Show Notes

John Inazu is professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a member of Heterodox Academy. His scholarship focuses on the First Amendment freedoms—specifically speech, assembly, and religion. His first book is about freedom of assembly. His second book, which we discuss, is Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference. It was published in 2016 and a paperback edition with a new introduction comes out this year.

0:00 The inspiration for Confident Pluralism
5:23 Why should be pluralism be “confident”?
8:16 Where do you draw limits around freedoms?
14:30 Pluralism in the classroom
16:05 What criticism has John received?
18:30 Some of Chris’s critiques of the book

Selected Quote

I think from a teaching perspective, what we have to do is allow for a mutually respectful dialogue and allow for people to try out ideas and to make mistakes. One of my worries is that in the classroom today, whether it’s driven by faculty or university environments or what our students are bringing in, I worry that students feel less and less free to make mistakes or to try out an argument that actually doesn’t sound right. Then I think we need in the other direction to be able to receive half-baked arguments or arguments that might even come across as insensitive. As long as everybody is joining the conversation in good faith to test and retest one’s normative ideas, we ought to be able to facilitate the conversation. So I try to do that in the classroom. One of the beautiful things about teaching law is that training legal professionals means training students to see the best arguments from both sides and reading majority opinions and dissents and making the best possible case of one’s adversary in order to defeat it with a better argument. So the pedagogy that’s built into law school teaches exactly this idea.


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Chris Martin: Welcome to the Half Hour of Heterodoxy podcast. My guest today is John Inazu. He’s a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis. His scholarship focuses on the First Amendment freedoms, especially freedom of assembly, which is the topic of his first book.

His second book Confident Pluralism is what we will be talking about today. It came out two years ago but a paperback edition with a revised introduction is coming out in August of this year and it’s available for pre-order on Amazon already. The revised introduction covers the issue of discernment in speech, which we discuss at the end of today’s interview. So, here is John Inazu.

Hi John. It’s good to have you on the show.

John Inazu: Thanks Chris. It’s great to be with you.

Chris Martin: So I thought we would talk about your book on pluralism and I would like to start with some background. This book came out about two years ago. Was that in response to specific political events of the 2010s or have you been mulling over these ideas for a while?

John Inazu: More the latter. The book grew from some of my early research on the First Amendment’s Right of Assembly and I was working toward a broader political theory and an argument for civic engagement around the issues that I studied with the Right of Assembly. So it was really preceding any particular political or national event. Then as it turns out, the last couple of years have created quite a laundry list of examples to be talking about around the framing of the book.

Chris Martin: When it comes to pluralism, I know one thing you bring up quite repeatedly is religious groups and whether they should be free to exclude whom they want. Has this been bothering you because you’ve been working on college campuses and you’ve seen that it’s a specific issue there or do you often see it occurring in society too?

John Inazu: Well, I would say that’s one example of the phenomenon that I’m trying to address. There was a Supreme Court decision in 2010 that looked at the issue of religious groups on college and university campuses and whether they can set their membership boundaries and so that issue as a constitutional matter and as a focus of my study, has been around for a while. It preceded the Confident Pluralism book by quite some time.

But I would say the broader set of issues around how we approach the private groups of civil society and what are boundaries are and should be certainly extend beyond the college campus and they really touch all of us whether religious or not. In fact, I think one of the most intellectually interesting and politically urgent questions is “What do we do when we move from the question of religious pluralism to pluralism more broadly that encompasses both religious and non-religious belief and ideology?”

Chris Martin: When it comes to campuses, do you see – so I’m asking this because I haven’t been following this issue closely. But I do recall when I was a college student, we had an issue of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship or a similar organization being confronted with the problem of a rule that said they were not allowed – well, their rule was that they only wanted a Christian to serve as a leader and the student government association initially refused to fund them and similar things happened at various campuses. I haven’t been following that specific issue closely. Is that still a recurring issue?

John Inazu: It is. It really takes two different forms. One of the forms is what people refer to as an “All-Comers Policy”. It’s the idea that on certain college and university campuses, either administrators or student groups will say, in order to be a recognized student organization, you have to admit anybody who wants to join, any student who wants to join and so that means that the Christian group needs to admit non-Christians. The Jewish group needs to admit non-Jews. The veterans group needs to admit anti-war protesters and we can go on and on.

So the internal logic of that argument is hard to hold together although some schools like Vanderbilt have sort of rested on the principle for a number of years now.

The other form of the argument is more of a straight anti-discrimination argument that would say based on the norms of the college campus – and this would vary between public and private universities – there are going to be some boundaries or membership boundaries that we are not going to allow groups to permit.

The challenge here is this often plays out along some pretty classic anti-discrimination categories including gender. So that raises the issue, “Should fraternities be able to exclude women? Should sororities be able to exclude men?”

Part of what I think this raises as an intellectual or political question is just what do we mean by the nature of “discrimination” and “exclusion.” It turns out that almost every group makes some kind of exclusion. That’s actually how we form sensible boundaries. So the Glee Club will say, “We don’t allow bad singers into the group,” and the football team will say, “We don’t allow bad athletes to join our team,” and the fraternity will say, “We don’t allow women,” and the Christian group may say, “We don’t allow non-Christians.”

So as we wrestle both on the college campus and also in broader society about what those boundaries are, it’s – I think it’s way too quick to say we’re just against “discrimination.” We need to press in a little bit more deeply and say, “What are we talking about when we name the challenge of discrimination? Along what metrics and why? What’s the maximal space possible either in civil society or in the college campus environment that we’re going to allow for these kinds of differences?”

Chris Martin: And in your book, you prefaced pluralism with the word “confident”. I think one of the things you’re suggesting here is that if you’re confident in the ability of your perspective to exist peacefully, you don’t necessarily perceive other perspectives as threats. So you don’t need to jump on these rules that try to – that can be interpreted as exclusive, but rather you approach them confidently and say, “I understand that one way for all of us to thrive is for all of us to be secure in our own perspectives, but also realize that other people can be secure in their perspectives.” Is that why you use the word “confident”?

John Inazu: I think that’s a big part of it and it’s the intuition that if we really believe what we say we believe, if we take it seriously, if we think it’s the best argument, if we think it has the best logic or it has theological or transcendent significance, if it transcends our ability to understand or name something, then we should be the most confident in those beliefs and let them play out rather than try to exercise coercion to force others to believe in them.

I think that raises [the question of] some sensible limits.  There are going to be times when the proverbial marketplace of ideas is not actually functioning as a marketplace when there are power differentials that are going to require some forms of intervention, Jim Crow being a great example of when this was just needed in our society.

But I would say for the most part, when we’re talking in a space of disagreements, we have to allow for a kind of confidence that recognizes the real depth of our disagreements. My worry about pluralism without the confidence is that it papers over the differences or pretends like either they’re less significant than they really are or even worse, that they don’t exist. I think we only get to genuine coexistence across difference when we recognize the depth and significance of those differences.

Chris Martin: Have you seen any society or nation either now or historically that has embodied the principles of confident pluralism?

John Inazu: Well, I think we see it to varying degrees in different places and we’ve done better and worse in our country here. We don’t have anywhere close to a perfect track record and part of our own history here is recognizing a greater awareness of the actual differences among us.

When we see these differences and when we invite new voices or previously silenced voices into the conversation, we recognize we have more diversity, which is another way of saying that we can assume less consensus and that makes pluralism more difficult. Pluralism is easier in racially or ethnically homogenous societies. It’s a lot harder to pull off when you have differences along all of these metrics that we have in the United States. That’s not to say it can’t be done. It just means that it’s going to be harder as a descriptive or empirical matter because of who we find around us.

Chris Martin: Jumping to something you said earlier, you were talking about limits and obviously we have to draw the limit somewhere. I often feel like I use myself as a reference for where to draw the limits. I feel like I can look at an issue and say, “Obviously this is going too far.” But is there some way to get beyond that? Because when I was reading Confident Pluralism, I also felt like perhaps you were drawing the limits based on your own intuitions about what’s going too far and you were probably using yourself as a reference.

So how do we get beyond that?

John Inazu: So I think what you’re getting at is that almost all of us who act in good faith assume that we’re part of the reasonable middle and that we can ascertain what counts as a good faith or a reasonable kind of argument or perspective and the kinds of arguments that seem to be out of bounds.

One thing we have to acknowledge is that every society and every system of pluralism is going to have limits. We’re always going to draw some kind of line somewhere. In our country we can say pretty easily today we’re not going to allow human sacrifice or cannibalism or those sorts of things.

So then the next question as a political or a social matter becomes, “What else belongs in that category?” So as a First Amendment or constitutional perspective, I am almost libertarian in this sense in that I want to allow maximal speech and expression including – as is the case with most of our First Amendment’s history – speech that harms other people or that damages other people. We have to acknowledge the cost of that but that’s the bargain that we’ve struck with our First Amendment.

So we’re going to allow a lot of speech that represents ideas that we would find out of bounds. As a political matter or a civic matter, where we draw the lines, where we say culturally “this is just not going to work. You’re too far afield.”

I think we need to be very careful about what kinds of people and groups we place in that category and I’m thinking here of: “Is there a kind of social stigma that says you just can’t be part of this experiment if you’re starting at point X.” I think “X” at least has to include a kind of white nationalist or neo-Nazi claim that says to another citizen in this country, “You don’t deserve to be a citizen. I don’t recognize you as a human being.”

When that’s the entry point, even though you might have a First Amendment right to say that, I don’t think that we have a workable system of society that’s going to allow those kinds of viewpoints to be functionally part of our confident pluralism.

Now what else is added to that mix? I think we ought to be very careful about adding much more there.

Chris Martin: So getting back to confidence, I feel like colleges are often places where you see crises of confidence because students go there when they’re pretty young. They’re at a vulnerable time in their lives and they’ve developed a lot of confidence over their four years there. But when they start, they really are in a vulnerable position and I feel like that’s something that just takes time.

So in a way, I try to be understanding and say, “Well, when you’re 18, you’ve just left home. You’re 500 miles away and maybe you feel marginalized.” It’s hard to develop confidence. Is there anything you do as a professor to instil confidence in your undergraduates?

John Inazu: I think from a teaching perspective, what we have to do is allow for a mutually respectful dialogue and allow for people to try out ideas and to make mistakes. One of my worries is that in the classroom today, whether it’s driven by faculty or university environments or what our students are bringing in, I worry that students feel less and less free to make mistakes or to try out an argument that actually doesn’t sound right. Then I think we need in the other direction to be able to receive half-baked arguments or arguments that might even come across as insensitive. As long as everybody is joining the conversation in good faith to test and retest one’s normative ideas, we ought to be able to facilitate the conversation. So I try to do that in the classroom. One of the beautiful things about teaching law is that training legal professionals means training students to see the best arguments from both sides and reading majority opinions and dissents and making the best possible case of one’s adversary in order to defeat it with a better argument. So the pedagogy that’s built into law school teaches exactly this idea.

Chris Martin: Do you think you would be able to hold people accountable if they don’t defend that idea in your law school? I ask that because there are law schools now where you sometimes see protests. There was a case at William and Mary for example where “Black Lives Matter” protesters protested against a visiting ACLU speaker, partly because there was a connection between the ACLU and the White Nationalist March in Charlottesville and the ACLU speaker wasn’t able to speak.

Do you think at your law school and many law schools, people can be held accountable if they stop someone from speaking?

John Inazu: I think it depends on the university and political climate within a particular school. My own sense is that here at Washington University, we do a pretty good job of allowing for a robust kind of discussion. That doesn’t mean that everybody here is a good faith actor. But for the most part, I think it’s happening pretty well.

The way I come at it is to think about how Alasdair MacIntyre describes the university as a place of constrained to disagreement. So we have to have the disagreement. But we also have to have a constraint on our discourse norms, which means that we’re going to allow for people to exercise their opinions and share their views and we’re going to, as a normative matter, police efforts to shut down speech and expression.

In the public university context, we’ve got the First Amendment on our side. In a private school like mine, we just have to work really hard to make sure that the norm stays ever present in front of us.

Chris Martin: On the first day of class in your courses, is there some way you convey to students effectively that they should be confident in their perspectives regardless of whether they’re far left or far right and they’re worried about the response they might get?

John Inazu: Yes. I can do that on the first day of class and to me, it’s built into what being a good teacher is. So every once in a while, I hear something about how I should put a certain word in my syllabus or I should say certain things. I usually recoil against those kinds of suggestions because I want to teach the class the way I want to teach it. But within my own class, I want to set students up for success and so I will say, for example, when I teach a course in first year criminal law, “Look around you. You are in this room with people from very different backgrounds, from different class backgrounds, from different racial backgrounds, with different experiences in the criminal law.”

“So when we get to that day on the relationship between minority communities and law enforcement, when we get to the unit on rape and sexual assault, be listening for differences in perspectives and be smart about it. This might not be the day to try out the most outlandish idea you have.”

But what I want to instill in the students in my class is a sense of shared ownership in the learning process that works.

I think we actually overuse the word “community”. So I don’t want to claim that every class is a community. But there’s something about a shared obligation and responsibility to the people around us.  And that means allowing for free expression of ideas. But it also means working toward a kind of respect that might be an iterative process of understanding why certain arguments or certain perspectives are going to be perceived in certain ways by other people in the room.

Chris Martin: Now have you received any interesting critiques of this book or your perspective on pluralism as you’ve presented it at various venues?

John Inazu: Oh, sure. Lots of interesting critiques and most of them I think are really helpful. There are some that I think – I would say there are people, there are politically partisan people at both extremes who want no part of confident pluralism because what they want is to win. They’re going to try to win at all costs and they don’t actually have a shared vision of coexisting in society with people who disagree with them.

I encounter this in both left and right directions. So what I try to remind myself — and others — is this book is not for [those extremes] and we actually don’t need them as part of the project. What we need is a bunch of people who have very strong and very differing opinions but who are recognizing the significance of the project. So I try to respond to those outer critiques in that way.

I think there are some better critiques that are made and one of them is when I talk about the need for tolerance, humility and patience as guides for our civic practices with one another, I refer to them as aspirations and not virtues and I do that deliberately because I want to set up the idea that virtues are the kinds of things that actually take time. They have to be habituated through practices and institutions and it’s not clear to me that we have those right now.

Once I make that claim, which I think is actually right, then there’s legitimate pushback to say, “Well, if we don’t have them, then how are we ever going to pull this off? What does it mean to talk about aspirations?” I think the only answer to that is aspirations have to become virtues at some point. They have to be habituated into our lives or else this is really a pretty short-lived project.

Then I guess the other thing I would say about that critique — and I’m thinking of people, writers like Rod Dreher or Pat Deneen and others who see the broader project of liberalism as itself the problem and without the internal resources to produce the kind of political and social vision that I’m arguing for. I happen to disagree with them. I don’t think that’s built into liberalism and liberal theory. But they have an argument to make against my position there.

Chris Martin: If I were to offer a couple of critiques, one would be that I feel like justice needs to be added to this list of virtues because even though there are some situations where people can be confident – for example you mentioned the issue of a case where 58 well-known LGBT organizations submitted an amicus brief on behalf of a plaintiff who want to discriminate – who wanted to discriminate against LGBT customers in a very small way.

You can envision situations like in the ‘60s where if nearly everyone wants to discriminate against a group, for example African-Americans, then even though you want to be pluralistic, there’s a trade-off with justice and I feel like in those situations, justice is more important.

This goes maybe back again to the issue of where do you draw the line. But how do you resolve this conflict of also having to prioritize justice and fairness?

John Inazu: Yeah. Well, so I push back a little bit on the terminology. One of my worries about words like “justice” – or we could think of other words too: “Morality” or “dignity” or “equality.” — it’s that those are the kinds of words that really need content to fill them and in some ways, I think the content only comes from understanding and being able to name a purpose or an ends to which those values point.

So “justice” in the abstract doesn’t actually specify to me in a helpful way what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about equal citizenship rights for African-Americans, then we start to specify what justice means in a particular context. We could do that in lots of other areas as well. But what that exposes, once we get more granular with the description, once we talk about specific instances, we realize that we’re often trading values. We’re trading – what the political philosophers would often say is the tension between liberty and equality.

Chris Martin: And if I might offer one more critique, it’s the issue of discernment and expertise. I feel like the depth of expertise is something that we’ve discussed as a community, the academic community and overall politically in the last few years. Even though we want to be pluralistic and respect a number of points of view, we see now where people – we see cases where people don’t have expertise and where discernment isn’t important.

How do you – I mean as a legal scholar, how do you deal with that tradeoff?

John Inazu: Yeah, that’s – let me take that more as a friendly amendment than a critique of the argument. I think I just want to agree with you on the challenge and really the – I would say the growing danger of this issue. This is I think for a multitude of reasons, including the rise of social media, the collapse and suspicion of certain forms of authority, the weakening of institutions. All of those have contributed to this questioning of expertise, a conflation sometimes of celebrity and authority and inability to understand or even discern who an expert is or why a factual matter might be described more or less accurately by experts or with nuance.

All of this – I think you’re right to say there’s a way in which “three cheers for pluralism” just means “shouldn’t all voices be encouraged and included?” But at the limit, that’s just going to cause a great deal of chaos and I think it’s an important question because in some ways, that seems to be where we’re headed in some parts of society.

When I think about a lot of social media practices, that seem to reinforce rather than curtail this sense of everybody is an expert or there is no authority or celebrity wins the day.

That’s a real danger to trying to find real solutions and real compromises to real problems.

Chris Martin: Well, John, I would love to chat further but it looks like it’s time to wrap up. It has been great having you on the show. Do you have any closing thoughts?

John Inazu: I just want to thank you for the opportunity to be part of the podcast and to put in a – just my own affirmation and appreciation for what you all are doing and trying to do in terms of pushing hard and important and challenging ideas and get people thinking about the kinds of things that you and I have been talking about. So thank you very much.


Chris Martin: Thanks for listening. You can find out more about John Inazu at His last name is spelled I-N-A-Z-U. You can also follow him on Twitter, @JohnInazu. This is shaping up to be a really interesting summer at the podcast.

My next guest is Heather Heying, professor in exile from Evergreen State College. After that, we will have Fabio Rojas who is a sociologist at Indiana University and is the main author on the Org Theory blog. We will also have Robert Wright, host of The Wright Show and an author of multiple best-selling books and we will have Zachary Wood. So stay tuned and thanks for listening.

As always, this show was produced by Heterodox Academy. You can follow us on Facebook, under Heterodox Academy and on Twitter, @HdxAcademy.

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Transcription by Prexie Magallanes as Trans-Expert at