Why did you sign the Philadelphia statement?
Like many other people, I’m very concerned about the status of civil discourse in the United States right now. We see this in phenomena like cancel culture, where what you say or even think can get you erased from history and the public square. It's not as if we haven't had periods like this in the past—that's happened on many, many occasions. But what I think is striking about the present moment is just how ideologically driven it is. There’s a concerted effort to limit what people can say or think.
What we’re seeing isn’t an exchange of ideas, but instead, it's essentially about tearing people down and drowning them out with more noise so that their ideas and thoughts don't even have a chance of being articulated in the public square. This is why the Philadelphia Statement is needed, and it’s why I was very happy to sign it.
Why do you think we have lost the ability to disagree well with each other? And why do you think it has snowballed at such an accelerated pace?
I think there are several reasons, some of which have been around for a while, some of which have been precipitated by more recent events. There are many people for whom politics is essentially a substitute religion. All religions have dogmas and doctrines, and there is an intensity to the way we discuss religious truths and ideas. But substituting politics for religion leads you to a place where, if I don't win this particular argument, I’m willing to embark on a pseudo-religious quest to shut down those who are on the opposite side of the question.
This mindset is becoming more and more apparent. Perhaps it is magnified by the fact we are in a presidential election year, but we find many people who have a “winning-justifies-everything” attitude, even if it means that we have to destroy the public square in order to win. Other issues like the COVID pandemic and the uptick in urban violence are simply adding more fuel to the fire.
What do you believe are the benefits of pluralism in a society?
You always learn something from a society in which genuine pluralism prevails. Pluralism can be a positive good in the sense that differences of view, differences of institutions, differences of even politics and religion can and should be undergirded by a concern for truth and the search for truth. In these conditions, you can find that there are often different ways of approaching and trying to understand truth questions that, while dissimilar, highlight different dimensions of the same truth.
Now, the challenge is to make sure that pluralism doesn't become a synonym for relativism, whereby we say all views are the same, all views are equally sound or valid. Once you go down that path, pluralism gets untethered from a concern for the truth and starts to lose its point. It is easy to see how pluralism can degenerate into pure subjectivism or pure relativism. In such conditions, we stop bothering to even try and enter into the world of the person with whom we’re conversing.
Once that concern for truth goes away, you're just basically talking at or past each other, rather than being engaged for a mutual search for truth. So pluralism, plus a concern for truth, I think, is a way of deepening our understanding of the nature of truth. Pluralism plus relativism inevitably ends up with people living in bubbles and shouting at each other.
If we want a society that is pluralistic, in which viewpoint diversity is respected, what principles can we return to? How do we get there?
It has to start with a concern for truth. That’s essential if you're going to have a pluralism of viewpoint that is constructive and moves toward greater knowledge of the true and good. You also need institutional settings in which that type of pluralism can exist and flourish. These institutions do exist—or at least they used to. They are called colleges and universities. You could even say that they used to exist in large segments of the media. But we all know that intellectual pluralism is not prevailing in institutions like colleges and universities.
We need to rehabilitate colleges, universities and the media as places in which civil discussion of controversial and sometimes complicated issues can occur. No one should have to go into a discussion thinking “if I say what I think, I'm going to lose my job. If I say what I think, my tenure is going to be in peril. If I say what I think, no one in my department is going to talk to me.” If I am a student, I should not be worried that “if I say what I think, my professor is going to give me a C, rather than an A. This is why we need to rehabilitate viewpoint diversity—one that is genuinely concerned with truth and free intellectual inquiry—in our institutions.