Q&A: Can an America that agrees on little politically agree to get along?
Posted January 6
John Inazu's new book was submitted to the University of Chicago Press before the 2016 presidential election season began, but it could hardly have been more timely. The book, "Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Differences," anticipated a presidential election cycle in which partisans on both sides would view not just the candidates, but even the voters who supported them, with nearly unprecedented hostility.
Meanwhile, sharp differences on race, abortion, sexual orientation and now transgender bathrooms continue to split the country. And a recent Pew public opinion poll shows that 40 percent of U.S. millennials favor restricting free speech deemed as offensive to minorities.
Inazu, a professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis, has personal reasons for being concerned about pluralism and respect for differences. His Japanese-American grandparents "lost their property and their freedom" and spent World War II in internment camps.
Inazu quotes the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who argued that "the freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment must be accorded to ideas we hate, or sooner or later they will be denied to ideas we cherish."
But Inazu takes it a step further. He hopes that the bounds of polite discourse can be expanded, with formal protection of differing perspectives. He also hopes that social tolerance will expand its range, with greater willingness to accept sharp differences without dismissing those who hold them as evil.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
You wrote this book before this last presidential campaign, but it does seem rather timely. Did you just get lucky?
I turned in the manuscript before anyone had announced for the primaries, and then as the book went to press I watched the entire election season unfold. And we saw lots of practical and sometimes discouraging illustrations of the ideas I'm talking about. I frame these aspirations of tolerance, patience and humility. And we saw problems with those from both campaigns, but the Trump campaign even more so. So I had plenty to talk about over the past year.
In your preface, you cite 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s quote, “It is impossible to live in peace with those whom we regard as damned.”
Rousseau argued that if you really believe in the moral depravity of someone else’s views, then you will either end up controlling or suppressing them at some point. My argument is that Rousseau is wrong, and we can and must figure out a different way to think about living together.
Easier said than done?
This raises very complex questions about how we can tolerate beliefs that we may find to be quite evil and harmful. How do you work and shop and play with neighbors who hold such beliefs? I think the challenge is to disentangle people from the ideas they hold, and being willing to be challenged at the level of ideas, while being able to maintain a common sense of humanity with those who hold them. If too many people shut down, and are unwilling to be challenged, or unwilling to separate people from ideas, then we're thrown back to the impossibility expressed by Rousseau, which is not a very attractive option.
You also say that there are some things we don’t have to tolerate, and you list “pedophiles, cannibals and al Qaeda."
The point of those illustrations is to recognize that we will always have to set limits. It won’t work to say that we tolerate all differences, or that all ideas are welcome here. As a practical matter that’s just not true and never has been true. Society set limits, and we say that beyond those limits you don’t get to be part of this. The hardest questions are going to be at the boundaries of those line drawings. And I argue that we ought to be very sure about the seriousness of the harm before we allow government to restrict our private beliefs or associations.
Godwin’s law, which you cite in the book, states that, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1.” What does that tell us?
For starters, our social media and online interactions tend to bring out the worst in all of us. The technology tempts us to caricature the other sides, lose patience and fail to engage in real conversation. This has been exacerbated in recent years with the ongoing “siloing” of our media sources into alt-right and alt-left.
And then once we define those we disagree with as Nazis, we’re not obliged to listen to their viewpoints. In fact, to do so would be even wrong, in a way?
Yes, we sometimes tend to “otherize” to the extent of excluding them from the bounds of polite society. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding Trump voters, for example, has been that these people are beyond the pale of society.
How has your book been received on the left and the right?
In both left and right circles, I’ve had people react very negatively in some corners, but that has been a minority viewpoint. A lot of people will tell me, “I was comfortable with part of the book and uncomfortable with other parts.” And that was the whole point. My goal is to unsettle people on both the left and the right.
You talk about “bridging relational differences,” and you give a number of examples of unlikely cross-ideological friendships. These seem to play a key role in your solution.
If we are going to exist in a society where we have deep and irreconcilable differences, we have to find common ground, even when we are not going to agree on everything. Many friendships over ideological divides are rooted in sharing meals or supporting the same sports teams. Most obviously, any time we have a natural disaster, people quit worrying about politics and they are carrying the sand bags together. The key is to harness that shared humanity to the more ordinary days of our lives.
Is there a danger to confident pluralism when all aspects of life, from sports to the theater, become politicized?
Those intersections of performance and politics are tricky, and I don’t think I have easy answers on that. But when it comes to people’s houses, and their neighborhoods, that’s when it becomes clearer to me that we need to preserve those spaces, even for those whose lives are otherwise infused with politics.
So what about the situation where Ivanka Trump was flying with her children and was confronted by an angry detractor?
That’s a great example. These are the ordinary course of life activities we all do, and you need to have some kind of a truce in those. There are exceptions around public spaces and public forums. I would want to protect the right to protest, even when those protests disrupt ordinary activities in public parks and public settings.
What you are describing seems to happen sometimes in elite political circles, such as the friendships between Orrin Hatch and the late Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate, or the private friendship between political enemies Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
Those are great examples. I think these kinds of bridges require shared experiences and moments of common ground. My sense is that in recent years leaders in Congress are having fewer and fewer of those kinds of shared interactions.