Stoking Debate at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Which issues deserve to be discussed more widely, vigorously, or robustly?

In the weeks before the Aspen Ideas Festival, the people slated to speak here step back from their work and decide how best to convey insights gleaned in far-flung places and diverse fields to a population of discerning strangers assembled in the Rockies.

My colleagues and I prepare for a converse task: conveying some of the insights that we encounter here to curious Atlantic readers and kindred spirits for whom a week in the mountains is not an option. The novel ideas that spark the interest of my colleagues and the unexpected ways they write about them delight me every year. Regular readers will get to see some of their favorite writers on unfamiliar beats this week.

Watch this space.

As for me, I’m planning something a bit new. Maybe a preview will entice you to join me. Last week, I traveled to Aspen by highway, hoping to encounter people far from America’s coasts and talk about whatever was on their minds. After a late night drive from L.A. to Las Vegas, I met a group of Utah residents in a La Quinta lobby. I asked them why the people in their state have such distaste for Donald Trump. They were polite souls who didn't want to talk politics, especially with a stranger.

I didn't blame them.

But the next day, on a lonely stretch of Nevada highway, I began to reflect on all the different obstacles to conversing about ideas and engaging in constructive debate in this country.

The technology connecting us is as varied and advanced as it has ever been. Yet I fear that we're losing the ability, and perhaps the desire, to talk and civilly disagree with one another, at least beyond our respective bubbles. On Facebook and Twitter, many are souring on debate for perfectly understandable reasons. There is fear of being attacked by trolls, doxxed by hackers, harassed by bigots, or targeted by “social-justice warriors” aiming to get others shamed or fired from their jobs. Even many well-meaning people are more eager to apply harsh scrutiny or to pounce on wrong-think than to listen and engage in a spirit of generous dialogue.

And older obstacles to talking with one another persist. Media professionals are clustered in a few cities. Most communities are segregated in two dozen different ways. Holiday meals are more peaceful if families avoid topics that cause the blowhard uncle or the superior college freshman to inflict their disdainful certainty on the table.

I did find plenty of people willing to talk on the road.

But in Twin Falls, Idaho, I ate breakfast at a diner where they ran my Visa on an old-fashioned credit card slider, and after signing the carbon paper to complete the throwback transaction, I waited around in hopes of talking to the waitress: a colorful character with delightfully strong views about what egg preparation would best complement the house special and most topics besides if my read on her was right. Given 20 minutes to draw her out I'd have something special. But she was too harried, waiting on a crowded room. I hated leaving without her perspective.

Later, at an overlook high above the Snake River, a tattooed man wearing a sleeveless shirt and walking an off-leash dog intrigued me with an unprompted remark. But when I asked him to say more he just kept walking. I won’t ever know his reasons.

Driving on, but looking back on all the characters with whom I didn't converse––indeed, on people from all bygone reporting trips whose ideas I failed to hear or grasp––I wished that I could take them all to Aspen, because one of the things I like most about the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, is the enabling effect it has on nearly everyone present: with food and lodging prearranged in an impossibly beautiful setting, and time set aside time in the name of "ideas," an alchemy of sorts lowers guards and opens most people up to conversations they would never otherwise indulge.

At its best, this is a place where unusual exchanges happen.

It is a place where, having been as critical of NSA surveillance as any journalist in America, I got to ask Keith Alexander and Michael Hayden, who I could never have even gotten on the phone, to defend what I still regard as their misdeeds; a place where my colleague, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, pressed one another on their clashing notions of how best to understand the intersection of crime, race, and public policy; a place where I’ve been able to watch Jeffrey Goldberg and James Fallows, two hugely skillful interviewers with very different styles, look for answers in ways I’d never imagined; and where countless sessions proceed without any memorable dispute, but with a tough question at the end from an audience member or a flash of insight on the face of someone who suddenly sees the world through a lens they hadn’t considered.

Can any of that alchemy make it down the mountain?

With hopes of creating space for engagement, I've put a question to this year's speakers: Is there an idea in your field, or beyond it, that would benefit from being debated more widely, vigorously, or robustly? I'll be sharing some of their answers with you.

And I'll share emails from readers reflecting on that question––maybe yours, if you decide to send a response. What's more, as I attend sessions on a number of subjects here in Aspen, I'll try, when I possess the requisite knowledge, to situate those ideas within the larger national debates that they might inform or propel forward.

Email if you can add to any of the debates. And watch our Notes section for responses from other readers. If you’re game, let this be a week when you set a few minutes aside, in your far flung homes and offices, to ponder what insights you've gleaned in your diverse fields and to convey them to curious strangers.