Our Enduring Incivility and the Promise of Aspen Seminars 

Todd Breyfogle, Ph.D. 

When Walter Paepcke, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and Mortimer Adler set out the Aspen Idea, they recognized that our ability to make humane judgments depended upon the practice of civil discourse, both in organizations and in political institutions. They recognized with Aristotle that to live in a city, as citizens, was above all to understand ourselves as civil beings — civility, from the Latin civis (civitas translating the Greek polis), is the virtue of being able to live together not by violence or coercion, but by deliberation and persuasion. Politics which ceases to be civil, ceases to be politics at all, properly speaking.

Politics which ceases to be civil, ceases to be politics at all, properly speaking.

For 65 years, the Aspen Institute has been a laboratory where we learn and practice the habits of civility. Perhaps uniquely, the Aspen Institute combines expert knowledge with the habits of what Aristotle called “practical wisdom” — rational deliberation and persuasion with an eye to the common good. In each policy, public, leadership, and seminar event, the group becomes — for a moment — a civil association; participants are able to work together in moving from thought to action not necessarily because they agree, but because they understand more clearly why they disagree.

We learn the virtues of civility by practicing them; we acquire them and make them our own in what Aristotle called “habit.” That is, civility requires more than expertise. The crescendo of laments about the incivility of Washington’s political discourse masks a more fundamental problem — as a culture we are losing the institutional, philosophical, and dispositional habits that makes civility possible. The habits of civility which are developed at the dinner table and participation in voluntary associations are notably in decline. Many have resigned themselves either to a philosophy of soft relativism or to ideological rigidity, a state of affairs in which the reconciliation of values has given way to complacency on the one hand or a refusal to compromise on the other. We struggle — especially amidst the distractions of the digital age — to find the space or time to think deeply about the complex problems that we face and the tensions among the competing values which underlie our decisions. Like many organizations, the Institute places a premium on substantive expertise; what differentiates the Institute is its explicit cultivation of the habits of thought, dialogue, and action which are increasingly rare in our other political and cultural institutions.

The Aspen Seminar method, tested over 60 years, is a unique and transformative antidote to this spirit of incivility. Seminars typically gather 15-20 people, from diverse professions and places, for a moderated, text-based dialogue over several days. Some seminars, like Socrates or Justice and Society, or the convenings of our many policy programs, will have specific topical content — internet security, the state of our judicial institutions, or transgenerational poverty. The Aspen Executive Seminar on Leadership, Values, and the Good Society, complements this content expertise by exploring the frameworks of fundamental values which lie behind our decision making. Drawing on excerpts from some of the best minds of past and present — authors from Plato and Aristotle to Martin Luther King and Vaclav Havel — seminar participants test their own and others’ beliefs in a challenging and enriching laboratory of ideas.

Within a day or two of discussion, the group’s reflective dialogue shifts from the set speeches of political and professional correctness to a frank engagement of what it means to live a good life in a just society. At issue are our contested notions of democracy, liberty, efficiency, equality, community, justice, transcendence — all complex, all easily misunderstood goods which are perhaps incommensurable. No issue is off the table: race, gender, religion, politics, the existential solitude of making decisions that affect our organizations and our families. The seminar affords leaders space and time to see themselves and others more clearly and to discern the strong currents of values that lie beneath the surface of the decisions we make — from the C-Suite and the board room to the dining room table and the voting booth.

Self-awareness and self-correction are not skills. They are habits which must be nurtured if they are to flourish.

An Aspen seminar is not skills training. Rather, an Aspen seminar aims at two fundamental leadership qualities: self-awareness and self-correction, as Paepcke put it in some of the earliest Executive Seminar materials. Self-awareness and self-correction are not skills, they are habits — habits which must be nurtured if they are to flourish, habits which are the bedrock not only of genuine leadership but of civility itself.

What does this look like in practice? In our Global Leadership Network seminars it means entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds reflecting on how to use their skills to bridge political and economic divides. In the US Executive Seminar it means a Four Star Admiral sitting beside a Turkish entrepreneur and a Chinese-American immigrant non-profit director. In seminars with our international partners — in Italy, Spain, and Romania, for example—it means frank discussions of the historical, cultural, and political context in which today’s business needs to get done: austerity measures, nationalism, the legacies of war, totalitarianism, and genocide. “Leaving politics aside,” as one US participant recently remarked to another, “I admire your courage and the values which inform it.” This attitude not only leads to better political deliberation, it enhances creativity and collaboration in our workplaces and our communities. Superficial acknowledgement of differences is a shifting sand; firm common ground comes from understanding common ends and clarifying how we can work together, even if we may disagree about the means to those ends.

In Aspen seminars we get beyond the superficial civility of dismissive politeness to the civility of genuine mutual recognition. We cannot talk about the most important questions of life without coming to see each other, and ourselves, through a more humane lens. In deepening our understanding of the intellectual and moral landscape in which we work and live, Aspen seminars foster among participants lasting bonds of mutual support, accountability, and friendship.

The late Vaclav Havel wrote that civility can only come about through the “complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education.” Paepcke, Hutchins, and Adler understood that the habits of civility could not be taught, but they could be learned, if we had the space and time to listen, to reflect, and to challenge ourselves and others to pursue the never ending work of self-education in and towards a better society.