Anne Snyder on Confident Pluralism and the Elusive Middle Ring

This is a guest post by Anne Snyder, director of The Philanthropy Roundtable’s new “Character Initiative,” which seeks to guide and build a critical mass of philanthropists committed to character formation in our time. Anne has spent the last two and a half years as a writer studying the intersections of social class, immigrants, and religion. You can find more of her published work at www.annesnyder.org.

It seems to me the key question at the heart of John’s hope and pains is this: How might truth and diversity co-exist, sometimes in an interdependent relationship, sometimes simply surviving side by side? How do we live out our convictions—and protect those of others—in an increasingly diverse society, and not just increasingly diverse, but more feverishly diverse, more separated by creed and worldview, subculture and life experience, networks and information flow? How do teachers—formal and informal ones—send their students off to a culture wider and often more complex than the subcultures within which they have been nurtured?

I live and work in the scrappy, anecdotal world of journalism. And as someone who barely slipped into the millennial bracket at the older end but has no choice but to claim the generational label, the challenges around confident pluralism are very real to me. This is true both personally as my peers and I navigate relational and institutional commitments today, but also professionally in how I try to see reality accurately yet deeply, and then try to communicate that reality to audiences that often occupy very different islands of assumptions around human nature, the good life, right versus wrong, liberties and responsibilities. Nothing about the political problem that confident pluralism is seeking to address is going to go away, and, in fact, it’s probably only going to get thornier. I don’t have answers for this challenge, but I do have the beginnings of a framework that is serving as guide and fuel, John’s book having added one more log.

In recent work, I have been studying and observing institutions that are wrestling in deeply pluralistic contexts. I have been on a hunt to discover those communities that have welcomed pluralism – be it ethnically rooted, socioeconomic, cognitive, even ideological – and to figure out what about those communities allows them not just to survive, but to thrive. Not because diversity is a god—that’s its own form of tyranny, as we’re seeing in the identity wars on college campuses today—but because a robust pluralism, welcomed with the right kind of appetite, with the sort of “confidence” John has described, can be dazzling and humbling at once, and can lead to shaping the sorts of individuals we need to serve our public square, shape our laws, and build the sorts of communities—small and large—that nurture souls, hearts, bodies and minds.

This is civil society, ideally, and it’s the fabric of our society that John is so rightfully earnest to re-weave. I’ve found a couple dozen such communities and am looking for more, but among a growing pattern of observations about their similarities, one common thread stands out: The people in their midst have pluralistic commitments, and they have learned how to order these commitments into different rings of importance and intimacy—let’s call these rings inner, middle and outer. People skilled in confident pluralism embrace a diverse array of friendships, but are able to engage with them at different levels of intensity. They know that for the innermost ring of their relationships, say, spouse and a few close friends, that they need to agree on matters of fundamental values. But with their core selves fortified, they actively seek to build a “middle ring” of relationships—a mosaic of friends and neighbors that may not hold to every core principle, but who they walk alongside and allow themselves to be shaped by, even if agreement isn’t found on ultimate convictions. And then there is an outer ring—a professional acquaintance in another city, a newsfeed that sometimes makes you mad.

These are the inputs of our lives—the inner, middle, and outer rings. People from confidently pluralistic communities – where homogeneity is a bit of a foreign concept—have learned to cultivate that middle ring where the blessings are great and the costs of deep disagreement can be at least partially absorbed in friendship.

The challenges of pluralism widen with social distance. But those who are going to lead as beloved and contributing citizens in the decades ahead will have been trained to leap over distance to make life interesting, to experience other viewpoints and to share delight in our common humanity. It’s this middle ring of relationships that has bottomed out in our political emphases, our culture, in our institutions, and even in our own recognition of our need for it.

So I would just close by asking: How can we find and re-build the middle rings of our lives? How can we strengthen legal protections for these rings? Where are the communities that are embodying this middle ring and training the same appetite, and can we discover a bit of their magic?