I dissent! Challenging the culture of conformism

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London

Recorded at the Battle of Ideas festival 2023 on Sunday 29 October at Church House, London.


In the face of social, political and cultural malaise, dissenting voices are vital to clarify the issues at stake and create an invigorating public life. Yet we live in times where we are expected to follow the zeitgeist and conform to received wisdom – often handed down from on high.

During lockdown, for example, experts peddling The Science brooked little challenge, aided by a media sacrificing objectivity for obedience. In the Academy, intellectual conformity rules, built around impregnable ‘truths’ of environment, wellbeing or gender. The cultural avant-garde has given way to insidious current pressures and fashions – often enforced by cultural guardians. When the cultural outlook of record labels and book festivals is echoed by debankers and corporate apparatchiks, challenging new orthodoxies carries dangers. Even the once-cherished figure of the maverick is now largely silent in the face of cancel culture.

Yet many say that an anti-conformist spirit today is alive and kicking. The ‘transgressive’ type is lauded, driving new subcultures and promoting alternative ways of living. A new media landscape promotes any number of controversial figures promoting themselves as defiant rule-breakers and portrayers of truth. But are these ‘professional contrarians’ an antidote today’s conformism, or simply cynically manipulating the culture wars?

Some say self-proclaimed dissenters – for example, critics of ‘sheeple’ and ‘snowflakes’ or ‘herd belief’ – simply conform to their own tribe’s worldview. How can we avoid dissenters becoming as intolerant of anyone who doesn’t confirm to a prescriptive list of tick-box opinions said to represent the rebellious position? Can we, too, typecast allies as well as opponents?

Take the reaction to philosopher Kathleen Stock, admired by many for her gender critical views. But when she recently raised concerns about decriminalising abortion, she was howled down many of her erstwhile supporters who took personal offence at her views. Amongst those critics of intellectual silos and echo chambers, is there a danger that anti-conformity can also become a rallying cry for its own kind of groupthink?

In other eras, too, critical thought and dissent have been banished to the margins. In the paradigmatic Age of Conformity, an impasse in public life reflected the consumer culture of the postwar boom and a mood of political passivity. What are the drivers for today’s conformist impulse? And how do we revive the notion of genuine scepticism and dissent? Given that the dissenters of 1960s counterculture and their progeny now seem central to today’s unchallengeable orthodoxies of identity-driven, emotional and personal issues, do we now need a counter-counterculture? And if so, what does that mean for those keen to revive intellectual life?

What is dissent, why is it so important and why has it become devalued today? How does dissent differ from contrarianism? In a world that craves moral certainty and a sense of solidarity, but where words are commonly viewed as hurtful and dangerous to building consensus, how best can we make the case for speaking freely?

Dr Peter Boghossian
founding faculty fellow, University of Austin; executive director, National Progress Alliance; author, How to Have Impossible Conversations

Jennie Bristow
senior lecturer in sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University; author, The Corona Generation: coming of age in a crisis and Growing up in Lockdown

Abbot Christopher Jamison
Abbot President, English Benedictine Congregation; author, Finding the Language of Grace: rediscovering transcendence

Helen Joyce
director of advocacy, Sex Matters; author, TRANS: when ideology meets reality

Lord Moylan
Conservative peer

Ella Whelan
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; journalist; author, What Women Want