What's the big idea?

Let loose your dangerous thoughts, writes Dennis Watkins

DANGEROUS is a good word. It puts us on notice to pay attention and watch out.

Sydney Opera House and the St James Ethics Centre have chosen the word dangerous to describe our 2009 festival of ideas, because we want to create a forum where we pay attention to the issues of the day. We want to challenge our speakers to challenge us. We want to encourage people to think about matters they would prefer not to think about, revisit their position on familiar topics, and discuss the “undiscussable”.

We set about choosing themes and speakers who are talking about issues that directly affect people's lives. Speakers like Christopher Hitchens on religion and Germaine Greer on freedom, Dambisa Moyo on the way foreign aid is keeping Africa poor and Ray Evans on child labour laws and the minimum wage. Gary Foley has strong opinions about the bleak future for indigenous Australians under the current federal government.

Keysar Trad wants polygamy widely accepted and Julian Savulescu's ideas on genetic engineering may be the most challenging of all. Chris Barrie wants to bring back conscription in the form of a compulsory service scheme that includes non–military options and Susan Greenfield warns that online networking transforms children's brains in ways that may lead to short attention spans, an inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity.

So what makes an idea dangerous? An idea becomes dangerous if it has the potential to change the way we do or perceive something. Dangerous ideas challenge the status quo, cause a frisson of tension when openly discussed and are often ideas about which people think, but think twice about expressing. If acted upon, they have consequences.

A dangerous idea will sometimes lead us to question the value of free speech and tolerance — it will prick us, take us to our limits and challenge the extent to which we value candour in our culture.

Dennis Watkins is head of public programs at the Sydney Opera House. The Festival of Dangerous Ideas takes place on October 3-4