Uncritical celebrations and denigrations of diversity do little to constructively address our present political challenges. Alternatively, reasonable pluralism encourages thoughtful consideration of and engagement across meaningful human differences. It recognizes that identity, both individual and collective, is an important and meaningful part of many, if not most people's lives.
The Pluralism Project at Harvard University defines pluralism as "not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity…" This conceptualization of pluralism aims for "not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference." It calls for an "encounter of commitments" through constructive dialogue, which involves "give and take, criticism and self-criticism… both speaking and listening." Rather than seeking universal agreement among everyone 'at the table’, this conceptualization of pluralism "involves the commitment to being at the table — with one’s commitments…" (Eck, 2006).
Constructive dialogue across difference is necessary for any well-functioning democratic institution. Engagement with others in good faith efforts to understand diverse perspectives is particularly important in the context of public institutions, which should put a premium on epistemic justification and critical scrutiny of competing knowledge claims. Distinguishing itself from an unsustainable form of radical relativism pluralism requires some overarching "metaperspective" to provide principled guidelines for engagement with diversity (Siegel, 2012, p.76).
On the one hand, to avoid merely replacing one variety of fundamentalism with another, the overarching view cannot be overly determinant or exclusivist. On the other hand, any sustainable, principled framework would have to be, at least to some degree, exclusive.
Thus, one is confronted with what Karl Popper (1945, p. 581) called ‘the paradox of tolerance’—how can tolerant societies prevent intolerance from dominating without themselves having to exercise some form of intolerance (i.e., an intolerance of intolerance)? As long as open societies can counter intolerance and other challenges to pluralism "by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion," he argued, "suppression would certainly be unwise."
The challenge, then, for those who wish to promote pluralism in diverse societies is to make the tent of inclusion as wide as possible without causing its legs to buckle under the weight of its own contradictions” (Bindewald & Hawkins 2020, 2-3).
In Living with Moral Disagreement, Moses (2016) suggests that, for democratic societies to function well, public deliberations must include a wide range of reasonable perspectives. Paraphrasing Rawls (1993), she states, "The concept of ‘reasonable’ herein excludes oppressive and hateful views" (Footnote 12, p. 115).
She identifies white supremacist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and any other "views that are indefensible or intimidating, especially to marginalized groups" as beyond the limits of reasonableness (Moses, 2017, pp. 533–534).
One’s legal right to free speech is not the same thing as epistemic or ethical justification for expressing hateful, intimidating, or malicious views. However, stigmatizing labels lose their power when used in a cavalier manner, and, as such, moralistic labels alone do not effectively demonstrate a perspective’s unreasonableness or justify its exclusion from public deliberations.
In my judgment, those on the "Left pole" (typically the loudest, most aggressive voices in our public discourse) frame dissent from social justice orthodoxy as intolerable expressions of fascist oppression or other pathological -isms and -phobias they have socially constructed to justify silencing or "de-platforming" political opponents on the Right.
Meanwhile, many on the mainstream Left seem unable or unwilling to clearly articulate any limits to tolerance for intolerant authoritarians and militant identitarians in their own ranks. For example, when does militant black nationalism, radical feminism, or social justice activism cross the line of what reasonable people should be willing to tolerate?
Protecting all people, including members of historically marginalized groups, from arbitrary forms of discrimination and recognizing their equal human rights are requirements of reasonable pluralism. Suggestions that members of historically marginalized groups and far-Left radicals should have ‘license of tongue’ to engage in overtly bigoted speech or that they have the authority to (perpetually?) discriminate for political purposes (DiAngelo & Sensoy, 2014, p. 7; Boler, 2004, p. 3), however, are not.
Discriminating (in)tolerance of conservative speech and expression is, "at best, a nonstarter for the majority of Americans (More in Common, 2018). At worst, it alienates potential allies, undermines progressive aims, and exacerbates existing political and social conflict.
Legitimate Epistemic Authority
The distinction between epistemologically warranted public knowledge (Kitcher, 2011) and personal (i.e., not necessarily warranted) private belief, however, is an essential feature of this vision.
When people make empirical or moral/political claims that they expect others to accept as justified or legitimate, they assume these claims have normative force—that is, they imply that others ought to also consider them valid and worthy of high epistemic status.
If one expects others in a context of great diversity of perspective to accept the legitimacy of or obligations associated with one’s claims, then such claims require justification in the form of public reasons and evidence.
While appeals to private beliefs, subjective interests, or psychological experiences may be personally meaningful, they are, by themselves, insufficient sources of epistemic justification for public knowledge claims.
Epistemologically Relevant Values
Epistemologically relevant values include clarity and precision of language, logical coherence in argumentation, commitments to justifying one’s claims with public warrants, ‘dedication to the pursuit of truth, openness to counter evidence, receptiveness to criticism, accuracy of measurements and observations, honesty and openness in reporting results, and the like’ (Phillips & Burbules, 2000, pp. 54 and 55).
Free speech and open inquiry are also, in important ways, epistemologically relevant values. Protecting free speech and open inquiry from coercive suppression promotes freedom of conscience and provides necessary checks against unjustified forms of discrimination, authoritarian policies and practices, and the entrenchment of orthodoxy. These protections do not, however, require uncritical inclusion of unreasonable forms of expression.
Limits of Tolerance?
When speech explicitly calls for or directly incites physical violence or lawlessness, it should be suppressed by the appropriate, democratically sanctioned law enforcement authorities. Similarly justified is the use of police force against militants who harass, intimidate, and attempt to violate the civil liberties of political opponents [see, e.g., Fascists, Antifa & Black Lives Matter].
When objectionable speech does not warrant a coercive response but includes unreasonable, offensive, disrespectful, or bigoted content, public institutions should call it what it is and respond to it directly (Lawrence, 2017). Beyond their important role in protecting free speech, public institutions have additional obligations that include subjecting ideas to critical scrutiny and calling for them to be justified to the public.
Some expressions will prove unreasonable and should, therefore, be actively marginalized For example, if extremists and provocateurs [e.g., Milo Yiannopolis, Richard Spencer, etc.] engage in unreasonable, disrespectful, or bigoted forms of expression, these views should be directly confronted with peaceful, lawful protests, reasonable counterarguments, and formal institutional counter-messaging.
Public institutions have an ethical obligation to directly challenge and counter actual hate speech, regardless of its source or target. No one should be expected to respectfully engage with those who clearly and intentionally insult them, openly question their basic equality as human beings, or suggest that it would be okay to violate their democratic rights. Whether from the Right or Left speech should be critically scrutinized, explicit incitements to violence suppressed, and unreasonable expressions marginalized.
Epistemic processes, assessments, and the ways in which participants are treated do, however, raise significant ethical considerations. Power plays a significant role in such processes. Yet, contrary to Foucault, warranted knowledge claims and arbitrary assertions of power are not the same thing.
Claims are not reasonable or unreasonable simply because they are uttered by a particular group of people or because they serve specific political interests. Instead, knowledge claims made by all people, from all groups, should be granted an initial presumption of worth and should, therefore, be taken seriously enough to scrutinize according to public principles of reason.
Assessment of a claim is not the same thing as an evaluation of the human worth of the claimant, although it could be subjectively experienced that way. We treat others with respect as persons by taking their views seriously—not by granting them automatic, uncritical acceptance. It is possible, however, that after giving due consideration we can justifiably determine that some claims do not have normative force or warrant the same epistemic status as others.
Without reciprocal obligations to justify public knowledge claims with public reasons and evidence public institutions become unable to credibly marginalize unreasonable views or effectively establish that purported victims of injustice are actually victims, for such claims would also require some sort of publicly assessable, reasoned justification (Siegel, 1995).
There will be individuals and groups who express views at odds with mutuality and reasonable pluralism. If people wish to establish free associations guided by and committed to the promotion of unreasonable views in the private sphere they should be permitted to do so.
Private institutions are not bound by the same First Amendment constraints as public institutions, and they can legally promote sectarian views and limit or restrict speech inconsistent with their guiding mission and values (FIRE, 2015).
A Crisis of Institutional Credibility
Suppressing dissenting views and selectively distributing ethical and epistemic privileges on the basis of political perspective or group identity—even when done in the euphemistic language of social justice or as a supposed corrective to past and present injustice—erodes trust and disincentivizes good faith engagement across difference.
Alternatively, more substantive critiques of unreasonable views and behavior from the far-Left could give public institutions a boost in credibility needed to more effectively confront threats to reasonable pluralism and democracy from the Right.
Rather than mirroring the forms of injustice, discrimination, and unreasonableness that often characterize the broader world, the ethical and epistemic norms of public institutions should model those most of us would like to extend to it (Bindewald & Hawkins 2020, 5-8).
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