a better place.

And while some ideas offered at FODI might be sensational, FODI rejects sensationalism. It doesn’t promote a speaker simply because they will cause a stir, but acknowledges that some challenging ideas will grab attention or trigger a backlash.

Another core principle is that FODI doesn’t preach. There is no particular belief, political ideology or ethical viewpoint that FODI seeks to promote – except its meta-commitment to good ideas supported by reason, evidence and good faith.

FODI chooses its speakers carefully. First, they must be qualified. Some are experts in their field, with qualifications and publications that demonstrate their mastery of the subject. Others have a more personal kind of expertise, with direct lived experience of the subject matter they’re invited to share. Second, they must be speaking in good faith rather than seeking to feed platitudes to the public in order to elevate their status.

But there are red lines that FODI will not cross. FODI is committed to respecting the inherent dignity of all people, meaning there might be some subjects that are inherently degrading or dehumanising to a particular population, or which are impossible to appropriately address in a public forum. FODI will not platform such ideas.

However, FODI is tolerant of minor indiscretions – because it acknowledges each of us is flawed – but only to the degree that speakers are willing to own their actions and take appropriate measures to rectify any harm they have caused.

The final hurdle that FODI speakers must clear is perhaps the most difficult to judge. Occasionally there will be a dangerous idea that has merit, and the speaker has the qualifications to express it, but which is so far outside of acceptable discourse that there is little or no chance that the idea will be received by the audience in good faith. Some ideas simply require more space or charity on behalf of the audience than FODI is able to provide, so they are not the kinds of ideas that will be platformed at the festival.

FODI is about dangerous ideas. It’s in the name. FODI’s line-up won’t please everybody. It never does. Nor does it aim to. But FODI is a space for curious minds to challenge ideas that need to be tested, and offer new ideas that the world desperately needs.

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas returns to Carriageworks, Sydney from 24-25 August 2024. Tickets on sale now at festivalofdangerousideas.com.