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Celebrating the Exchange of Ideas

The author, with festival organizer Kirk Swenson, and Matt Ballance and Todd Lester of Braver Angels Western NC

Last week, I got a chance to attend a celebration of intellectual exchange. The Asheville Ideas Fest is run by the University of North Carolina–Asheville, and what better place to let ideas flow freely than the beautiful Appalachian Mountains of Western North Carolina!

The open air encourages an open mind, and I came away seeing several things in a new light.

The fest includes three days of panel discussions, workshops and other experiences, and I was there in particular for the final day, which was focused on "Our Polarized Union and the Future of Democracy." I delivered a workshop—called Depolarizing Within—on behalf of the depolarization organization Braver Angels and its Western North Carolina alliance.

Before that, though, the program included three great discussions about issues that impact our discourse, including the speech environment on college campuses, the development of artificial intelligence, and the changing tides of religious belief and affiliation throughout the country.

Higher Values in Higher Ed

Lynn Pasquerella (President, American Association of Colleges and Universities), Will Creeley (FIRE) and Gina Lee-Olukoya (Illinois Urbana-Champaign)

The first panel featured the Legal Director of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), Will Creeley, and the Director of Civic Life at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Gina Lee-Olukoya. Campus free speech is an issue I've written about several times, since I see it as foundational and directional for the dynamics in the rest of our organizations. Creeley and Lee-Olukoya talked about the fine line that campus leaders must walk to provide the most fruitful learning environment, complicated by winds of the culture wars swirling around them—which brings public opprobrium and, in the case of public universities, meddling politicians.

Lee-Olukoya affirmed that students indeed need to be exposed to challenging ideas (obvious), and pushed back against the notion that ideas themselves can cause harm (seemingly less obvious these days). She emphasized the point that belonging is the intangible factor that lets campus communities absorb the toxicity that's inevitable in an environment that's truly open in this way. We don't help the next generations when we shield them from discomfort, but we do them no favors either by surrendering them to the scourge of loneliness and anxiety that right now afflicts so many young people.

Support isn't enough, though, and Creeley emphasized that administrators have to set productive norms that make clear the line between protected speech and harassment, and that aren't subject to the vicissitudes of short-term political winds. The job of reaffirming those norms is never done, though; he reminded us that in the battle to protect the free flow of thought, no victory or defeat is forever.

The First AI Election?

Matthew Perrault (UNC Chapel Hill), Dara Lindenbaum (FEC Commissioner) and Chris Bail (Duke University)

An election is a product of its times, with not just the results, but even the way it's run subject to both current events and current technology. While the computerization of our electoral systems has brought headaches along with progress, recent developments in artificial intelligence have many Americans bracing for a full-on migraine. Matthew Perrault, director of the Center on Technology Policy at UNC-Chapel Hill, led a discussion to shed some light on these trends, with FEC Commissioner Dara Lindenbaum, and Chris Bail, a sociology and public policy professor who leads Duke University's Polarization Lab.

The 2020 presidential election was the most contentious in recent memory, with widespread reports saying misinformation was coming from within and without, and threatening the integrity of our vote. AI tools have the potential to supercharge these threats with more granular targeting of susceptible voters and the potential for scary tech boogeymen like deepfake photos and videos. Fortunately for the mental health of those of us in attendance, Bail has a history of digging through the hype about our media and tech environment, revealing that mis- and disinformation's influence on voter behavior is smaller than we think. (The average American saw only two pieces over social media in 2016, according to his research.)

That's not to say we're free from danger, and AI can definitely make things worse, especially for those being specifically targeted by bad actors; Lindenbaum reminded us that disadvantaged minority communities were the biggest targets. And there's still plenty to fix outside the realm of tech, like our campaign laws. The FEC has broad powers over campaign finance, but regarding the way campaigns are waged it's a bit wild west. Did you know it's perfectly legal for one candidate to misrepresent another's views, as long as they have a 4-second disclaimer taking credit for the ad?

That actually sounds reasonable after some thought, since those views are literally up for debate. But all of this reinforces the incredibly important role of retail politics, where candidates speak directly to their audiences. That direct line is under threat, not just due to the exigencies of using tech to reach wider audiences as campaigns get more and more expensive and strategy gets more granular, but also due to our elected officials stepping further away from direct accountability from the press—exemplified by the near abandonment of presidential press conferences.

But there's hope. These new tech tools can be used for good as much as ill, and Bail put forth the intriguing proposition that they can channel our human proclivities like FOMO—our ubiquitous fear of missing out—into curiosity about new and interesting perspectives. I'm certainly glad I didn't miss that conversation.

Tay-Tay as High Priestess

Dr. Heath Carter (Princeton Theological Seminary), Elizabeth Dias (National Religion Correspondent, NY Times), Cherie Harder (the Trinity Forum), Dr. Celene Ibrahim and Rabbi Elan Babchuck

When it comes to religion in this country, much has been made of the flying "nones," the rapidly rising portion of Americans who are unaffiliated with a religious group. Dr. Heath Carter, an associate professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, talked to representatives of the three Abrahamic religions and the NY Times national religion correspondent about what these trends mean for our society. Like the previous panel, they pointed out countervailing effects, like three-quarters of Gen Z claiming spirituality, a major bump from previous generations.

And Rabbi Elan Babchuck seemed to steal the show with the fascinating notion that this spirituality can manifest itself in unexpected ways: Are Swifties a religious group? In their rituals, pilgrimages and ecstatic gatherings they certain fit much of the bill.

But the headwinds facing religious communities, and their leaders, are real. In fact, 40 percent of Christian pastors have considered leaving their flocks, Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder told us, with political polarization being one of the top reasons. And scholar of Islam Dr. Celene Ibrahim talked about the criticism and threat leaders often feel if they choose to build bridges, highlighting the importance of interfaith groups that bring these leaders together and support them in their shared struggles.

Those struggles are common to our whole country at this point. And events like the Asheville Ideas Fest are one way for us to come together and experience the magic of surprising new ways of thinking. For the sake of our civic health, we should do everything in our power not just to frequent spaces where we'll encounter interesting and challenging ideas, but to approach those ideas with a genuine sense of wonder.


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