The Difficult Questions of Pluralism

The Difficult Questions of Pluralism
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Americans seem forever pulled in opposite directions. We want to celebrate our differences, but we also want to erase them. We are a pluralistic society in fact, but often a uniform society in ideal. And the two are always in tension.

When we feel charitable about the people around us we wax poetic about diversity. But when we feel threatened by the people around us we lament their bigotry. The truth is, it’s pointless to romanticize or curse pluralism—we should instead be asking the difficult questions. Pluralism incorporates the different religions, political opinions, ethnicities, and moral sensibilities living out their visions of truth within a single society. It’s not mere diversity, but engagement with this diversity that matters most.

We see these questions play out between concerns over security and pleas to welcome refugees, between the conscience of a conservative Christian baker and the wedding of a gay couple, between student agitation for racial justice and free speech, between building a new mosque and preserving the identity of a neighborhood, and between a charity run by Catholic nuns and a government healthcare mandate. Such clashes test our pluralistic mettle. So, let’s ask some questions:

At what point does different become too different? Every society has differences, but it becomes a complicated task when discerning which to encourage and which to discourage. Differences can stretch their own way as long as they don’t tear the common foundation. Some groups are easier to dismiss than others. White supremacists, for example, have no place at the table of civil discourse. The constitution may protect their speech, but does not demand their public inclusion. But what about the grayer situations like Gordon College, an evangelical school whose accreditation came under scrutiny because of its ban on “homosexual practice,” or Samantha Elauf, a Muslim woman whom Abercrombie & Fitch refused to hire because of her head scarf? Legitimate interests are in competition here and must be managed the hard way—by following due process and forging a balance that respects the rights and beliefs of all involved.

How do we know a good difference from a bad difference? Not all differences are created equal. Some are harmful, some are constructive, and some are neutral. There is no single criterion for determining which is which, but the most common considerations are health and safety. This stems from the harm principle: “the freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” Unfortunately, it’s rarely that simple. Most tensions do not involve physical harm, but instead cause emotional distress, social disintegration, or moral decay. We shouldn’t always tolerate obscenity or prejudice, for example, just because it isn’t easy to measure the harm they cause. Policy and cultural debates have to slog it out in this vague realm of moral judgment. In the end, the job of a democratic society is to agree upon a set of working principles and continually refine our notions of the good and the harmful. The ethicist Jeffrey Stout sees the democratic process as a dialogue that “imagine[s] the full-range of possible improvements not yet actualized.”

Is pluralism the same thing as relativism? Pluralism implies a common social, physical, and legal space where people engage their differences. Relativism has no fixed space or reference points. Pluralism evokes a sense of direction. Relativism has neither up nor down. Pluralism is contact. Relativism is isolation. It’s easy for individuals to say there is no right way to act, but no society actually behaves like that. Just look at traffic laws. If we let it, pluralism can turn into relativism—but that would show a lack of confidence in our convictions. Societies break apart when they have no common moral framework, even if it’s as basic as the respect for life, the protection of liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Can political correctness sustain pluralism? Nothing coerces like conformity. The drive for purity in thought, speech, action, and intention punishes our differences. No part of the political spectrum is blameless. We see it in the intimidation of professors and administrators who misspeak on race or gender. We see it in the shaming of religious dissenters. We see it in corporate pressure to align with fashionable causes. We see it when our patriotism is challenged for critiquing the country. This is not pluralism, but a game of total victory. The winners exult and the losers apologize. Political correctness helps marginalize the truly repugnant, but its good intentions are often corrupted when they harden into commands. This “one true vision” can block the best thing about pluralism—the process of conversing, arguing, and bumping our way to a workable cooperation.

Will pluralism lead to factions? James Madison, Adam Smith, and David Hume all believed the best way to manage a large, diverse society is not by diminishing differences, but allowing them to flourish. Voltaire wrote something similar about religion: “If there were only one religion … there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace.” When unique groups freely and lawfully live out their identities in the rough-and-tumble of pluralistic society, not expecting favor or disfavor, no single group can dominate the others. Harmony sings different parts, not a single note.

Answers to these questions come in the flow of deliberation. Pluralism is like traffic—to go your way you have to let others go theirs. The movement of vehicles requires signs, lights, lanes, medians, exits, entrances, and maps. We’re all going different places, and collisions will always occur. Likewise, the norms that regulate pluralism are never simple and may change depending on knowledge and circumstances. They are a mix of religious ethics, secular humanist principles, constitutional imperatives, and public reason. But if everyone operates within the agreed upon framework, we can be as different as our consciences desire.

Nathan Nielson is a graduate of St. John’s College and lives near Salt Lake City, Utah.

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