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Interview Spotlight: John Inazu on confident pluralism

November 23, 2016

John Inazu is the Sally Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He joined us to discuss his work in the area of pluralism. His book is Confident Pluralism, Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. Listen to our interview here:

Carmen LaBerge: I have been arguing that pluralism is a hope-filled context for Christians. Pluralism means that there is space for a variety of perspectives, including ours.

I’ll just admit that America today, feels more like this name-calling combat zone, than a healthy conversation among citizens who want to all live peaceably together alongside each other despite our differences. Can you give us sort of a diagnosis of our current reality and then a prescription for health?

John Inazu: I’ll give it a try here.

I think that our current reality has changed a great deal in the last week or so, and I think it’s intensified the reality of our differences.

A part of the descriptive reality of pluralism is recognizing how deeply held and how deeply divisive our differences are and recognizing that we’re not likely to reach the unity to which our founding documents and some of our songs inspire.

With the recognition of that difference, how do we live together with one another? I think, even in the past two days I’ve been thinking increasingly this has to start with a kind of empathy. The empathy that leans toward people who disagree with us and listens carefully and tries to find the best of their arguments and the best of their reasoning.

I think as Christians especially, who are confident in our own beliefs and our own God, that we can risk engagement and risk conversations that are charitable, that are open ended, that are not preachy or dogmatic, and trying to understand the people that we find ourselves in the midst of is an important first step.

I think many of us have a long way to go even on that point.

Carmen: I think that the first word that you used is empathy. I think that one of the challenges that we all face is that when someone is acting in a hostile way toward us, even if it’s the language that they are using in relationship to who they think we are. Having empathy in that situation and remaining non-defensive is very challenging.

You talk about the necessity of a non-defensive response in this book. If you can share with us about speech and relationships across differences, and also collective action.

I think that when you talk about framing the situation in those ways, it’s just so helpful. When you talk about pluralism being ideally embodied in tolerance, humility and patience … Will you talk about the three civic practices in which that takes place?

John: Great, yeah. You’re talking about the second half of my book which gets into the areas of our civic engagement that aren’t actually covered by a lot of legal restrictions. Under the first amendment, it turns out we can say a whole lot of things without worrying about government censorship or anything like that.

The question for us then becomes, given the freedoms we have to speak and to say our piece of mind, how should we engage with our neighbor? Here I talk about … I think it’s kind of common sense, kind of third grade, and certainly Christian. We ought to be thinking empathetically about how our words are used and perceived, and again, trying to put ourselves in the other person’s position.

Maybe something that sounds really good to us, or sounds non-offensive to us might actually be offending someone else. How can we engage across differences? How can we open up conversations instead of insulting people? How can we avoid what I call conversation stoppers, the words that are conversation endings instead of openings?

There’s some practical tips in there about just speaking more kindly and more patiently and more openly to others. You mentioned the collective action point, which is a real challenge because when we speak as individuals, or when we act as individuals, we can accomplish only so much. When we come together as groups, whether it be religious organizations or churches, or other groups, we can have more of an effect.

I think that also recognizing the power and the responsibility that comes with that greater effect. I think sometimes when we act as collective agents, as groups of people, it becomes difficult to realize how things might have changed in our engagement with others.

I think a lot of this is about self-awareness. A lot of it is challenging ourselves to greater empathy. When we engage and find people that don’t like what we have to say, or might say something rude back. First of all, I think that should be expected. We anticipate that in the Gospel from the words of Jesus and others. Then, how we respond also reflects who we are as believers and followers of Christ?

The importance of being able to take a few hits, and being able to take some name-calling, and doing so in a way that hopefully increases our empathy rather than makes us recoil in self-defense.

Carmen: I think that’s so helpful and it’s so instructive to us as believers. I think that everyone is interested in healing the divisions that we’re experiencing in our culture today. Certainly we’re all interesting in healing the divisions around our own dinner tables, right? In anticipation of sitting down next week, probably with family members, with whom we deeply disagree on the outcome of the election, on maybe very particular social issues.

We might have very serious disagreements. This is so timely for us to be having this conversation. Every single person needs to be equipped with the tools that you provide in this book.

Let’s talk specifically about the freedom of speech being exercised right now in the form of protests. That sort of combines the first and second civic practices. What that is doing in terms of our relationships across differences.

At what point is that not helpful? Help me understand how and when the place we are at as a nation begins to move more toward a conversation with one another and away from yelling at each other.

John: It’s an important question and a difficult one to which I’m not sure I have an answer.

I do think, fundamentally the right of protest is really important. It’s really important to honor that legally and constitutionally. Quite frankly, we have not done a good job as a nation, regardless of what the protest is about. Whether you’re left, right, religious or not religious, the restrictions on protests generally speaking around our country are in need of some reform.

There’s a separate question of how should we, and when should we, engage with protests or even come alongside in solidarity. There I think we’re right back to empathy. Maybe then the first question to ask is why are people protesting? What are the underlying issues? Have we actually given voice to those issues beyond what our own social media sources have told us in the first instance?

Then, I think we can start to unpack the complicated nature of most people, that these aren’t the binary issues that we often see in news stories and twitter feeds. Trying to look at each other as human beings first.

The practical challenge, you mentioned the Thanksgiving dinner table, which I imagine will be hard and uncomfortable for many of us. The practical challenge is, can we at first instance establish some common ground?

My advice would be, don’t have the opening conversation be about politics. Maybe have it be about some common family activities or something. Start with the ordinary and start with food and friendship, and remind each other of your shared spaces in life.

I think the added challenge for the church is that many churches are pretty segregated when it comes to race or class. Those are very important issues right now. What does it even mean to try to find common ground when sometimes the relationships don’t even exist.

It many ways, the urgency of the church’s witness and relationships across difference have only gotten more important.

Carmen: You talk about identifying common ground. I actually used that phrase in this document that we’ve posted on our website for folks, just trying to distill down into a couple of pages of resources that folks could immediately use. I used that phrase, established common ground. I knew what I meant, and everyone else around me who had eyes on it before it went up was like, you have to say more about that. How do you do that? What are you even talking about?

I said, it’s as simple as saying to other people, hey can we all agree that we’re going to treat one another with mutual respect? At the very most basic level, we’re at least going to follow the golden rule. I am only unto you what I would want you to do unto me, if the roles were reversed.

When you talk about common ground, what else are you talking about?

John: I think a couple of things.

One way we can look at it is, can you find common activities that bridge relational distance, even if you don’t bridge ideological difference.

You might find yourself with someone who disagrees with you completely on an important political or religious issue. The goal of relationship is not, at least in the first instance, to try to convince the other person to come to your side.

The goal is, can you engage in a common activity? Maybe you have a meal together, or maybe you engage in a service project, but other ways where you can form a relationship around that activity. That’s the kind of common ground.

Another kind of common ground is— I think this is especially viable now at the local level. Can we, in our neighborhoods and in our cities and our communities, find common interest who aren’t like us?

Maybe it’s helping with the local public school, or helping with a city garden or something like that. Is there a shared endeavor that benefits the greater good around all of us that actually doesn’t involve our deepest differences but lets us come together on shared interests and shared concerns.

Carmen: In the denominational world, we would have said mission unites, theology divides.

I think you are striking an important note for all of us. Everybody can engage in filling sand bags when the river’s rising, right? Our common interest is protecting the community in which we live, from something that none of us on our own can stop.

Schools would be an obvious place to make this manifest. I’m sure that in many communities, homelessness, the welcome of the stranger, immigrants and refugees. I know that’s a hot button political issue for some people, but I also know for Evangelical Christians, that really does cut across all kinds of political divisions because we sort of have a “welcome the immigrants” spirit.

I want to affirm what I hear you saying, and really want to encourage people. If you’ve got an appetite for reading and to develop an understanding of the context in which we find ourselves, which is what the first half of the book is about, and then very practical information and guidance on how to actually engage in the pluralistic context in which we find ourselves, and to do so with confidence, I really highly recommend John’s book, it’s Confident Pluralism, Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.

Can I ask you a UVA related question?

John: Sure, I have a year’s worth of knowledge.

Carmen: We were discussing the article out of UVA where faculty members and students have addressed the president in a very open letter.

Instead of addressing their concerns about the use of a Jefferson quote in her response to the election of Donald Trump, she used a Jefferson quote instead of going to her and saying, hey that is problematic for us for these reasons.

They did it in a very public way, which required then a public response on her part, which means we’re all now looking at what’s going on at the University of Virginia and saying to ourselves, we can’t listen to the person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, we cannot hear his voice because he was a slave owner?

These are challenging criticisms of our founding fathers, and therefore, I think of our founding documents.

In terms of civil discourse, in terms of what’s going on in America … Because you are involved in higher education, can you reflect for us sort of where we’re at in American higher ed, and why the next generation seems to, in my view, understand so little about the nature of free speech, the free exchange of ideas, and the real tolerance that pluralism requires.

John: I think we see a lot of challenges in the higher ed space right now. In some ways, I think those challenges are only going to get harder.

One of the challenges, campus speech norms. Another challenge, the financial pressures on institutions of higher ed. There are questions of the ideological diversity of faculty members. Collectively, these are creating massive impediments even to the fundamental purposes of education.

There’s a lot of work to be done ahead. I actually don’t think it’s entirely the next generation or the millennials, who are to blame here. In some ways, it’s the people who have positions of power in higher ed who haven’t maybe lived up to the expectations and the responsibilities of what education is and should be.

I think, actually, there’s an even more fundamental question in the background here. Which is, what is the purpose of higher education, or specifically an institution of higher learning? What is the purpose of the university? Not many institutions of higher ed can answer that question right now with a lot of assurance and coherence.

That creates a lot of dissonance, but also a lot of opportunity to come in. Maybe not through controlling those institutions, but for being steady and faithfully present within those institutions to say, actually to be here is a responsibility and it’s an opportunity, and we want to take seriously our differences and our concerns and our pains.

Actually, it might be a good thing to go back and critique what some of our founders and some of our founding documents said. At the same time, it’s right to learn from those as well and realize that we have a history from which we emerge. We can’t just write off or rewrite that history, we have to own the good and the bad of it.

Carmen: Absolutely, and least be willing to hear it so that we can engage it in conversation.

John: Right.

Carmen: Thank you so much for your work and your diligence in this area. Folks can most easily find – You want them to find you on Twitter or you want them to find you at your website

John: Either one. Twitter is @johninazu and the website you just gave them. I’d love to engage with anyone.

Carmen: Fantastic. Thanks so much for being with us today.

John: Carmen, thanks for having me.

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