The Quest for Confident Pluralism: An Interview with John Inazu

By | November 21, 2016

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post /Getty Images)  

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post /Getty Images)

This election exposed America’s fissures. It feels as if we are in the midst of a political and cultural civil war.

We are still grappling with the aftermath, the coarsening of our political discourse, and the frightening outbursts of violence. We are still wrestling with how this vicious divide is new and different. But in some ways, it’s not a new fight. The issues of racism, sexism, immigration, LGBTQ rights, terrorism, abortion, and law enforcement in minority communities have been polarizing Americans for decades, if not longer. Now, the only option is to look ahead, to see if there is a path forward, and if there is any way, now that the election is over, for red and blue to find common ground.

One notable person delving into these issues is John Inazu, the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis and the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, which publishes this journal. In his new book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference, Inazu investigates the radical possibility of common ground.

Inazu suggests a two-pronged approach to a “modest unity” in American politics. First, Americans must reaffirm “constitutional commitments” to pluralism and the institutions that make pluralism possible. He argues that current constitutional understandings of the right of association, weakened public forums, and certain forms of public funding all insufficiently protect pluralism and dissent, and that we need legal reforms in each of these areas. Second, the public can engender the spirit of pluralism with the “civic aspirations” of tolerance, humility, and patience.

Gordon Haber interviewed Inazu via Skype before Election Day. He followed up with him after Donald Trump became the president-elect. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

R&P: It doesn’t seem like there are many people talking about unity right now, modest or otherwise. So what inspired this book? And who did you write it for?

JI: It started as a scholarly follow-up to my first book, which focused on the right of assembly. But I had some friends and mentors say that the ideas are applicable to a broader range of issues. So they challenged me to write in a way that wasn’t for specialists. I was looking to broaden the conversation, so I wrote with an eye toward the smart, educated twenty-something with no particular political background. I thought if I could make it accessible and interesting, then I could engage with a wider range of people.

R&P: Given that you work in St. Louis, you must have been following the Ferguson protests.

JI: I had a sabbatical that year. I left St Louis two days before Mike Brown was killed. So as I was driving across country to spend the year in Virginia, I did a lot of media calls because I teach criminal law too. I’m in that sweet spot of criminal law and the right to protest. And then for my first two months in Virginia, all I did was think and write about Ferguson. After that, I thought I had set the process of writing Confident Pluralism back a few months. But then I realized how it could inform some of things I’m thinking about.

R&P: What has been the reaction to the book?

 JI: I’ve gotten agreement and pushback from both the left and the right.

R&P: The pushback isn’t surprising. One problem is that the mere mention of certain topics gets people upset before you even have the opportunity to investigate their logical implications. For example, raise the topic of abortion and people get angry.

JI: That’s not always true. Law students are particularly good at not jumping to anger. To be a good lawyer you’ve got to be able to understand both sides of an argument, even if you are normatively predisposed to the other side. So if in my classes we get into a controversial case like Hobby Lobby, I’ll split them up based on their priors and say, “Okay, now you argue for the other side.” But yes, there is a more emotive response from some audiences. It really cuts in both directions politically. Certainly online and in social media. In those situations I’ve found that tone and framing can go a long way.

R&P: It seems that in Confident Pluralism, a lot of it does come down to tone. You seem to be arguing for a kind of base level of cordiality.

JI: That’s part of it. The two-fold move is to be more cordial and also more genuine. Especially on campus right now, there’s plenty of talk about cordiality and trying to respect everybody, to be attentive to everyone’s concerns. On some campuses that’s really sacrificing the genuine nature of disagreement. It’s papering over the differences. I’m pushing for both. We’ve got to be civil and kind, and at the same time there are very deep disagreements, sometimes very painful disagreements. We can’t pretend they don’t exist.

R&P: Where do you see cordiality emphasized over intellectual exchange?

JI: I don’t want to over-generalize, but there is an assumption on some campuses that you have to be for social justice, full stop. Sometimes there is very little room to push back and say, “What do we mean by social justice? How can we complicate it?” For example, in the discussion of race and law enforcement, there is almost an absolutism in both directions. On campus, it’s all about protesters and minority communities and there doesn’t seem to be room for dialogue. I’m listening in on both conversations. [In St. Louis] I met with local activists. And I have police officers among my family and friends. But then in the campus setting, there is an assumed consensus for an aim toward social justice, and if you’re off the bandwagon, then you’re not going to be welcome to air your discussions. You see this when certain speakers are disinvited. That’s when we fail for the conversations even to be allowed to happen.

R&P: Let’s talk about the concepts underlying Confident Pluralism. You divide the book between “constitutional commitments” and “civic practices” or “civic aspirations.” In the latter case, are they synonymous? For example, you write about “tolerance, humility, and patience.” Are those practices or aspirations?

 JI: That’s a good point. I settled on the word aspirations because I have some hesitation about claiming that as nation and a people we have the institutions and the habits that can sustain practices, or what some other people might call virtues. So you might think of tolerance, humility, and patience as either virtues or practices. But philosophically and sociologically, we need institutions and common understandings to sustain them. That’s why I punted and used the word aspirations instead.

R&P: But it’s not possible to institutionalize things like tolerance, humility, and patience. You can’t legislate that.

JI: Oh, definitely not legislate. When I say institutionalize I don’t mean law. I mean institutions, most likely at the local level that convey these practices and the norms behind them. This goes along with the claims from Robert Putnam about the loss of mediated institutions in our society. Places like religious institutions or public schools. In our public schools, do we have the will and the resources to teach tolerance, humility, and patience? I’m not sure we do, so that’s the hesitation around these concepts. It can’t come from above. They have to be willfully chosen habits.

R&P: This may be an oversimplification, but it sounds like you’re talking about the death of the civics class.

JI: Sure. The death of the civics class writ large in society. The civics class was replaced by Twitter and Facebook.

R&P: Let’s talk about constitutional commitments. You discuss how legislation moved away from important values, pluralistic values imbued in the Bill of Rights, such as the right of assembly. Who should be doing the committing?

JI: By commitment, I mean to suggest that both legal and official actors have to commit. Courts and legislators have to own them. But also we the people have to believe in them to some degree. The whole idea of democratic norms, even those that are enforced by law, hinge on a kind of consensus, a belief that they actually matter. If we all lost collective faith in need for the First Amendment, we wouldn’t have it anymore, even if it’s still on the books.

R&P: So we as citizens mutually agree to uphold the Constitution, because it’s not like the laws of physics. Our rights can go away, as in the case of your Japanese-American forebears.

JI: Right. As I talk about in the book, my Japanese-American grandparents were forced into internment camps during World War II. My father was born in those camps. One would hope that we would now have consensus that we don’t do this sort of thing. And yet in the last year, we’ve heard both Democrats and Republicans positively citing the internment of Japanese Americans as a reason to restrict the liberties of Muslims in this country. Which to me is a profoundly unsettling idea, that a couple of generations after we did this in WWII, that it’s even on the table.

R&P: It seems with the isolationism and talk of internment camps, it’s fair to make comparisons to the World War II-era. Is it better or worse now?

 JI: I tend not to talk in terms of whether we were better or worse off in the past. Our entire history has been trying to hold together in the face of deep disagreements and deep fissures that cut into or crosscut demographics. We’ve had profound religious tensions in this country before, we’ve had social and class tensions, the history of labor unrest, the history of racial unrest, the civil rights movements, Civil War, national politics in the early nineteenth century—we have all kinds of moments in history where that push for consensus or modest unity confronted profound challenges. We’ve seen this before.

But there are two things that I find uniquely disconcerting about the current moment. One is social media. We get it all much faster and more incessantly than before. Every five minutes we get updates. The second is that we have a crisis of authority in this country. We used to have national figures, and even if they didn’t rally everyone, enough people were interested in them and hearing them out. There are no voices like that around today. It’s not clear to me in media or journalism who are the key people that are listened to. Or in religious communities, who are the Billy Grahams of today? In political communities, who are the senior statesmen of either parties? The collapse of this institutional authority across all different kinds of sectors and ideologies leads us to a new place in these disagreements, even if we’ve had them all along.

R&P: Aside from distrust of authority, there is a distrust of expertise. Or even agreement on the meaning of the word “evidence.” When you have someone like Donald Trump who lies every day, how does one counter this? How does one stress the civic aspirations you discuss in the face of what Saul Bellow called the “moronic inferno,” this giant roar of disinformation?

JI: Right. That’s a tough nut to crack. To complicate it even more, it would be easier in the current election cycle if we had one person telling lies and the other speaking truthfully. Certainly by any measure Trump is telling far more lies. But Clinton is telling clear lies as well. So where does one go for authority and truth? These are real challenges. This is not a solution, but one thing I advise, as a kind of baby step, is to mix up your social media feeds so you’re listening to people you disagree with, even if you vehemently disagree with their policies or ideologies. So no matter what event breaks, you’re immediately seeing two different interpretations of it. The social media tendency is to make issues uncomplicated and clear-cut. But most issues in life are complicated and not clear-cut.

R&P: It seems that with Confident Pluralism you’re raising questions, rather than presenting a panacea.

JI: Correct. I am just trying to start a conversation. But there is an increased urgency to it all. The stakes have jumped. Both pieces, the constitutional commitments and civic aspirations, have only gotten more important given the saber rattling from both sides of the aisle.

R&P: In general we’re seeing a loss of faith in the political process.

JI: In my chapter, “Our Modest Unity,” I’m saying that enough of us have to keep faith in the current political experiment, which includes those constitutional commitments. We have to wake up and say, “Whatever this is, it represents us.” Because a growing concern—it’s left and right, it’s class-driven, it’s racialized, it’s urban vs. rural areas—is that there are deep segments of this country that are increasingly saying, “There’s nothing in this for me.” When you get larger sections of our country no longer thinking that they have a part in our political project, it makes things seem pretty bleak.

R&P: Are you a religious person? It seems like there’s a personal aspect to these arguments for you, your interest in religion and politics, in addition to your family history.

JI: I am a Christian. I am on the board of a ministry called the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. So this discussion is deeply personal for both of those reasons. I teach and write in areas of constitutional law and civil liberties. As a Japanese-American whose family comes from the camps, I view everything through that lens. It prevents me from getting too close to authority structures whoever they are. There’s a critical distance I want to maintain from people in power. Deep in the political theory that I try to argue is this reaction to or against that state, a lack of ultimate confidence in the state.

The religious piece is that by virtue of what I do and who I am, I am in a lot of church religious circles, and I’m in a lot of non-religious circles. I think both the necessity but also the ability to form relationships with people in very different settings undergirds part of this book. Part of that too is a kind of hopefulness, a recognition of people with whom I disagree—and I have disagreements with people in both settings—that we can have actual friendships and find agreement on things that matter. And also trying to mediate the other side in other settings. If you don’t have a lot of friends of no faith or who are deeply Christian or deeply Jewish or deeply Muslim, you’re defaulting to a kind of stereotype or caricature that is very unlikely to be close to reality. As a Christian that leaves me with a hopefulness rooted in my own faith. And I’d want other Christians to share that hopefulness. In many, not all, Christian circles, I sense more fear than hope. And that doesn’t comport with my own understanding of faith. We have to work together to minimize the kinds of words and actions that flow from fear and self-interest.

R&P: Now that Trump won the election, what’s next?

JI: The arguments for confident pluralism remain exactly the same. We must find a way to coexist in the midst of our deep difference, we must insist that government officials honor basic constitutional protections of difference and dissent, and we must redouble our efforts toward tolerance, humility, and patience.


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