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Does Confident Pluralism Mean Protecting Racist Views?

 We have a tradition of protecting dissenting views when they violate prevailing norms. What if the prevailing norm is protecting vulnerable populations? 

February 9, 2018
 
 

One of my friends likes to say that diversity is not rocket science, it’s harder. This is especially the case in a liberal democracy where citizens have the right to express views, start organizations and cast votes in favor of people and positions that may be deeply offensive to their neighbors.

One of my favorite thinkers on this topic is John Inazu. I am co-teaching a seminar with him at Washington University this semester and yesterday our students took a close look at his excellent book, Confident Pluralism.

John does not shy away from the challenges inherent in building a religiously diverse democracy. He underscores right from the get-go that people in our society have deeply held opposing beliefs: “It cannot be the case that the act of abortion is both morally acceptable and morally intolerable. It cannot be the case that God exists and that God does not exist.”

So what do we do with irreconcilable views on ultimate concerns? John quotes the philosopher Rousseau’s pessimistic view -- “it is impossible to live at peace with those we regard as damned” -- and then goes on to offer his more optimistic formulation: “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.”

Much of this work takes place in civil society, that realm in which we organize activities and build institutions that express our core identities. The state, John says, ought to be especially careful in how it involves itself in the realm of civil society, and it ought to be especially proactive in protecting the expressive and associational rights of minority groups whose views depart from prevailing norms.

John emphasizes the importance of meaningful civil liberties for everyone as part of what he calls our “modest unity” by insisting on working toward civic inclusion.  But he also recognizes the importance of dissent. So what happens when dissent challenges civic inclusion?

He quotes Justice Robert Jackson, defending the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to abstain from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance during World War II: “We apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually or spiritually diverse, or even contrary, will disintegrate the social organization.”

But the health of the “social organization” is not the only value at stake when considering whether to restrict the rights of groups who depart from prevailing norms. What if the prevailing norm is to protect vulnerable populations, like immigrants and Muslims, and a different group comes along and seeks to advance negative views of such populations. Protecting vulnerable populations is certainly somewhere between a prevailing norm and an aspirational ethos on many campuses and an obviously laudable objective. But what happens if another group wants to dissent from this prevailing norm?

Recent events in Hyde Park provide an interesting case study. The Edmund Burke Society at the University of Chicago Law School advertised a debate with the provocation that immigrants bring disease into the body politic.

According to the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper, there was a significant outcry. Over a hundred members of the Law School community gathered to say that the culture was not welcoming enough to immigrants and minorities to begin with, and now they had to deal with a statement that trafficked in outright racism.

It seems that the Edmund Burke Society holds a minority viewpoint with regards to the aspirational ethos of the University of Chicago Law School, at least how the Law School would want to articulate its aspiration with regards to minority groups. 

So, is this a Justice Robert Jackson moment? Does somebody need to stand up and protect the right of the Edmund Burke Society to hold a view that goes against mainstream norms? It’s the Law School after all, they are no doubt familiar with the case.

Or is there something else at stake, something both more sensitive and in our moment more significant. The other side of the Jehovah’s Witnesses case was the cohesiveness of the nation during a time of war. Justice Jackson took the position that a social organization was actually strengthened by allowing dissenting views.

In the case of the Edmund Burke Society, it’s not so much the social organization of the University of Chicago Law School that’s threatened, but minority students at the Law School who find the actual culture (which is different from the aspirational ethos) unwelcoming to people like them.

If you were the Dean of the Law School, would your view be that the Edmund Burke Society’s event on immigration, precisely because it offers a position that is so contrary to the aspirational ethos, highlights the strength of the social organization that is the Law School? Or would you ask them to cancel it, saying that racist views "punch down" to vulnerable populations and that is something the Law School wants to discourage? 

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