Open Future is a celebration of the vibrant voices in our society, each aiming to raise awareness of the contemporary pressing problems humanity is standing up against in the 21st century. This was my second visit to Manchester in a span of a week and I was left pleasantly surprised.
In a week Manchester had made a rapid 180 degrees turn. A mere seven days prior to Open Future, the city of industrial heritage was the Conservative Party’s hub for an enclosed, ‘Britons only’ conference. The interlaced ideas of British ‘sovereignty’, independence and ‘return to a glorious past’ were placed on a pedestal and conveniently encompassed in the catchy slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. Only one future mattered — that of contingency plans for the selected few, capable of withstanding the hit of the UK’s divorce from the European Union.
On the other side of Manchester’s coin lies an intersection of global views, popular and controversial opinions and ideas, all of which came together to paint a much needed and more realistic picture of the years ahead. From the importance of activism and campaigning, the search for identity, authenticity and diversity, to climate change, ‘the new algorithmic authoritarianism’ and, Britain at home and on the international scene.
These seemingly different topics all piece together in a puzzle that is the 21st century. Each puzzle piece (or opinion), nuanced in its own individual way, has become inseparable from the complex chain of events unveiling themselves before our eyes. And if we zoom in too much, fixate on one opinion and block the path to an open debate, British society comes dangerously close to an authoritarian regime.
Why should we be worried about a singular point of view taking over public debate?
In recent times, simple and repetitive explanations of the political, social and economic reality have become increasingly appealing and sought after. Their simplicity almost always encompasses an aspect of morality, making such statements, slogans and symbols even more powerful. And when a person or a group of people in a position of authority rally behind them, they become even more influential. This can easily escalate into an intolerable status quo, where the line of accountability gets lost amidst political rhetoric, rooted in disinformation and misinformation. I’ve asked this question before and I’ll ask it again: Does this remind you of something we are currently seeing? Small hint: ‘Get Brexit Done’.
Open debates, on the other hand are … messy, to say the least. They don’t provide one uniform answer to the pressing questions of the day, nor do they impose moral guidelines for our behaviour or thoughts. They simply present us with various interpretations of the same event. And each opinion is highly valuable, so long as it is not rooted in harmful intentions, and this helps us make a little more sense of the world around us. We’re often left in a freefall, that demands we take agency, be pro-active and reflective. This is certainly how I felt during the Open Future Festival — the provocative discussions from activists, academics, writers and experts certainly left me questioning and analysing topics which I had not even considered before, but which nonetheless are vital to a significant part of Britain’s global and diverse society.
To use the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her panel discussion:
‘When talking about diversity we need to make some room for discomfort. […] We need to make room for people saying things that are awkward, not because they want to offend, but because they simply don’t know’.
And the best way to ‘know’ is to stay curious, ask the unpopular questions and expect that sometimes the answers given are not what we want to hear. This is what open debates help us achieve. And most importantly, this is how the informational fog that has descended upon public debate in the UK and its cousin authoritarianism will be stamped out.