Civil Society: Engaging the Differences Among Us

Second in a three-part series on the practice of civic life

“We can and must live together peaceably in spite of deep and sometimes irresolvable differences.” — John Inazu[1]

We often feel threatened by differences. And we don’t have to go far to find them. A family from another country moves next door and doesn’t speak your language. A group of Muslims bow and pray in your neighborhood park. A rally on campus challenges your political beliefs. Colleagues at work don’t believe in God and question why you do.

How should we react to such situations? Evade or engage? The answer may determine whether we flourish or splinter as a society.

The peculiarities of our lives can estrange us from each other. But difference is a matter of perspective, and sometimes the fear of differences threatens us more than the actual differences.

A society where many religions, political ideologies, ethnicities and worldviews coexist under one government is called pluralism. The various groups may not agree with each other, but they find ways to live together. Our crowded public square means, for example, that Christians and atheists can’t avoid one another and that conservatives and liberals must listen as well as talk. Our differences can enrich our common existence as long as they harm or coerce no one.

Without an active citizenry, however, pluralism collapses to mere diversity. Differences themselves matter, but engaging those differences matters more. People can disagree and still have productive relationships. One example of this is how Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, and Ted Trimpa, political strategist on gay rights, set aside their ideological differences and came together to combat human trafficking. In doing so, neither had to give up their core beliefs. In fact, they discovered that many of their values overlap, such as protecting children. They found a way to work for the common good.[2]

Civil society creates public space for people to interact with one another and grow familiar with the unique identities around them. We become smoother by bumping into each other’s rough edges.

This is not all new. Pluralistic societies have existed at various times in history, but today the flow of business, technology and people across the world has increased in a process called globalization. As a result, cultures have more opportunity to clash. Pluralism seems to be moving everywhere. For example, it is estimated that China has 100 million Christians, outnumbering members of the Communist party, and that 16 million Muslims live in countries throughout the European Union, a number that continues to rise. In addition, secular notions of freedom and justice mingle with religious understandings of human purpose.[3]

Communities around the world strive to accommodate diverse ideas, beliefs and cultures without compromising shared values. People acting on their own initiative help make this possible. An example of this occured in 2015 when, after an attack on a synagogue in nearby Denmark, a group of Norwegian Muslims joined others to form a shield around Oslo’s synagogue. This demonstration to protect the Jewish community is the best face of civil society.[4] Bridging distances may be hard and will always take courage, but we have no choice but to keep trying.

Our differences have more meaning when they enter into conversation with other differences. Otherwise, we get stuck in our own social cloisters. Creativity suffers in the classroom or town hall when new ideas are barred from discussion. But when we engage with the broader community we discover that we don’t have to resemble others to respect others. Sociologist Peter Berger elaborates: “We can see how pluralism deepens this trust, for it knocks away false assurances provided by a uniform social consensus.”[5] Anyone who’s run for political office or organized a petition knows that civic life is a contact sport.

In this way, civil society is the engine that keeps the complex parts of society functioning together. Citizens build personal ties that the sectors of government and business cannot. A population of isolated individuals develops into a community when people think outside themselves. Tolerance then grows to understanding. Monologue changes to dialogue. The echo chamber of identical voices transforms into a roundtable of dynamic voices. In a healthy society diverse elements are in constant encounter.

Pluralism is not easy, but pluralism is a reality of modern life. The solutions to its challenges depend on the quality of our deliberation as citizens and neighbors. Professor John Inazu writes, “We can choose to model kindness and charity across deep differences without sacrificing the claims upon which we stake our lives.”[6]

Pluralism can work if we are confident enough in our own beliefs to let other people confidently express theirs.

[1] John Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (2016).

[2] “Unlikely Allies: How Can We Find Common Ground When We Disagree?” conversation between Jim Daly and Ted Trimpa, Q Ideas conference in Denver, Colorado, April 2016.

[3] See Peter L. Berger, “The Good of Religious Pluralism,” First Things, April 2016.

[4] Balazs Koranyi, “Norway's Muslims form protective human ring around synagogue,” Reuters, Feb. 21, 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Inazu, “Pluralism Doesn’t Mean Relativism,” Christianity Today, Apr. 6, 2015

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