Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference
John D. Inazu
University of Chicago Press, 2016
176 pp., 31.00
Live and Let Live
Just in case you hadn't noticed, issues of pluralism have become quite a big deal within American politics. Whether it's controversies over gay marriage, transgender bathrooms, or the Black Lives Matter movement, differences occasioned by racial, ethnic, moral, and religious diversity (to just name a few of the things that divide us) pose a significant and continuing set of challenges not just to how we live our everyday lives but also to the deep philosophical and moral roots of our liberal political order. How we deal with these issues (or fail to, as the case may be) will go a long way toward defining the character of our common social and political life for years to come.
In one sense, this is nothing new. Liberal democratic orders were birthed out of post-Reformation Europe's newfound religious diversity (and violent conflict), and one way of recounting their history is as a long-developing exercise in responding to and accommodating new or wider forms of diversity. Our contemporary agonizing about, say, sexual orientation and gender identity are, on this progressive telling, just mere pockets of illiberal resistance to the march of history. Pluralism is only a problem, really, because some have a problem with pluralism.
The funny thing though, as John Inazu points out in his excellent Confident Pluralism, is that these progressive commitments can turn out to be flagrantly anti-pluralist. Several years ago, Vanderbilt University (my alma mater) decided that campus groups would have to abide by an "all comers" policy, which meant that in order to be officially recognized by the university, groups could not discriminate with respect to either membership or leadership in any way. This new policy was aimed squarely at Christian groups that required an adherence to a statement of faith and behavior in order to be in leadership, and the result has been that almost all such groups chose to move off campus rather than accept the possibility that someone who didn't affirm their group's basic beliefs might lead the group. Consider the irony: in an ostensible effort to make Vanderbilt a putatively more inclusive pluralistic community, the school decided that groups with a commitment to traditional sexual ethics or who thought that committed Christians should be the ones to lead Bible studies had to be ostracized and removed. On this telling pluralism requires less, not more, diversity.
As Inazu notes, this outcome is of a piece with what Nancy Rosenblum has called the "logic of congruence," an argument offered up by an influential stream of liberal political thought that insists that the norms governing public life should be applied to private institutions and associations as well. Just as it would be unjust for men and women to be treated unequally by public institutions, so too with churches, civic groups, and the like, and the congruence argument urges liberal democratic states to use their tax and regulatory power to coerce nonconformist groups to bend the knee. Inazu says, rightly, that this move lacks "confidence" in the capacity of liberal democratic orders to handle dissenting opinion. Indeed, perusing the arguments for congruence can give you the sense that American society is forever just on the edge of tipping into some sort of monochromatic, inegalitarian dystopia.
Inazu's response to the congruence argument is to rehabilitate and reconstruct the legal arguments around the rights of assembly and association that have been unfortunately narrowed and weakened over the past half-century. As he related in a 2012 book, the Supreme Court's decision to largely abandon the right of assembly (which is mentioned in the First Amendment) in favor of the right of association (which is not) went some distance in fact toward weakening, not strengthening, associational protections. The trouble is that the Court decided that only two sorts of associations deserved protections: intimate associations that turn out largely to mean one's immediate family; and, expressive associations, those that gather in order to say or promote some point of view. Since intimate associations by definition can't cover very much, and since not all associations are in the expressive business (and certainly not everything even an obviously expressive association does relates directly to those expressions), the Court has inevitably left the door quite open to state interference in a whole range of organizations for what could be pretty ordinary reasons.
Inazu's concerns about these developments are premised fundamentally, it seems to me, on the idea that some streams of liberal legal and political thought have lost sight of liberalism's historic fallibilism, the sense that since we might be wrong about some of our commitments, we should be self-critical about our willingness to coerce others, setting the bar high. For a quite different stream of political thought, though, those fallibilistic claims are little more than a mirage, designed to cover always partial and typically oppressive power exercised in the name of putatively fair and neutral liberal polities. Here, the problem isn't so much that liberal thinkers want too much commonality over against diverse ways of life, but rather that there really isn't any commonality to be had and the pretense of commonality merely operates on behalf of some hegemonic way of life over against others. Our diversity goes "all the way down" in this telling and our relations to one another are, ultimately, ones of power.
This "politics of difference," as Iris Marion Young once put it, doesn't go so far as to think, as Rousseau did, that living with deep pluralism is impossible. But it denies that we can ever really do more than find a modus vivendi, a balance of power, among our differences. For difference pluralists, public policy should be less worried about state encroachments on putatively private associations and more concerned with ensuring that diverse voices are guaranteed representation in decision-making bodies as a means of balancing out-group power differentials. Inazu's confident pluralism pushes back against this, arguing that our deep differences do not in fact preclude possibilities for common action. He points out places where pro-life and pro-choice forces have come together in Missouri and Portland, where evangelicals and the city's gay mayor found more common ground than the difference pluralists might have predicted.
But this kind of pluralism, wherein our very real differences can sit (however uneasily) alongside very real cooperation, is not easy to create or sustain. It requires, Inazu argues, both legal and political action as well as a set of what he calls "aspirations": to tolerance, humility, and patience. These are like virtues, but since they aren't tied to discrete conceptions of the good life, he characterizes them instead as inclinations or tendencies that can be widely shared, inclining us to find ways of coexisting, even thriving, together.
Inazu's vision is an attractive one, and we would all be better off if our political institutions were less eager to intervene in our associational lives—and if those associational (and private) lives were characterized more by tolerance, humility, and patience. But I'm pessimistic regarding how likely this is to come about. First, institutionally, our tendencies toward centralization and homogenization are accelerating, and this will, inevitably I think, leave less social and political space for those who dissent from general public norms. Pluralism has become such a vivid political issue in part because of our society's widening diversity, but more importantly because political authorities have continually expanded their formal regulatory reach. In an era when social media, moreover, send the stories of every outrage directly to each of us (implicitly demanding a public response), the notion that our national political institutions might then stand pat and decline to intervene looks all too unlikely.
Perhaps more fundamentally, though, I doubt whether our current cultural sensibilities make even Inazu's aspirations, as reasonable as they are, plausible. Consider the demands on any number of American university campuses for "trigger warnings," "safe spaces," and the like. It's easy to make fun of these claims at times, but they are rooted in a much broader sense that political toleration as a means of dealing with moral and cultural diversity is insufficient. To be tolerated is to be judged morally by others but then left alone; for the judged that can, of course, be an uncomfortable, even deeply distressing experience. Instead of toleration, many today—and college students are merely reflecting this in an especially sharp manner—demand "recognition," the surety that others regard you and your identity as worthwhile. They demand affirmation and positive regard, not moral critique and forbearance.
The truth is that recognition and serious pluralism are at odds with one another, for in inhabiting a certain identity, complete with views about the world and your place in it, you necessarily are making judgments about others' alternatives. Demanding recognition ultimately means demanding an end to real pluralism. The sort of legal and political reconfiguration Inazu desires could only take place in a social context in which citizens of all sorts felt confident enough in their own beliefs and their commitment to others' freedom to live out quite different beliefs that they could endure pluralism's slings and arrows without continually asking the state to step in and keep them safe. Alas, that's not the society we have, and we will, I fear, be much the worse for it.
Bryan McGraw is associate professor of politics at Wheaton College. He is the author of Faith in Politics: Religion and Liberal Political Thought (Cambridge Univ. Press).
1. It is worth noting that this policy does not apply to all groups, as Vanderbilt's fraternities and sororities are still free to discriminate by sex. One can only surmise that the administration supposed that the social clubs' high-minded purposes, and not their connections to wealthy and influential alumni, occasioned the exception.
2. See her Membership and Morals (Princeton Univ. Press, 1998).
3. John D. Inazu, Liberty's Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly (Yale Univ. Press, 2012).
4. See her Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton Univ. Press, 1990).
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