John Inazu: Confident pluralism -- surviving and thriving through deep difference

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Despite deep and irresolvable differences, Americans must find a way to live together, a Washington University law professor says in this interview. He calls for a ‘confident pluralism,’ bolstered in part by tolerance, humility and patience.

Today, in a very divisive time, our ability to have even a fundamental baseline of civil discourse is under great pressure, said John Inazu, the author of “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.”

Since the presidential election, that pressure has only intensified.

“We are now seeing more an ideological purity and absolutism on both ends,” he said. “It’s the idea that if you don’t agree completely with me, you are not welcome to be part of the conversation. You’re, in some instances, not even encouraged to be part of society. The stakes and the vitriol and the anger directed against our fellow citizens in both directions seem to have heightened.”

In response to such growing differences, Inazu, in his 2016 book, calls for a “confident pluralism,” one that recognizes both the reality of our differences and our tendency to suppress those differences when left to our own devices.

“We’ve got to have something that holds us together,” Inazu said. “The view I take in this book is that it can be a pretty modest something, as a political matter. We have to have some shared agreement about basic norms and a shared understanding that we can actually dialogue with one another.”

One of those basic norms would be shared “civic aspirations” of tolerance, humility and patience. The issue of such aspirations is especially pressing, as they seem to be “almost on life support,” Inazu said.

Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His scholarship focuses on the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, and related issues of political and legal theory. His first book, “Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly,” was published by Yale University Press in 2012.


John Inazu

Inazu was at Duke University Law School recently to present a lecture on confident pluralism and spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: What is ‘confident pluralism’?

Confident pluralism is, out of the recognition of our deep and irresolvable differences, a political response to how we choose to live together with one another. It differs from either majoritarian impulses toward control or a kind of chaos that views us as nothing more than individuals living in the same place. It’s a desire to push toward a shared community, although a modestly shared one.

The idea of confidence and pluralism means that we have to recognize both the reality of our differences and our tendency to suppress difference, left to our own devices.

Confidence without pluralism -- if we’re just confident in our own beliefs, we tend to suppress differences, sometimes violently, and push down those who disagree with us.

Conversely, pluralism without confidence papers over our real differences for the sake of a false unity or feigned agreement. We end up pretending that we all agree or share some basic ideas when in fact we don’t, and it’s an unstable and unauthentic way to live together.

Q: Doesn’t confident pluralism presuppose the existence of a “people,” a group of individuals with goods in common?

We’ve got to have something that holds us together. The view I take in this book is that it can be a pretty modest something, as a political matter.

We have to have some shared agreement about basic norms and a shared understanding that we can actually dialogue with one another.

Some of these norms include a recognition of inclusion in the political community, that we look to find those voices that have previously been unwelcomed to certain conversations, but also that we recognize the significance of dissent, that we don’t presuppose the norms of the state on everyone.

In some ways, those are consensus values that we all need to hold in order to live into the possibility of difference.

So there’s a bit of a paradox. We have to have some agreement in order to be able to differ. If we lose that basic agreement, if we lose even the shared willingness to dialogue with one another, I don’t know how we move forward.

Increasingly, in our echo chambers and “fake news” and false stories of reality, it puts pressure on our ability to have that fundamental baseline of discourse.

Q: It seems a very timely book, given the election and the current political environment. Where do you see that pressure manifested and acted out? Describe the reality that you are writing about.

Even as I started writing the book two years ago, there were some worrisome trends in society and social media. The presidential election exacerbated much of this and raised the stakes in some ways. We are now seeing more an ideological purity and absolutism on both ends.

It’s the idea that if you don’t agree completely with me, you are not welcome to be part of the conversation. You’re, in some instances, not even encouraged to be part of society. The stakes and the vitriol and the anger directed against our fellow citizens in both directions seem to have heightened.

When I wrote this book, I was asked initially whether constitutional norms or civic aspirations were more important [in building confident pluralism]. At the time, a couple of years ago, I would have said they’re both really important.

I still believe that, but it seems that the civic aspirations piece is now almost on life support. If there were something that we needed to focus on urgently, it would be the question whether we have these aspirations with and for each other -- and, as importantly, whether we have the kinds of institutions that can shape people to have these aspirations.

Q: Explain what you mean when you talk about constitutional norms and civic aspirations as aspects of confident pluralism.

The constitutional dimension of confident pluralism asks that we take seriously the First Amendment protections of difference and dissent and of the ability of private groups to shape their own norms and ways of life over and against state and majoritarian norms.

It’s about the spaces that government provides for public forums for people to display and express their own beliefs and values without interference from the state, absent compelling justifications, and the basic need to honor difference and dissent and to insist that those people whom we entrust to govern us honor that difference and dissent.

Civic aspirations are more about how we personally contribute to these ideas in the spaces that the law does not govern. A clear example is free speech. We can say almost whatever we want, to almost anybody, but that leaves the question of responsibility on us.

What should we say? Are there things that we can and don’t say that either could or could not contribute to this idea of confident pluralism?

Q: What traits or virtues are necessary for confident pluralism?

I wrote the book in terms of democratic theory, so I wanted to think of personal traits or habits that are accessible to people beyond particularized faith traditions.

I’m not sure that forgiveness, for example, is easily translatable outside certain theological contexts. But I settled pretty early on with tolerance, humility and patience, and in the first draft of this book, I called them virtues.

Then on reflection, for MacIntyrean reasons that came to me via Stanley Hauerwas, I realized I couldn’t call them virtues, because virtues presuppose practices -- and institutions that sustain those practices. It’s not clear to me that we have those practices or institutions currently in our society that instill tolerance, humility and patience in our citizens. So I chose “aspirations” instead, to say we can get there maybe, right?

It’s a place-holder word. Aspirations have to become embodied practices and virtues at some point, or else this is a time-limited experiment.

Q: So how do those aspirations -- tolerance, humility and patience -- play into confident pluralism?

With tolerance, I’m asking rather modestly for the idea that we accept other beliefs and practices even when we disagree with them. That doesn’t mean we fully embrace them. It just means that we allow for their coexistence in our society, and that means distinguishing between people and ideas. It’s not suggesting that all ideas are equally valid or morally harmless, because they’re not.

Humility, in a related way, asks that we recognize that our understandings and justifications for our own beliefs and practices will not always be translatable to other people. So we have to recognize epistemic limits to how we justify and explain our beliefs to others and also recognize that other people will sometimes not understand the basis for our beliefs and values.

Then patience is the idea that we work charitably to listen, understand and empathize with others, realizing that sometimes that will lead to a fuller realization of the error or the harm of someone else’s viewpoint.

The goal is not always complete reconciliation or acceptance of beliefs but at least an understanding of where certain beliefs come from and why people hold them.

Q: That sounds similar to what L. Gregory Jones has written about the notion of interpretive charity, the idea of not rushing to judgment about what other people say but instead giving them the benefit of the doubt and trying to understand what they’re saying.

We can almost always learn something from someone else. Regardless of how different they are from us, how problematic we find their views, how much we think they’re in error, we almost always have something to learn from other people. Too often, when we forget that, we start to filter all comments and all viewpoints through our own lenses and stop listening to what other people have to say.

A lot of my colleagues at work differ in fundamental ways from my own beliefs and commitments, but they’re very smart and very kind people who have a lot to teach me. In relationship with them, I’ve learned a lot more about myself, my values, my scholarship.

It doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. We don’t. But it means that, I think, we mutually enter relationships with the expectation that we will learn and grow from one another.

Q: Speak some to confident pluralism in the age of Trump. You had a piece in USA Today in December, “How to Unite in Spite of Trump.” You said you saw us inching toward a darker period of division.

Both the election itself and the first few months of the Trump administration have raised the stakes of what’s at issue with our discourse, the degree to which we’re able to talk about facts accurately and charitably, and the way we’re able to treat other people.

Then, in response, much of the national media has engaged in a heightened angst and anger around the Trump administration. In some ways, it seems like they’re playing a big game of chicken, where each is pushing harder and harder and the endgame doesn’t look very good for any of us.

I do think it’s important to recognize in the current political moment some uniquely dangerous and unprecedented actions and framings from this administration. But on the other hand, not every hour of every day is a crisis.

Sometimes these folks are going to do things right, and it’s important to separate the crises from the day-to-day and to try to treat kindly those people who are trying to work hard to make our country better right now, which is not everybody in the administration, but it’s certainly some people.

Q: What about the role of social media in creating this divisive culture?

Social media might be the part of our society that leaves me the most pessimistic right now. It seems to me that all of our social media impulses cut in exactly the wrong direction for trying to live with each other graciously and to pursue tolerance, humility and patience with one another.

There is a sense of urgency and brevity and absolutism in social media, and all of those play against any habits or practices that could get us to sit down and try to understand each other. More and more of us are spending more and more of our lives on social media, so we’re filtering our lived experience through what we see and read and experience online -- everything from our relationships to the national and international news.

I don’t see how the market incentives or our human impulses are going to turn this ship in the way it needs to be turned.

Q: How and when does one know that maybe it’s not better to tolerate or to be humble and patient? How does one know when it’s time to protest?

All of the limit questions are going to be matters of contingent politics. Every society is going to have its limits. There’s no society that can be fully pluralistic. In our society today, we’re not going to allow cannibals, and we’re not going to allow the local chapter of al-Qaida.

So we say that some groups and some practices are just out of bounds, and relatedly, sometimes our aspirations for tolerance, humility and patience will run out and we will be asked not to tolerate.

I don’t have a great answer or method to identify when that happens. But part of the normative push in this book is to suggest that it happens far less frequently than we would like to assume. Our impulses to stop being patient and to stop tolerating kick in usually long before they really need to.

Q: What’s the role of the church in shaping and creating confident pluralism?

The church has a vital role to play, and part of it is that the church has resources to bring. It has virtues that map onto these aspirations, and it has other virtues, like love and hope, that are important to participating in a shared political experiment.

The more that Christians can approach our shared existence with those around us for the good of neighbor and for the sake of the church and the world, the more that Christians can play a vital part in this collective political experiment going forward.

Knowing the end of the story and knowing that God’s time is not our time, Christians have the resources to be patient and to wait and to know that we’re all works in progress and that our own stories are not yet fully written.

That’s a charitable understanding of other people created in the image of God that can allow us to pursue and push into relationships even when they’re tough, even with people who don’t agree with us, even into risky and messy spaces. So it seems to me that Christians, of all people, should be emboldened to pursue these kinds of relationships across difference.

Q: Are they doing that?

Oh, no. No. Some Christians are. But some [other] Christians are instead trapped in a fear or self-interest that I don’t quite understand. The remedy is a reminder of the confidence that comes from the gospel and the participation in a larger story in which we’re just bit players but we know how the story ends.

I would like to see Christians, both as individuals and in the institutions that they form, play a deeper role in this larger vision of confident pluralism, and not a wishy-washy, feel-good role.

The gospel, at the end of the day, is going to be offensive to the world, and it is going to cause friction and unsettle different views and challenge different structures in the world. So we should anticipate as Christians that it’s not going to be easy or frictionless but that we have the resources to engage faithfully.