Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference by John D. Inazu (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. 176 pp)

John D. Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned a B.S.E. in civil engineering from Duke University, a J.D. from Duke University School of Law, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina.

We’re All Talking Politics, Even If We Aren’t on the Same Page

2016. What a year. There’s a meme making circles on the internet highlighting how people felt at the beginning of the year compared to now. Often connected to a series of images, the early 2016 image depicts a bright, sunny, and hopeful demeanor. The concluding 2016 image illustrates a dark, dreary, and depressing scene. So many things have happened. So many celebrities have died. So many elections jolted society out of its equilibrium.

In my neck of the woods, the presidential election sent shockwaves, both positively and negatively, depending on the friend group. My Facebook page exhibits two warring tribes yelling at each other. On one end, the conservatives and some possible “alt-right” proponents relish the victory of a political outsider, someone unafraid to “tell it like it is” and to #MAGA (Make America Great Again). On the other end, there are people legitimately worried about what is to come. Will friends lose friends and family due to immigration status? Will friends get placed on the Muslim registry? Will others lose healthcare? These scenarios are scary.

In such a milieu, is it any wonder that nobody can proceed with suitable and productive discourse? One side of the fence belittles the other with claims of #liberaltears, while the other sees the current events as a rallying cry to entrench themselves against every possible political movement and action.

Seemingly, we stand at a cliff, where the divides that once separated us are fast moving to a point of no return.

For this reason, I decided it was time to read John Inazu’s compelling book, Confident Pluralism.

On Confidence and Pluralism

A legal scholar, Inazu proposes confident pluralism as a way to move forward as a society despite deep difference. Whether liberal or conservative, the societal trends point toward a zero-sum game. Either, you take all of a position, or your reject it. Inazu suggests the notion of confident pluralism as a solution to bridge the divide, a way to recognize that nobody will ever agree on everything, but there’s enough common ground between us that we can all move forward productively.

“The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function—and even flourish—despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs” (8).

Throughout the book, Inazu unpacks the intentions and values behind some of our bedrock constitutional rights, additionally pointing to the areas where current constitutional philosophy may lead to a further rupture in any pursuit of pluralism. While he gives many examples of this importance, the one most striking to me is how Inazu recognizes he must allow for the gathering and promotion of ideas directly opposed to his own wellbeing.

“I realize, of course, that the Bob Jones decision is in some circles akin to a sacred text, and that one is not supposed to question even the reasoning of certain canonical decisions. But the logic of Bob Jones is inconsistent with the public forum framing of the federal tax exemption. We cannot begin with the premise that the public forum is open to all groups and then start excluding those groups we don’t like” (76).

For those unaware, the power of this statement connects closely to Inazu’s existence from a multi-racial family. Bob Jones University held within its bylaws a clause disallowing interracial relationships. The success of confident pluralism can only occur when we allow for, and let the laws allow for thinking diametrically opposed to our own.

Tolerance, Humility, and Patience

And yet, there’s a way forward. Inazu suggests that the way to survive and thrive through confident pluralism is to promote and encourage tolerance, humility, and patience.

We must be tolerant because we must recognize that human beings have different experiences and different core convictions. We must have humility to understand and empathize with the other, recognizing that we, in fact, might be wrong. And finally, we must be patient if we are to expect progress toward the common good.

“The aspirations of confident pluralism suggest a shared responsibility between speakers and hearers. We will inevitably encounter the bully and his hurtful insults and conversation stoppers. We will also encounter other forms of harmful speech—words that trivialize or brutalize the people and beliefs that we cherish. What then? We can still choose to respond with tolerance, humility, and patience” (102).

Inazu illustrates tolerance, humility, and patience through the example of a pro-choice abortion clinic, and a pro-life group recognizing the despite their deep difference around the definition of life, that they held common ground around the need to bring support and wellness to the community to better clothe and encourage young families so they could be educated and in a better position to provide. This approach took time and the ability to see the person behind the belief system. But it is an example of how confident pluralism might look in practice.

We need confident pluralism now more than ever. Even within my family I see conservatives and liberals without much desire to engage in what we might be able to do together if we could confidently embrace our pluralism. Confident Pluralism is a must-read for anyone looking to forge a path forward in our society.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

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