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Ben Klutsey talks with John Inazu about acknowledging differences, finding common ground and supporting constitutional rights with civic practices
In this eleventh installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of academic outreach at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, sits down with John Inazu to discuss what changes in constitutional rules and interpersonal norms can be more effective at fostering environments of patient, tolerant and intellectually humble conversations. Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion and Professor of Political Science at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He specializes in First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and religion, and related questions of legal and political theory. His books include “Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly” and “Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference.”
This series also includes interviews with Alan Charles Kors, Emily Chamlee-Wright, Ilana Redstone, Richard Ebeling, Robert Talisse, Danielle Allen, Roger Berkowitz, Virgil Storr, Kevin Vallier, Juliana Schroeder, Jonathan Rauch and Peter Boettke.
KLUTSEY: Now, today’s conversation is about pluralism, how to coexist with people of different backgrounds, creeds, ideologies and viewpoints. It is an essential concept and value to understand if we want to live peacefully within a liberal democracy. Let’s start off with some terminology. What do you mean by confident pluralism and how is it different from what you call the fact of pluralism?
INAZU: We can think of pluralism in a couple of different ways. One is descriptively: What does the world look like? The term really comes from John Rawls, who talks about the fact of pluralism, that we live in a deeply divided society where people have different views about ultimate things and things that matter. Then separate from that is the question of what do we do about that? So the theory of pluralism as a normative matter is a political response to the fact of pluralism and difference in our society.
The idea of confident pluralism, the way I try to frame it, is to say we need to first acknowledge the reality and the depths of our differences, not mitigating or putting aside those differences but actually embracing the depths of the differences. That’s the confidence part, and only then can we actually engage together in the shared project of pluralism by living across those differences and finding common ground.
A Modest Unity
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. Now, when I was reading your book, it seemed to me that you’re saying we need to abandon our quest for this abstract concept of oneness or the idealism of e pluribus unum if we want to seek confident pluralism. You seem to say we should seek a more modest version of unity. This also reminds me of a previous conversation that we had on this podcast with Professor Danielle Allen at Harvard University, who contrasted wholeness and oneness in her book “Talking to Strangers.” The idea is that oneness is an elusive quest. Can you go a bit deeper into what you mean by modest unity?
INAZU: Sure. I think we have some aspirational language in our founding documents and our public lore that pushes us to this idea of a more perfect union or the suggestion that we’re going to come together “out of many, one.” Part of acknowledging the reality of our differences is to remind us that the common ground we will eventually find will be inherently limited, that we’re actually not seeking perfect unity or perfect union, but we’re seeking out of the differences a shared sense of politics together.
Depending on how deep those differences run, it might be actually quite a limited version. So when I talk about a modest unity, I’m talking about what is the common ground that we can find at a practical level that holds us together as a common people and a common political entity but that doesn’t pursue narratives and ideas that are not going to be readily attainable?
Here’s one example: when we talk about “common good” language. What’s the common good of the country? That becomes a very elusive term to try to define when we disagree about really important and fundamental matters. If we disagree across this country about the purpose of the country or what it means to be a human being or what it means to pursue human flourishing, it’s very hard out of those differences to name the common good. Rather than that, rather than pursuing those kinds of projects, I’m suggesting we start with something quite more modest that looks at common ground even, and perhaps especially, when we cannot name a shared common good.
KLUTSEY: That was going to be my next question, saying that we lack agreement on the purpose of the country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing and all these things. If we lack these things, is it even possible to work towards a modest unity?
INAZU: I think it has to be. I start off the “Confident Pluralism” book with a quote from [philosopher Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, who says, “It’s impossible for men to live at peace with those they think are damned.” I think for all of our sakes, Rousseau has to be wrong, that we actually have to find a way to live at peace with those all the way, including those who we think are damned or those we think are fundamentally living on this earth with viewpoints and perspectives and beliefs that we find not only wrong and misguided, but in some cases abhorrent. We’ve got to figure out a way to find that mutual, modest unity in spite of those differences.
Here’s where I think on a very practical level this is possible. Most of us live and breathe and work and play with people who hold quite different views than our own. If we got everyone in a room in a typical city block or classroom or workplace and we pushed hard on what our differences are, we would be surprised at how much we disagree over really important things. Yet we still find very practical ways to get things done, to live life together. We find a shared humanity in the people across the table from us.
I think focusing on those everyday activities and those common-ground initiatives can get us a long way. It might not get us all the way. We might end up saying it’s going to be really hard to collaborate with the neo-Nazis. But I think our impulse is to put everybody who disagrees with us into that category of the neo-Nazis, and that actually is not, I think, a very big category in reality. In reality, most of us can find ways to partner across deep disagreement with other people because we recognize the shared humanity and we recognize our common interest in those people.
KLUTSEY: So we definitely have to find a way. We talk about deep divisions in the country. I wonder if some of it is exaggerated. Are we truly divided, or it’s a perception game?
INAZU: I think it’s a mixed bag there. I think social media, for example, exacerbates our differences and gives outsize influence to the most partisan and most extreme among us. If you live your life on social media, you’re going to experience perhaps more division and polarization than is actually there. The problem is, increasingly people are spending a lot of their time on social media. Their perception becomes the reality, and over time those entrenched views of polarized difference are going to creep in.
I think there’s a cautionary tale that what we take in and what we consume will ultimately shape and define who we are and how we see the world. I also think, though, that some of our deep differences really are there and really always have been there. There’s a way in which a previous era assumed a kind of consensus that probably wasn’t there. And by politically or culturally or economically denying the ability of certain voices to be heard, whether it was people of different races, women, other people who found themselves in minority categories—when those voices just weren’t listened to or heard, it was very easy to assume a kind of consensus or unity that wasn’t actually there.
So now that we find ourselves in an era where more voices are being heard, we’re seeing pressure put on the unity and the consensus narrative, probably in really good ways, to expose the disagreements we’ve always had. But it does mean that those efforts to find unity are going to be far more complicated.
Inclusion and Dissent
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. There are things that are now coming to the fore that were glossed over, it seems sometimes. Digging a little bit deeper into the concept of confident pluralism, you note that it’s a concept that is grounded in two key premises: inclusion and dissent. As we grow as a society, we want to include more people who were previously excluded. At the same time, we have to also allow for people to dissent from the status quo and/or the way that things are changing.
It seems to me that these two premises will be in perpetual tension because the more inclusivity that you seek, it is likely that you wouldn’t like all the dissent that is going on, and the more you see dissent, it creates all these tensions. I wonder which is the salient of the two, or do they reinforce each other?
INAZU: I think you’re exactly right to name an inherent tension between the two, but I think there are ways to mitigate against that tension in many contexts. Let’s start with the idea of inclusion. In “Confident Pluralism” I focus on notions of equality of opportunity and suggest that people need to have basic human needs met before they can even realistically talk about what it means to engage across difference.
If you go a few miles from my house into some of the poorer neighborhoods of St. Louis, it’s not going to make any sense to walk up to someone and say, “Let’s talk about our deepest differences,” because the person is going to respond with, “Let’s talk about access to healthcare or basic education” or things like that. We have to be able to resolve these basic, fundamental needs first.
The problem is that a push for inclusion or equality of opportunity can quickly become a push for undifferentiated notions of equality that are very difficult to make sense of. When equality of opportunity becomes “equality based on my terms and how I understand it,” it can swallow everything. If my version of equality says, “Discrimination is always wrong,” for example, that doesn’t sufficiently account for the way we actually operate in the world.
We discriminate in all kinds of ways. Sports teams discriminate against bad athletes, and choirs discriminate against poor singers, and so forth. We could go on and on. The groups that we form in society that are based on distinctions and different forms of discrimination do not answer the normative or moral question of which kinds are good or bad.
That’s when we get to dissent, then, and the dissent premise that I explore suggests that in the private groups of civil society, we have to have a very capacious understanding of dissent. There will be limits. There are always limits to pluralism in any form of political theory, such that the local chapter of al-Qaida is not going to be able to exist. We as a society are going to prohibit certain groups that are just beyond the pale. But we ought to think very carefully about what those groups are and push the limits of dissent as far as we can.
In doing so—and this goes back to your initial point—there will be tension between those who want to pursue a more robust version of inclusion and those who want to pursue a more robust version of dissent. Holding those two together and maximizing both of those spaces is part of the normative project that I’m arguing for.
Constitutional Commitments and Civic Practices
KLUTSEY: That’s great. We can also have confident pluralism in our society via two categories, as you say in your book: one, constitutional commitments, and two, civic practices. Can you unpack those two categories for us?
INAZU: Essentially, I’m trying to set up the idea that in order to make this project of living together across our deepest differences work, we’re going to need both legal, structural, constitutional reforms and civic personal reforms. The first point is really grounded in the aspirations and to some extent unrealized norms of the First Amendment, the idea that protections for groups through associational rights or the right of assembly matter deeply to the way that we live in society, that the government is required to honor the public forum—meaning the spaces that the government provides for us to express our differences, to protest, to be in public places expressing our own dissenting nongovernmental views about things that matter.
To some extent, the government also provides forms of funding or subsidies through tax exemptions and other programs and initiatives to facilitate this kind of pluralism and diversity among the private groups of civil society. The constitutional argument in “Confident Pluralism” is that these protections are absolutely necessary, and they’re also in many ways underprotected by the current Supreme Court’s approach to constitutional law and the First Amendment. There’s a serious call for reform in that part of the book.
Then, in the second part of the book is where I focus on civic aspirations, the idea that most of us in our day to day and hour to hour are not making constitutional law, but we are engaging as citizens and neighbors with one another. There, when it turns out the law actually gives us a lot of latitude in how we engage with each other, it’s on us to treat others in a way that makes our differences and our ability to live with our differences possible.
And so I talk about civic aspirations and the need to make these concrete in the lives of people. I call them aspirations because I worry that we don’t actually have instilled practices at a broad level right now in our society. So we need to aspire toward those practices, and we need to find the institutions that can help us cultivate those practices in individual human beings.
KLUTSEY: It seems like that’s a matter of culture when it comes to civic aspirations and how we conduct ourselves. Again, the question of which one is more relevant—both are important. Obviously, constitutional protections are important. But which one stands the test of time more? Maybe both; I’m not sure what the right answer is, but what are your thoughts?
INAZU: I think we absolutely need both. So absent robust First Amendment constitutional protections, we lose the civil liberties frame that has made this country unique and that allows for the kind of political engagement that we say we want and we say we have. We haven’t always honored this well. There are countless examples from American history where the rights of groups, the protections of protests—especially for non-majoritarian groups—have been significantly curtailed by courts and legislators and political actors.
In some ways, the constitutional side is necessarily aspirational as well. But we have to maintain those constitutional protections, or none of this is going to work. We also need people who, you might say, live up to the promise of those protections or the promise offered by those protections, who are caring about things like citizenship and pursuing the shared political project.
I talk about the need to pursue humility, patience and tolerance in our own lives, in our own relationships. Without a people who are formed through those aspirations and eventually those practices, the right constitutional framework isn’t going to matter because you’re not going to have people who understand its importance or how to take advantage of it in a positive political and relational way.
So I think they’re both absolutely essential. I don’t think the idea of confident pluralism, or really any version of pluralism that tries to address the fact of our differences, is going to succeed without both legal and civic reforms and efforts and commitments.
Freedom of Assembly
KLUTSEY: Still on the constitutional requirements, you do spend a lot of time on the freedom of assembly. Is that the most important of the constitutional commitments?
INAZU: It’s interesting. Part of the reason that I frame my consideration of constitutional commitments around the right of assembly is that it flows from the core of my scholarly work. My first book was on the right of assembly and was an excavation of what that right is, why it’s been ignored through most of American history and what its potential resources are. One of the points that I make in that first book called “Liberty’s Refuge” is that the right of assembly is the one individual right in the First Amendment that requires more than one person to be exercised.
The First Amendment has five individual rights: speech, press, petition, religion and assembly. I can do any of the other four on my own. Many of them happen to occur in groups or institutions, but I can do them all on my own. I can speak by myself. I can petition the government alone. In some faiths I can practice religion alone. I can start a blog and be the press by myself. But I can’t assemble alone. The very nature of the word means that I need at least one other person to assemble with me.
The argument I make in “Liberty’s Refuge,” that means there’s a relational dimension to the individual rights in the First Amendment. It’s not just about how we exist in society as autonomous individuals, but it matters that we are relational beings who form groups and who do things together, including assembling and all that follows from assembly.
In some ways when I think about the constitutional commitments that we need for confident pluralism, absolutely assembly is at the core, or the theoretical core, of that constellation of rights. Now, how that plays out in actual doctrine, I don’t know. The Supreme Court has sort of ignored assembly for decades, although there’s a case this term, Americans for Prosperity, that is considering anew, perhaps, the grounding of associational rights, and the Supreme Court during oral arguments asked some questions about the right of assembly.
So I maintain some hope that someday we might actually return to this fundamental anchor right. Whether we do or not as a matter of doctrine, I think the normative underpinnings of what the Founders meant by the right of assembly, and how that right has been used and exercised throughout American history, is going to need to play an important part of our contemporary constitutional commitments.
Jerry and Larry
KLUTSEY: The constitutional commitments are paramount, as you say, to having a pluralistic society, but we also need certain civic aspirations, as you have noted as well—humility, tolerance and patience. Now, in the book you have a very interesting way of illustrating how these aspirations come together. Can you talk about the relationship between Jerry and Larry, and how do they illustrate civic aspirations?
INAZU: Thanks for bringing that up. I introduce these aspirations through these two characters, Jerry and Larry, and describe how each of them might embody at a very practical level what it means to be humble and patient and tolerant across difference. Then, later in the book, I reveal that these are two actual people, characters in the full sense of the word, who had a relationship with one another—Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt.
Quite famously, Falwell, the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preacher, and Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, first found each other through a lawsuit, where Larry Flynt had published a pretty demeaning advertisement that took on Jerry Falwell, and really Jerry Falwell’s mom to be precise, and led to a famous Supreme Court opinion about the reaches of parody and the limits of defamation law and had the two spending lots of money against each other in a very adversarial and acrimonious context.
Then, sometime subsequent to that lawsuit, Falwell reached out to Flynt, and they went on some talk shows together to talk about the lawsuit and related ideas of free speech. Eventually, they actually formed this very odd but very genuine friendship, where the fundamentalist preacher and the pornography publisher started visiting each other, trying to convert each other to their various ways of life, trying to explain why their view was right. Neither persuaded the other, but they did actually end up with a friendship that was based on shared experiences and common interests and in some ways shared backgrounds despite their profound differences.
One of the points that I make in telling that story in “Confident Pluralism” is if those two guys can do it, maybe there’s some hope for the rest of us because neither of those guys is a very exemplary human being. In some ways both of them have tremendous flaws and blind spots, and I would not want my kids modeling either one of them. But they did find this way to discover this incredible friendship across incredible differences. I think in that way there is something to model for the rest of us.
KLUTSEY: Were they practicing tolerance, humility and patience throughout all of their discourse and engagements?
INAZU: I don’t know throughout all of them, but they definitely had at least some possibilities of those aspirations enacted through their lives. You can’t get to a point of common ground starting from that much difference, that much animosity, without being willing to set aside some of the rhetoric, some of the walls, some of the distrust and pursuing in humility, patience and tolerance a kind of unexpected relationship.
As I say that, I think a lot of this really does come down to the importance of trust. Do we trust the people around us, even those who don’t share our views, or do we inherently distrust, and do we place all kinds of other labels and expectations on people because we distrust them? I think pursuing this hopeful trust in other people is part of the puzzle. That also entails risk. Not everybody you trust is going to return that trust.
Part of the effort and the initiative to find common ground across difference means that if you’re serious about it, you’re probably going to be hurt by some people not returning the effort. And that’s okay. We need more of us who are willing to take those risks and absorb those hurts than choosing the alternative of either withdrawing completely from difference or trying to crush difference through sheer political power.
Absorbing Risks and Generating Trust
KLUTSEY: It’s very interesting. Especially doing the internal work to set those things aside in ourselves and then facilitating our conversation partners to do the same sounds incredibly challenging. Do you have any tips for us?
INAZU: I think that’s where the confidence part of confident pluralism comes into play, which is to say if you really are confident about your own beliefs, that you’re right about important things that matter—or at least, if not certain, that you’re at least trusting that your understanding of the world is how you’re supposed to live your life—then you should, of all people, be able and willing to take some of those risks across difference.
If you’re confident, then expose your views to challenge and be willing to accept critiques from other people. I teach in a law school, and in many ways teaching law students is a wonderful reminder and opportunity to convey the opportunity to get the best possible arguments from the other side. We read majority and dissenting opinions, we look at really hard issues that really smart people disagree about, and we just day after day talk about understanding as deeply as possible what those two opposite sides think about these important issues.
The more that we can expose ourselves to charitable readings of the other side, the more that we can understand the weaknesses of our own side, the better off we’ll be in pursuing these kinds of relationships across difference. When it comes to the really important issues that matter in life, it’s seldom the case that there’s an easy answer. The reason we disagree is that really smart and really well-intentioned people have differing views about hard issues.
That’s not the case in an unlimited sense. At the end of the day, you and I are going to say that the neo-Nazi is just wrong and that it’s just not a hard issue to say that people of all races should be treated as equal human beings. So we’re going to have our limits. We’re going to have our limits, but within those limits, we should be able to recognize the complexity of deep disagreements, even the ones that matter the most.
KLUTSEY: You mentioned risk earlier. I just wonder, because in our current context right now with deplatforming and canceling, I wonder if people will be more willing to take risks and be confident about their views, when they know that the wrong thing that is said or something that may not be said in the right way might lead to loss of a job or a career, that type of thing. I think that creates additional challenges.
INAZU: I think this is a really important issue. The issue is that we have to create places and opportunities and relationships where people can make mistakes. That goes back to the element of trust. We have to trust other people to make us better and to help us with our arguments and our understanding. That means, almost by definition, it means we’re going to get things wrong. It’s another element of teaching or being in the classroom. The reason I have students learning from me is they don’t actually know what I’m trying to teach them.
In the effort to know and understand at a deeper level, they’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. But when those mistakes—the unnuanced classroom comments or the abrasive tone that comes up in a discussion when you’re experiencing something for the first time—when that’s no longer just part of the classroom but now it’s plastered on social media or held against you forever in perpetuity, that makes it very hard for people to try things out and to try to come to deeper understandings because they’re understandably gun-shy about making any kind of mistake.
We need two kinds of places. Something that’s quite interesting to me is, on the political left and the political right, the idea that we need opportunities to be with our people, where we don’t have to worry about what we’re saying or how we’re saying it. People on the left call these safe spaces; people on the right call these associational freedoms. They’re the same thing in many contexts. People need to be with the people they trust the most, where they don’t have to be performative, where they don’t have to risk what they’re going to say being misconstrued, where they’re in the most deepest and trusted friendships that they can explore hard questions and uncertainties.
Then, people also need to be in places like classrooms or public forums or political debates, where they’re able to engage across difference, sometimes in new and unanticipated ways, and in those settings be able to make mistakes. Look, I think if you say something dumb, you should be able to apologize for it. You should be able to say, “Actually, I have come to a different understanding, and let me rephrase or let me say that again.” The problem is nowadays if you tweet something dumb, it’s game over. No one cares about the follow-up.
I think rather than think of this as damage control or brand salvaging, we should think of it as human beings trying to express ourselves better and more charitably over time. I think if we gave each other more grace, we could all do it a little better. In that, we’d also then have to set aside the people who actually have no intention of trying to do it any better, the people who are deliberately the provoking voices, the voices that want to stir the pot and say things that are mean and outlandish and emotionally laden.
I think we just have to work hard to minimize those voices—the people who don’t actually care about pursuing discourse across difference but are just trying to gain attention or hurt people or make a name for themselves.
KLUTSEY: Now, living speech, that’s a concept you talk about as a necessary aspect of the aspirational civic virtues. What is living speech and why is it so important?
INAZU: I take this term from the professor James Boyd White at Michigan, who’s got a beautiful book with the title “Living Speech” and has also written eloquently in other contexts as well. The simplified idea as I’m trying to convey it in “Confident Pluralism” is the notion that the words we use have the potential and the power to create and give life to people and worlds and dreams and imaginations. They also have the power to destroy and kill and deaden lives.
I’m not trying to equate words with actual violence here. I do think there is a violent component to our language, but it’s not the same as physical violence against someone. But our words do harm and can harm at a very deep level. I mention in “Confident Pluralism” that one of the greatest lies we’ve all learned is, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” because, of course, words hurt us at very deep and destructive levels. The playground insults that I got in third grade are still rattling around in my head in some places. We have so much power in language and in our words to others, and we can choose to pursue those words that form living speech rather than those words that destroy or demean the people around us.
KLUTSEY: Words are powerful. Unfortunately, it’s the people who use the most provocative language, they tend to get the most clicks and the most attention. I wonder if there’s a way to deal with that and get more attention towards living speech?
INAZU: This is the real problem, and it’s a problem that reflects ultimately not who those people are, but who we are. We are the consumers who make the clicks. We are the people who create the markets that allow those voices to be platformed and the incentives that create entire media operations and book sales and agents and movies around those voices because that’s what sells. It’s very unappealing to give a nuanced perspective on a hard issue or to avoid a hot take. The hot take is what gets you attention.
So you’re raising a very serious and profound but also very hard question, which is, what do we do to curtail these tendencies of platforming the loudest voices? It’s a hard question because those are our tendencies. I don’t actually know if it’s going to be possible on or within social media.
I do think part of the solution or the remedy for us is to figure out ways to get offline. I’m not saying that all of social media is bad, but I think unless we set limits for ourselves, both in our mode of engagement and our frequency of consuming online material, we’re just going to be formed in ways that reward the dopamine hits from the hot takes and prevent us from thinking more carefully, from listening to quieter voices that are perhaps more nuanced, more thoughtful, more reasoned, from listening to voices that don’t share some of our normative priors but have a lot to teach us.
The only way we’re going to get to those kinds of voices and conversations is to mitigate the impulses that come from the hot takes. I just don’t know how we do that if we try to do all of this online. So get offline and find other ways to read and to have conversations with real people.
KLUTSEY: It’s a tough challenge. Now, collective action—protests, boycotts and strikes—we often see them as useful ways to challenge the status quo and advance policy change towards more inclusion. Are there ways in which these collective actions challenge confident pluralism?
INAZU: The chapter I wrote on collective action was by far the hardest theoretical one for me to write. It’s because of the reason you just pointed to, which is on the one hand, forms of collective action—especially when we think about protests or strikes or those sorts of things, or boycotts—are massively important, both in terms of what should be and is protected by the First Amendment, and also historically those actions that effect social change and the kind of movement politics that we’ve actually seen make a difference throughout American history and other parts of the world.
Those forms of collective action are important. They amplify voices. They in some ways reflect the aspirations and the ideals that I’m talking about. The hard thing becomes when we turn those forms of collective action not against the government or powerful corporations or whoever it is, but when we turn it against our fellow citizens and we say, “Our objective is to stigmatize you to the point of putting you outside the bounds of polite discourse.”
We can see this in online examples, where people try to ratio or go after somebody who they no longer want as part of the conversation. We see it in offline examples with some kinds of boycotts or protests. The theoretical challenge, which is also, I think, a political one, is how do we think about engaging with our neighbors, even as a collective, in a way that still recognizes their humanity, their ability to ultimately disagree with us, maybe not to come around to our position, but in a way that recognizes also the reality of power and politics that might complicate some of those relationships?
When I think about a boycott like in the civil rights era, where you had African Americans boycotting and challenging white business owners who were controlling the economic and social conditions of cities in the South, in some ways you might think of those boycotts as coercive and lacking in a form of patience. That’s probably right, but also, given the power imbalance, sometimes impatient politics is the right way to go.
I think maybe more than anything, the presence and possibility of collective action suggests that our civic aspirations of humility, patience and tolerance are not going to be cookie-cutter templates but are going to be worked out in actual, lived situations on the ground that account for the reality of politics and the reality of power.
Sometimes those aspirations might actually lead us to forms of collective action that minimize or at least set aside concepts or aspirations like patience. I think the problem is if we ignore them completely, if we think that the ends always justify the means, then in our efforts of collective action, we risk losing the shared bonds of civil neighborliness that could ultimately sustain a kind of common ground across difference.
Finding Common Ground
KLUTSEY: Thank you. Can you talk about the common ground imperative?
INAZU: As I say in “Confident Pluralism,” we have to be able to find common ground even when we disagree on the common good. The idea here is that we’ve got to figure out a way to live practically in society with those people who are different from us. The alternatives are either an extreme seclusion and avoidance, which ultimately I think is not a form of politics—it’s more just coexisting in similar geographic spaces—or a form of power politics that just tries to win. If you can get the most votes and the most control and the people with the guns, then good luck holding on to it. Then that’s maybe how you win.
The idea of common ground through confident pluralism is that we have to avoid both of those alternatives. I think it’s possible. I’m most encouraged when I see politics happening at the local level when people actually have to fix the road or help the local school or look at serious criminal justice reform at the local level. That does require these common-ground efforts. Then we discover that we actually do have a great deal in common.
It’s complicated when we, in the first instance, sort ourselves only with the people like us. I mentioned a minute ago that it is important to have our own groups, our safe spaces, our own private associations. Absolutely, I believe in those and the importance of those protections. But if we sort ourselves too exclusively, then we actually just have a kind of seclusion. When all of the people in blue states live in blue states and all of the people in red states live in red states, and our cities and our neighborhoods become politically segregated, even our colleges and workplaces, then we risk a kind of echo-chamber existence that doesn’t actually lead us to common-ground politics.
It just convinces us that our view of politics is the only plausible or reasonable one, and everybody else is just fundamentally misguided. With that view, it becomes very hard actually to find common ground.
KLUTSEY: Right, and yet it seems as though our world is becoming easier for us to sort ourselves into various groups and various echo chambers and stay there, unfortunately, which poses quite a bit of a challenge. We’ve also heard from previous guests who’ve also looked at the issue that it seems like at the local level there is less polarization and people actually do get together to get things done. I’m hoping that we can find ways to replicate that type of effort or scale that type of effort.
INAZU: That’s certainly consistent with what I’ve seen, but notice that it has to be a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach. We’re not going to fix Washington and have a bunch of overnight exemplars showing us how it’s done. That’s not going to happen. We’ve got to show them, and we’ve got to start in local neighborhoods with actual relationships. There’s a lot of work to do at the local level too, just in terms of racial divides in my city and some of the political differences. I don’t think we can assume that even these common-ground efforts are just going to happen.
I’m often asking, what are the actual institutions that can help bring people into relationship across difference? I hope that it’s schools. I hope that it’s universities. I hope that it’s churches working together and other religious organizations working in interfaith contexts. I hope that it’s libraries that offer robust public programming and other neighborhood associations. In some ways, there’s a sense in which that list of institutions I just gave could be dismissed as hopelessly naive or outdated, but I don’t think so. I think, actually, if we invest locally, if we prioritize the face-to-face relationships over the online ones, then we have a real possibility of finding this kind of common ground.
A Personal Reflection
KLUTSEY: I was wondering whether you would reflect a little bit, maybe personally, because in your book you talk about your grandfather, who was part of the people who were placed in internment camps, and coming out of that, losing that sense of belonging. I’m wondering how that story shaped your thinking about pluralism. I’m also curious to see how you stay positive about these types of things given that type of experience.
INAZU: Thanks for mentioning that. Both of my grandparents were interned at Manzanar, and my dad was born in those camps in 1943. Then, shortly thereafter, the whole family was transferred to Tule Lake, which was a higher-security place, because my grandfather, who was an American citizen and born in this country, had asked why citizens were being arrested and incarcerated. It was obviously a deeply painful experience for my family, and to have my dad then raised in poverty and in many ways to miss out on the opportunities that the country had promised.
One of the takeaways for me, though, is that as somebody who works in constitutional law and civil liberties and the First Amendment, I never want to have, and I don’t have, too much trust in the government or the people with the power because not that long ago, the people with the power turned pretty quickly on my people. Others have certainly experienced that or continue to experience that reality. I think it is a cautious reminder to all of us that power can be used for good, but power can obviously be quickly abused, and that even the best forms of government and the best-laid plans can be hijacked by fear or by self-interest or by other vices.
I think about that quite a bit when I think about navigating civil liberties and constitutional rights. I have a suspicion of all kinds of governmental actors, regardless of political party. I can see the ways in which power and abuses can often go hand in hand.
Then you asked, what out of that, where do I find hope or optimism? A big thing for me is when I talk to especially younger people, when I talk to millennials and Gen Z types who’ve been raised more often than not in a more pluralistic culture . . . That’s not the case for everybody, but certainly with the university students that I encounter, for example. They get the experience of pluralism and difference more intuitively than, say, people raised a couple generations ago, who are in some ways much more homogeneous.
The 20-somethings who are navigating this difference, when they think about it thoughtfully and when they recognize what’s at stake in giving room for other people to make arguments and other people that live different lives, then I do have optimism in what’s to come.
Now, there are tremendous challenges on that mindset. There’s a lack of role models from older generations right now. There’s a lack of healthy institutions that’s exacerbated by a distrust of institutions, especially from younger people. And there’s a cultural vibe that exists with social media and other platforms that minimizes or discourages actually pursuing inquiry in deep difference and understanding of other perspectives.
So I don’t think it’s that the challenges are absent or unmitigated, but I do think that the very best of the 20-somethings that I see who are pursuing those challenges have a great deal of confidence and give me a great deal of confidence.
The Role of Universities
KLUTSEY: Great. Now, in your article “The Purpose (and Limits) of the University”—this is from a couple of years ago—you write that “Today, academic disciplines fracture around ideology and methodology, and they increasingly lack the shared linguistic resources, even for internal, let alone cross-disciplinary, dialogue.” What’s your advice for faculty and university leaders? You said that the purpose of the university is to be a place for constrained disagreement, which I really like, and I think you borrow that from [philosopher Alasdair] MacIntyre. How can university professors and leaders foster constrained disagreement?
INAZU: I think there’s a lot of work to be done here. Maybe it starts with the premise that the modern university, and especially the big research universities—my institution has a tremendous amount of privilege and wealth and power and needs to be thinking about how to steward that well, and not just out of self-interest. The problem with the modern university today is that most schools are largely fungible in what they do because they don’t actually have a clear sense of purpose that’s attached to, say, their local region or a mission or set of values.
Every school, in the absence of a collective purpose or clear set of values, introduces ideas like excellence and success and world-changing justice and all of these vacuous terms that don’t actually amount to anything. In the absence of anything particularized, the loudest voices often fill the room, or individual faculty interests that aren’t willing to sacrifice for a shared endeavor drive university agendas, or wealthy donors or student interest groups, and in some cases with public institutions, the state legislatures. When all of these actors try to maximize their own self-interest without a clear understanding of what the purpose of the university is, we get these massively wealthy and powerful institutions that don’t actually function toward many of their core purposes.
You mentioned MacIntyre’s notion of the university as a place of constrained disagreement. Yes, if we aren’t at a very basic level teaching undergraduates how to disagree well and how to form arguments—and importantly, how to live with people who are different than them—if we’re not doing that, then we’re not even doing the most basic function of this amazingly privileged and wealthy institution that we’re part of, and we don’t deserve to keep it going. I hope that the university, or at least some universities, can recover or rediscover this aspect of what they’re about, but it’s going to take some setting of priorities. That means winners and losers.
It means that some faculty who care about this kind of thing are going to be better off than those who are doing their own agendas. It means that some wealthy donors will go with their wishes unmet. It means that some students who want the university to be something other than it is might not discover it. But that sense of purpose, because it constrains, also creates opportunities as well as constrains. I really hope that the university as an institution can head in more of that direction.
The Carver Project
KLUTSEY: Thanks for that response. I really do like the term constrained disagreement. I think it captures a lot of what the university ought to do. Now, you’re executive director, you’re also founder of the Carver Project, which is an interesting resource for groups, especially faith-based communities who are interested in fostering confident pluralism. Can you tell us about what the Carver Project is?
INAZU: In some ways I think of the Carver Project as working out in practice the theory that I try to explain in “Confident Pluralism.” The idea there is, can we start authentically with who we are and what differences we need to acknowledge? In the case of the Carver Project, named after George Washington Carver, we’re a group of Christian faculty at Washington University who love the university and also love the churches we’re part of, and we want to see the connections strengthened between those institutions, the mutual distrust lowered a bit.
We think we can help bridge some of those divides by being really good at what we do within the university and as distinctively Christian scholars and teachers and researchers. Then, because we can be clear and confident in who we are, we can find what those common-ground initiatives are with those who are different than us. In a place like Washington University or most major universities today, there are going to be plenty of people who are different than us on all sorts of dimensions. There won’t be a takeover anytime soon of the Christian faculty at Washington University.
But there is, I think, the opportunity for what the sociologist James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence,” the notion that this group of faculty—and we’ve got about 20 faculty fellows right now who meet together from across the disciplines—that we can partner generously with the university and in some ways help the university be better at its own named goals and aspirations. We can help with interdisciplinarity because we get together first as friends with a shared faith perspective and then take seriously what our different disciplines are.
We discover classes that we teach together. I’m teaching a class now with a graphic designer, and the intersection of law and graphic design on issues of race in St. Louis turns out to be a pretty fascinating set of issues for undergraduates to explore. I’ve got a colleague in the business school who found another friend in the English department, and they’re teaching a class together on markets and morals, learning lessons of ethics and morality from works of literature for business students. It’s those kinds of discoveries and friendships and relationships that we find in the Carver Project.
Then, we want to help model in some ways for the rest of the university, knowing that we’re doing our efforts, and we can find common ground in many cases, and in other cases we’ll be distinctively our own thing.
Optimism and a Call to Action
KLUTSEY: That’s really interesting. You’re bridging divides in practice. I typically end with a question about optimism and whether you are optimistic about opportunities to foster confident pluralism, but it seems as though you’ve answered that in your previous responses. I wanted to ask you about a call to action, not just for professors, but readers who pick up your book and are inspired by your concept of confident pluralism. What is your call to action to those readers?
INAZU: Thank you for that. Let me give two concrete and manageable challenges. The first I would say is do an audit of your social media. What are the sources you’re intaking and how can you one, diversify, and two, limit the content? Unless you do some serious work on social media, whatever it is, or maybe you’re a Fox News person and you just watch television. Well, that needs an audit too. Whatever your media sources are, do an audit of it and ask, how could they be more nuanced and more diverse? That’s step one.
Step two is find somebody—and we’re going to all have this opportunity increasingly, hopefully, as this virus recedes and as we return to in-person engagement—find somebody who is different than you in a meaningful respect and start a conversation. But start the conversation around ordinary things. Don’t just jump right into the hardest issue. Make sure you’re actually pursuing a relationship for the sake of the relationship. Figure out what you like to eat together or a common activity before you jump into the biggest hot-button issue of the day, and then see if that makes a difference in your life.
KLUTSEY: I really like those. Those are two very succinct and very powerful takeaways from your book. Professor Inazu, thank you so much for taking the time to join us. I really appreciate it.
INAZU: Ben, it’s been a great discussion. Thanks so much.