Confident Pluralism Across Deep Difference

We Americans like to talk about unity. We see ourselves as “one nation, indivisible,” and in pursuit of “a more perfect union.” But much of our actual existence is characterized more by difference and disagreement than by unity. We disagree about significant issues surrounding race, religion, sexuality, immigration, abortion, education, foreign policy, and criminal law. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing. Our differences pervade our backgrounds, preferences, moralities, tastes, and allegiances. They affect not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we see the world. The philosopher John Rawls famously called it the “fact of pluralism”— the recognition that we live in a society of “a plurality of conflicting, and indeed incommensurable, conceptions of the meaning, value and purpose of human life.”

The fact of pluralism creates a practical problem in need of a political solution. One possible response is what I call Confident Pluralism:

Confident Pluralism insists that our shared existence is not only possible, but also necessary. Instead of the elusive goal of unity, Confident Pluralism suggests a more modest possibility: that we can live together in our “many-ness.”

Confident Pluralism includes both a legal and a personal dimension. Silencing other viewpoints may begin with personal antipathy, but it ends with legal prohibition—a refusal to extend the protections of the law to one’s adversaries, and ultimately, an effort to turn the law against them.

The legal dimension of Confident Pluralism focuses on three areas: (1) protecting the voluntary groups of civil society through the rights of assembly and association; (2) facilitating and enabling dissent, disagreement, and diversity in public forums; and (3) ensuring that generally available government funding is not limited by government orthodoxy. The personal dimension of Confident Pluralism aspires toward tolerance, humility, and patience in three civic practices: (1) our speech; (2) our collective action (protests, strikes, and boycotts); and (3) our relationships across difference. Confident Pluralism suggests that when it comes to these civic practices, it is often better to tolerate than to protest, better to project humility than defensiveness, and better to wait patiently for the fruits of persuasion than to force the consequences of coercion.

Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. We can embrace pluralism precisely because we are confident in our own beliefs and in the groups and institutions that sustain them. That vision does not entail illusions that our differences will disappear. To the contrary, it forces us to pursue a common existence in spite of our deeply held differences. Confident Pluralism will not give us the American Dream. But it might help avoid the American Nightmare.

Confident Pluralism will be available in a few weeks: you can pre-order the book here. In the coming weeks, I will share a bit more about the book and the vision that it entails. I’ll also have guest posts or videos from some friends. And stay tuned for a study guide with suggestions of how to read through Confident Pluralism with a group of friends — or perhaps even with a group of people with whom you disagree.