Reflections on the Power of Thinking About Thinking

A Recent Experience Brought Back a Valuable Lesson in National Life

We’re Late Today!

Its true, today’s posting is a half-day late. That is pretty much a first for this blog (and hopefully the last time). In candor, I usually complete the next posting 1-3 days in advance, recheck it the day prior, then post it.

Yesterday I was delightfully sidetracked with a zip line adventure, accompanying my goddaughter and her three sons through the skies and amongst the trees. Something about flying along at 350 feet above the trees (or along the trees close enough to touch), for 3500 feet, up to 60 MPH that clears the head. We did a similar run last year – could be the makings of a fine tradition.

Seemed a fair trade off for blog work, for one time. I commented to my wife this morning that I wondered if anyone would actually notice if I skipped a regular posting. An hour later, the first query came in. Always nice to know someone reads this stuff! So now, back to the business at hand.

Thinking About Thinking in a Useful Setting

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to be part of the opening panel for a gathering in my area known as The Asheville Idea Fest. This was only the second year of this event, sort of our version of Chautauqua or Aspen, and I have to say that I was impressed how well it was done and how useful it was. It remined me that such gatherings have immeasuragle value, for many reasons.

The idea that people willing to come together for several days, to deal with challenging topics, amongst hundreds of others, with pretty much the full range of ideas and positions in play, is remarkable. So often, we all go to our respective safe zones and echo each other. Events like Idea Fest have the opposite intent. They seek to bring out conflicting views, not in a debate format, but in a “what can we learn that we may otherwise have missed” approach.

It is a healthy thing to do, requiring both conviction and humility, a readiness to defend the right as you see it, but also a willingness to acknowledge when you hear something unexpectedly reasonable from a counterpart. We had that happen over and over during that week, an experience I have seen at similar gatherings and in sessions I have participated in with think tanks.

The aforementioned “this is not a debate” framework is the key to useful gatherings of this type. Having that willingness to listen and to dialogue is essential, as is some shared goals to see governance and society actually work. If your point is just to beat the other side, not much point in showing up.

This is not overly gentle and sensitive stuff. There are people who are dedicated to having a right-wing, Christian nationalist country whose only goal is to impose their whole package on everyone else. Those you call out and face down, every time. But there are many others who may be left or right of you but are more focused on doing right and teaching others rather than simply ruling over others.

There are enough such folks showing up at these types of gatherings to make the effort worthwhile. I cannot wait until next year’s Idea Fest. We all have work to do. This year, I found myself more than once being sure I knew where someone stood on a given issue and finding myself surprised that I had misjudged them – we had some small points of common ground to work from.

Lessons Learned

In working through a mountain of complicated, dangerous, and inspiring issues on this round, I came out with a couple of overwhelming conclusions that have stuck with me for the long term:

  • AI (artificial intelligence) is more complex, more powerful, and fuller of good and bad capacity than most of us can even conceive, and we are in the early stages. This is a real turning point in so many, many ways. Hope we are up to it.
  • In looking through our history, I am always struck how useful and impressive government and law are when they are wielded to expand rights and opportunities. Pretty much every time we have amended our constitution, it has been to expand freedom and provide opportunity (the 14th Amendment comes to mind first and foremost).
  • The rare occasion we amend to restrict (prohibition, for example), it goes badly, and fails at its objective. Sometimes we mean to enhance freedom, but the language is abused (second amendment, anyone?).
  • Same for the courts, especially the Supreme Court. Brown vs Board of Education set the path towards correctly a couple of centuries of wrongdoing. When the Court rules to restrict freedoms (Plessy vs Ferguson, Dobb vs Jackson), it has not turned out as the decision intended and the people either found ways around them or got them subsequently overturned.

Overall, the country does well when we respect and welcome our differences and does poorly when we try to force one mindset on everyone. Let us hope that 2024 demonstrates we get that.

Does not seem like too much to ask, does it?

See you next week.

Bill Clontz

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