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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. He will be speaking in the discussion Is relativism to blame for our post-truth world? on 21st October alongside fellow panellists Professor Simon Goldhill, Caroline Edwards and Priyamvada Gopal. The event is chaired by Professor Simon Blackburn. Professor Furedi’s new book Populism and the European Culture Wars is published by Routledge.


To what extent has relativism contributed to today's 'post-truth' politics by increasing people's cynicism about truth and facts?

Frank Furedi: I don't think that relativism can be held responsible for the growth of cynicism and mistrust of the official version of events. People have become fed up with policy makers refusing to give a straight answer to a question. They have also learned that experts often disagree with one another and that their version of events is open to contestation


Is this there any such thing as truth?

FF: Truth has an elusive quality. What's important is the quest for the truth and the insights gained through this journey. Truth is contextual and, in most cases, liable to be overtaken by events. Nevertheless, there are some durable truths about life that were first elaborated by Greek thinkers and have excited the imagination of succeeding generations.


How can truth be defended when knowledge itself is under attack?

FF: Knowledge has always been under attack. What's different about the present conjuncture is that it is within the the sphere of education that knowledge is often devalued - for instance, due to intolerance of debate on campus, the tendency to privilege skills at the expense of knowledge content in schools and the demotion of the quest for ideas in universities.


Has greater 'tolerance' for others' views bred a more intolerant society and how much is relativism to blame?

FF: Tolerance never breeds intolerance. It is the ascendancy of the value of of non-judgmentalism that is responsible for legitimating the present narratives of intolerance.


How has this affected campus debate?

FF: Tolerance is conspicuous by its absence on campuses. Intolerance towards freedom of speech and expression is frequently justified on the grounds that people need to be protected from harmful words.


To what extent have things like safe spaces and no platforming enabled the far right?

FF: I think that the strength of the far right is often overblown. They obviously benefit from the censorious intolerance of campus protest. I am more worried by the normalisation of illiberal attitudes in campuses and in mainstream society. In practice freedom of speech has been reduced to a second order principle and the main beneficiaries of this trend are the forces of intolerance.


How can we arrive at knowledge without giving a minority the authority to define what is or isn't truthful?

FF: Epistemic authority needs to be subjected to the scrutiny of the public. In an ideal world intellectual authority is won through debate and conversation with the widest possible audience.