How to become a confident pluralist: Harvard professor and democracy advocate spills

Danielle Allen delivers her BYU forum address on Tuesday, March 26. She spoke to BYU students and faculty about becoming confident pluralists. (Megan Sibley)

Harvard professor and democracy advocate Danielle Allen taught students at the BYU forum on Tuesday, March 26 how to become confident pluralists in a world full of contentious beliefs. 

Allen credited fellow academic John D. Inazu with coining the term “confident pluralism,” which he defined as “the idea that our shared existence is not only possible, but necessary.” 

Allen shared her intimate exposure to a prevalence of discordant political opinions, recalling a time in her life when both her dad and her aunt were running for public office in 1992. Her dad was a Reagan Republican running for U.S. Senate in Southern California and her aunt was on the ballot as a member of the far left Peace and Freedom Party in the Bay Area. Allen said she remembers many heated discussions between the two over their family’s dinner table, but she also never saw them attack each other during this intellectual sparring. 

“They never broke the bonds of love,” Allen said.

She also realized that, despite their varied proposals for how to achieve it, they both shared a common goal: human flourishing. Allen presented her audience with a five step program which outlines how anyone can overcome differences of opinion and become a confident pluralist. 

The first of the five steps is reflection. Allen asked the audience to hearken back to Socrates’ fundamental question: how should we live? It’s through this bottom-up moral inventory that we assess the motivations for our convictions, she said. 

Following that is commitment to negotiations and institutions as opposed to resorting to violence. Allen lamented violence breaking out across the country.

“They’re forgetting that the project of free self-government requires seeing that institutions are the instruments that we use for negotiating our conflicts and our differences,” she said.

The third step is the commitment to compromise, which Allen emphasized doesn’t mean the abandonment of core principles.

She pointed to the Declaration of Independence’s second sentence as a profound example of compromise, highlighting John Adams’ advocacy for using “the pursuit of happiness” instead of “life, liberty, and property” to address contemporary concerns about the word “property” and its association with slavery. This strategic language choice contributed to ending slavery in Massachusetts.

Allen then distinguished between good and bad compromises. Good compromises involve hearing the voices of those affected, as seen in Adams’ example, while bad compromises neglect those voices, as illustrated in a passage criticizing King George written around the same time which was edited by Congress to “cut out a statement that positively affirmed the rights of people in Africa.”

She underscored the importance of inclusive decision-making for confident pluralism, ensuring all affected parties have a say. 

The penultimate step in her process is the commitment to listening and mirroring your counterpart’s message back to them before responding. Allen joked this advice could be doled out by any given marriage therapist, but reiterated the importance of understanding the opposing argument completely before you engage in debate about it, saving everyone unnecessary squabbling over misinterpretations of one another. 

Allen’s final prescription is to never allow yourself or anyone else to hold human dignity hostage. To illustrate her point, she told of one of many instances where she received an angry, hateful email from someone, shaming her for being associated with an institution that supports antisemitism and terrorism and calling her “a despicable human being.”

She responded to the email with a kind direction to some writings she had published on the subject in question and suggested the sender of the harsh email read it in order to better understand her position. The hate-mailer’s response carried an entirely different tune, apologizing to her for lashing out and praising Allen’s kind response, saying, “If only everyone could do the same thing, we’d live in a better world.”

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