Review: Confident Pluralism


Confident PluralismJohn D. Inazu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Summary: Recognizing the deep fissures in American society and the necessity of maintaining some kind of civil union in the face of the scary alternatives, this book explores the constitutional commitments and civic practices that make that possible.

One thing almost no one would disagree about today is that the United States faces deep divisions over a variety of issues, conflicting beliefs, and groups in competition and sometimes conflict. The question is whether we will find ways, not to eliminate our differences, but to “compose” our differences, to find ways to live together, to reach understandings, and to respect each other, and allow the robust expression of our diverse ideas and lifestyles. As John Inazu admits, this may be messy, but the alternative is downright scary.

Inazu, as a professor of law and political science, brings together the work of these disciplines in framing both the legal, indeed Constitutional commitments, and civic practices that make confident pluralism possible. He begins by arguing that there are several key freedoms rooted in the first amendment that need strengthening:

The Voluntary Groups Requirement:

“Government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest” (p. 48).

The Public Forum Requirement:

“Government should honor its commitment to ensure public forums for the voicing of dissent and discontent. Expressive restrictions in these forums should only be justified by compelling government interests. Private public forums that effectively supplant these government-sponsored forums should in some cases be held to similar standards” (p. 64-65).

The Public Funding Requirement:

“When the government offers generally available resources (financial and otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy” (p. 79).

I consider these important proposals, having worked with religious groups on a public university campus who had imposed on them leadership selection practices that would prevent them from choosing leaders according to the beliefs and mission of the group and that threatened the withdrawal of funding and access enjoyed by other groups if they did not comply. It can be very scary when the a small group comes up against the institutional power of a large university, but the greater loss, it seems to me is the chilling effect these measures have on the expression of religious beliefs that may not conform to the “orthodoxy” of the university and the lack of opportunity for other students to encounter and engage such beliefs. Whatever pluralism that survives such measures is neither robust nor confident. I would attest to the kind of strengthening of first amendment protections which Inazu proposes.

Inazu then goes on to discuss the civic practices that sustain a confident pluralism and that result in what he sees as the desired outcome of such practices — warm, respectful relationships across our differences. He begins by proposing three civic aspirations:

  1. Tolerance: a willingness to accept, if not approve, genuine differences.
  2. Humility: a willingness to accept our own limits and to be open to what we might learn.
  3. Patience: learning to persist and endure in understanding when this is not easy and when mutual understanding does not come quickly.

He explores two problems that any of us who have tried to discuss controversial notions on social media have faced: the hurtful insult (you are stupid, naive, a bigot, etc.) and the conversation stopper (that’s just close-minded, extremist, homophobic, racist, etc.). While freedom of speech certainly protects such statements, it shuts down any kind of civil discourse, what Inazu calls “living speech.”

He then considers the ethics of collective action: protests, boycotts, and strikes (pretty relevant, huh?). Are the boycotts of Abercrombie and Fitch, Hobby Lobby, Mozilla (for its selection of a CEO who had donated to anti-LGBT rights causes) appropriate? On balance, as messy as it can be, he would say yes provided we pursue tolerance, humility, and patience.

And that brings him to the last chapter. Throughout the second section, he speaks of two people, Jerry and Larry. It turns out they represent two people, Jerry Falwell, the preacher, and Larry Flynt, the pornographer. At one time they had been both personal and ideological enemies, with Flynt printing a vicious parody of Falwell and Falwell countering by suing him. I will leave you to discover how it happened, but the two became friends toward the end of Falwell’s life, traveling around the country debating, disagreeing, but exchanging Christmas cards, family pictures and weight loss tips. They vehemently disagreed about many things but Flynt wrote, “the ultimate result was one I never expected and was just as shocking a turn to me as was winning the famous Supreme Court case: We became friends.” Inazu argues that it is not agreement that we will necessarily achieve but the finding of common ground and the bridging of relational distance where “them” becomes “us”.

I’m persuaded that Inazu’s slim book needs to become a manual for all of us who care about finding a way to bridge the divides in our society before inflammatory words descend into civil war and anarchy or harden into tyranny and oppression. While I believe the political protections Inazu proposes are vital, the virtues of genuine tolerance of difference, humility about ourselves, and patience that takes the long view are most essential. Will we allow these virtues to sustain our pursuit of the common ground of our shared humanity, and our shared citizenship in this “democratic experiment?”


6 thoughts on “Review: Confident Pluralism

  1. I’d love to give away copies of this book to my colleagues on the MIT Board of Chaplains and in the Student Life office. But boy is it expensive–even in the digital version! Think we could get some kind of a deal Bob?

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