Around the Institute

Dignity and Polarization

July 21, 2021  • Daniel R. Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO delivered the below remarks at the 2021 Resnick Aspen Action Forum on July 21, 2021. Follow him on Twitter @DanPorterfield.

Welcome to our 2021 Resnick Aspen Action Forum. My thanks to all colleagues, participants, and sponsors who have made this virtual conference possible.

I love this year’s theme: “Collective Leadership, What Does it Take Polarized World?”

It’s so important that we ask ourselves what polarization looks like, and feels like, and does in different societies and social contexts. Where does it come from? How does it spread? What can be done about it? What role can leaders play? And, to what extent are we being drawn into some of the very forms of polarization that we decry?

These are defining questions for 2021, but they’re not exactly new.

After all, the Aspen Institute was founded in 1949 in the aftermath of 15 years of increasing polarization that finally boiled over into the tragedies of genocide, world war, forced migration, nuclear devastation, and more.

Our first convening was an international conference in the then-sleepy silver mining town of Aspen, dedicated to the thought of the great 19th-century humanist Goethe. In its design, this conference reflected our founders’ belief in, among other things, collective leadership.

Walter and Elizabeth Paepcke convened business leaders, artists, humanitarians, academics, and government leaders—people who didn’t normally think and work together. At the time, the Goethe conference must have felt inclusive, because it was international and because of the diversity of professions included. Today, we also see it as very Western, very white, and very male—but it clearly contained the seeds for the greater inclusion that we prize and still work for today, and it clearly recognized that business communities can and must be partners in building a good society, and not just spectators.

In addition to collective leadership, those who founded the Institute believed in a few powerful ideas that remain catalyzing resources for us today:

One is that ideas matter.

A second is that values matter.

A third is that dialogue matters.

A fourth is that action matters.

A fifth is that cultures matter—existing not in isolation but in contact, exchange, and breakthrough.

And finally, I would argue that the greatest insight of our founding, and the core resource we have for dealing with polarization and other all-too-human phenomena like hatred, racism, violence and alienation, is the idea that each person all across the planet has human dignity. In fact, in 1950, our first board of trustees called dignity the “animating value” of the new Institute.

Dignity is the concept that all humans have equal, intrinsic, and inalienable value—whether we know each other or not, whether we agree with each other or not, whether we live near each other or not, whether we worship the same way or not, whether we look like each other or not, whether we like each other or not. Dignity doesn’t dissolve our differences—it recognizes and values them, because they are part of the humanity that we all share.

If we believe in human dignity, then we must come together, collectively, to share life stories and wisdom, to learn together, to discuss differences, to bear witness to each other’s pain, to build bridges of understanding. To paraphrase Dr. King, we will do these things as brothers and sisters, or we will perish as fools.

Respecting dignity may sound easy, but it’s actually very hard, because it requires humility, learning, listening, respect, inclusion, empathy, tolerance, and conflict resolution—all things we value in the AGLN. It requires a serving spirit, honesty, optimism, and the willingness to change. It requires hope, love, and, for many, faith. Honoring each other’s dignity is one of the greatest callings we humans have—and it is the very opposite of polarization.

So, as we take on this year’s tough topic, let us draw upon our many collective assets—our experiences, our ideals, our friendships, our networks, our commitment to values-based leadership, our belief in human dignity. Thank you, and best wishes for a productive Resnick Aspen Action Forum.