Online Conversation | Disagreeing Well: Is It Possible? with John Inazu

As we seek to faithfully navigate the challenges of a polarized and partisan 2024, we each confront the question: how do we learn to disagree wisely and well? Can people of faith model robust dialogue–and preserve relationships–in good faith without surrendering or downplaying our convictions?

John Inazu’s latest book, Learning to Disagree, draws from experiences teaching in the fraught areas of law and religion and criminal law. Together we’ll explore powerful stories that guide us in holding in tension clarity and ambiguity, tolerance and judgment, and confidence and uncertainty.

We hosted an Online Conversation with John Inazu on April 19. Together we explored practices to bring empathy and respect to our interactions with one another and help us to disagree well.

Thank you to our sponsor, Barbara Bryant, and to our co-hosts, Zondervan and The Carver Project, for their support of this event! 

Online Conversation | John Inazu | April 19, 2024

Cherie Harder: Welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with John Inazu on “Disagreeing Well: Is It Possible?” I’d also like to add my thanks to our friends at both the Carver Project and Zondervan Books—we really enjoy working with you and co-hosting today’s Online Conversation—as well as to thank our dear friend and trustee, Barbara Bryant, for her sponsorship and generosity in making today’s program possible.

And I’m excited to welcome so many of you joining us today. I believe that we have over 130 first-time registrants, as well as nearly 130 international guests, joining us from at least 25 different countries that we know of. I think it’s every continent except Antarctica who is represented today. So welcome from across the miles and across the time zones. We’re really excited to have you here. If you haven’t already done so, let us know where you’re joining us from in the chat feature. It’s always fun for us to kind of see where everyone is tuning in from around the world. And if you are one of those first-time attendees or otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to offer programs like this one today to wrestle with those questions and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.

One of the perennial challenges we face as Christians is how to live in love and truth, and particularly in times awash with anger and division, confusion and falsehood. How do we show love to our neighbor in the midst of a conflict? Can we preserve relationships without hiding who we are, downplaying our convictions, or staying silent in the face of injustice? In the midst of toxic polarization and conflict, how do we model grace? In short, is it possible to disagree well? It’s a vitally important question, perhaps especially at this time, and it’s hard to imagine someone who has wrestled with it more thoughtfully or faithfully than our guest today, John Inazu. John is the Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in Saint Louis, a former Air Force JAG Corps officer, and I am very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum. John is also the founder of the Carver Project, which empowers Christian faculty and students to serve and connect university, church, and society; a board member of InterVarsity; and a senior fellow with Interfaith America. He’s the author of several books, including Liberty’s Refuge, Confident Pluralism, the coeditor with Tim Keller of Uncommon Ground, and his brand-new work, Learning to Disagree, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.

John, welcome. Good to see you.

John Inazu: Cherie, great to see you. Thanks for having me.

Cherie Harder: Absolutely. I’ve been looking forward to this. And it really is a wonderful book. You know, as I was reading it, some might think that lawyers have perhaps a vested interest in people disagreeing poorly. But you’ve made a very countercultural case or a nonintuitive case that actually there’s aspects of your legal training and experience that enable us to better understand and navigate disagreement. So I’m curious what led you to write this book, and what are you hoping your readers will take away from it?

John Inazu: Yeah, thanks for that. So, it is the case that I think lawyers somewhat deservedly have a reputation of being the people who argue and the people who zealously advocate for one side. But part of what my intuition here is that the best lawyers know how to understand the other side of an argument really well, sometimes just for pragmatic reasons in order to defeat that argument, but that the work of unpacking and figuring out the best side of an argument allows you to—or forces you—into an act of empathy and understanding that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

And so I had this intuition that there was a possibility of explaining this to a broader audience than just lawyers and law students. And this started at the height of the pandemic as, like many other people, I was sitting alone, socially distanced from everyone and just observing this outrage and anger that was unfolding online, exacerbated by all of our insecurities and disconnectedness, and thought that we have to figure out a better way to work through these disagreements in our society. So that’s one thing that I really hope readers would take away on a very practical level. How can you apply this to your own life? You know, at the family dinner table, at the neighborhood picnic, at the workplace. Because we all are feeling this and experiencing this right now, where we feel that these disagreements are heightened and we don’t have ideas or possibilities of how to address them.

Cherie Harder: You know, as I was reading through your book, one of the questions that your book articulates and sort of grapples with is essentially, “How do you build bridges when you can’t find common ground?” But, you know, as I was reading it, one of the things that struck me is that we probably need to go back even further and sort of address the question of, “Why build bridges to begin with?” You know, we’re sort of at a time when a lot of the focus by different groups, even among Christians, is whether to strengthen the fortress or to man the battle stations. And there seems to be an implicit argument in your book that actually building bridges should be one of our chief areas of focus. So why, when so many people are basically deepening the moat or oiling up the weapons, should we be building bridges instead?

John Inazu: You know, part of this has to do with the recognition of the reality that we have these deeply divisive issues and these differences that aren’t going away. And so we have, seems to me, when you understand that reality, you have a couple of options. You could just try to ignore it and go to your enclaves, but that’s not going to be a very long-term effective form of politics. You could try to defeat and crush the other side and win at all costs. Or you could try to figure out how to live across those differences. The differences are not going to be resolved. And the point of this book is not to find agreement across those differences. It’s learning to disagree and be in relationship in spite of those differences. 

And part of that actually is I don’t actually think that we need to build bridges when there’s not any common ground, because it turns out that, for most people, we have quite a bit of common ground. We have quite a bit of shared experiences as human beings. And one of the challenges now that I think is exacerbating our felt differences is that when so much of our engagement happens in these one-dimensional online exchanges, we don’t see the fullness of other human beings. Very, very few people are reducible to the one political issue that you want to pin on them. And very few people are actual representatives of caricatures of positions. Right? You know, I don’t have any friends in my life who are the Democrat or the Republican or the Muslim, right. They’re complicated, as all of us are, with lots of different viewpoints and perspectives and nuances and preferences and food tastes and sports teams and all of that stuff. And in the midst of the diversity of who we are and the complexity of who we are, we also have a whole lot in common just as human beings. So I think that’s the start of building these bridges. 

Cherie Harder: You know, you’ve given a number of pieces of advice or guidance in your book about navigating disagreements that are all pretty deeply relational—sticking with conversations and relationships even when they get difficult or being charitable as possible, trying not to get offended easily. And there’s one in particular that I wanted to ask you about, which was “distinguish people from the ideas that they hold.” And there’s a couple of things I wanted to hear your thoughts on. The first is that should we really entirely differentiate between people and their ideas, in that, it’s sort of hard to imagine, like, you know, oh, the nice Nazi down the street? You know, he’s a great guy, although his defense of Stalin’s a little bit funky. Is a really possible to fully— or should we fully distinguish between people? But, in addition to that, we’re living actually at a time where it seems like our identities of anything, in the aggregate at least, are becoming increasingly political. And our personhood is often judged by our political ideas. You know, cancellation is basically an attempt to erase someone’s personhood because of their ideas. And I’m sure you’ve seen some of this in academia. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether we should really entirely separate or distinguish a person from their ideas. But then also, if so, how do you actually live that out when the zeitgeist seems to be heading in the opposite direction?

John Inazu: So maybe, to start with a theological point for Christians, if every human being is made in the image of God, then that gives us an answer to “can or must we distinguish people from the ideas they hold?” We have to see everyone as an image-bearer. That doesn’t answer the more prudential question of how you spend time with people or which ideas you accept. And it doesn’t mean that we surrender to a kind of relativism where anyone can hold any idea. And I think there are important limit cases. The person who is actually the neo-Nazi holds such harmful and destructive beliefs that we have to be able to name those as deeply harmful and threatening to society. I think there’s still a way to do that in a way that retains the humanity of that person, but we can use strong language like calling that position evil.

A challenge is, for many of us, we have lumped a whole lot of other people into that category of evil. And once you name something as evil, your goal is to minimize or root it out, not to persuade. And so I think that you’re right to note how so many people seem to have assumed these political identities that at least and especially online represent the totality of who they are. But I think in most cases—let’s set aside the neo-Nazis for the sake of this discussion—in most cases, people are not just the summation of their partisan views. And when you’re experiencing this, either online or maybe offline with a relative or a close friend, and you have this jarring conversation where it just seems like this is defining who they are and their experience, I think often that’s masking a whole lot of other things in life. Maybe it’s insecurity or anxiety about a cultural change. Maybe it’s loneliness or separation, but it’s seldom the case—. I just don’t think we function as human beings walking around the world as the sum of our partisan politics and nothing else.

I do think there is one maybe important qualifier here that it does seem to me that we ought to be embracing fully and leading with our primary identities and allegiances, for Christians—that is, as Christians. And that then starts to answer or should answer some other questions. If everything is secondary to that, then everything is put in a kind of proper place and order that should prevent it from dominating or totalizing who we are or who we see others to be.

Cherie Harder: I have heard that within the legal profession—you could certainly correct me if that’s not the case—but there’s an old saying that “when you have the facts, argue the facts; when you have the law, argue the law; and when you have neither, pound the table.” And it seems like we’re kind of at a point where there’s so much misinformation out there, we are not really sharing a common basis of what the facts are. We have different views of reality. People are, you know, obviously they’re not arguing for the law. They’re arguing sort of in the court of public opinion. And so there’s just a lot more table pounding going on. And, in many ways, or at least in some circles, pounding the tables is almost seen as a sign of passionate conviction or authenticity or even courage. To what extent have you found that gentleness and empathy and some of the other approaches that you advocate for work? You know, if you’re surrounded by people pounding the table, it could be tempting to think that gentleness and empathy just gets you creamed. And so let me ask about sort of the practicality of gentleness and empathy and grace in a world full of people pounding the table.

John Inazu: Yeah, well, you might get creamed and maybe that’s okay. I mean, I think we should expect to take some hits. And so maybe the first thing to say is, for some of us, we actually just need to be a little thicker-skinned in our gentleness. Be able to say, this is going to be my posture. This is my commitment to public discourse and being a good citizen and being a good neighbor. And maybe I won’t get reciprocity, and that’s okay. No one promised that this would always work out that way. And so to be able to absorb some of the hits rather than just responding in kind.

But I also think to the extent that grace and empathy lead to greater nuance and complexity, this can be a very good thing to help with discourse. So as you were sort of recounting an old legal aphorism, I also thought of the phrase that “bad facts make bad law.” The idea there that you don’t want to make all of your huge decisions based on really bad or outlier facts. And we’re doing this right now in our public discourse. We’re finding the very worst-case examples of “those people,” whoever they are, and some, you know, in many cases, those are actually true stories there. You can always find someone who’s doing something pretty crazy, and you can then use that to caricature an entire perspective or ideology or belief system, and then start to assume that that’s what people do all the time.

I’ll give you an example here. In higher ed, there’s a sense right now from some news sources that higher ed is just one endless string of craziness. And so the nuanced approach to that is to recognize there are some really hard things that happen at a place like the one where I teach. There are lots of institutions of higher learning, and you have unexpected disruptions and you have things that can go haywire. And, you know, it’s not surprising that some of those make the news. It’s also the case that those happen a few times a year and that for most of the other days of the year, people are doing pretty normal things. Teachers are teaching and students are learning, and we’re all trying to do a pretty good-faith effort at this enterprise and activity of education. And if you just characterize higher ed based on what you’re reading in a few partisan news sources, you would never actually understand the beautiful complexity of what it is and how much good is actually going on there. And you would start to get a sense of this monolithic bad thing. And I just don’t think that that’s how most of the world works.

Cherie Harder: Just to sort of gently push back on that a little bit, even if silencing or character assassination or cancellation or whatever happens just a few times a year, often the impact of that isn’t limited just to the day itself. But people watch and they take cues and they may be more hesitant to speak up or even to kind of show up in who they are and what they think later on. And one could argue that sometimes that kind of intimidation is actually the point of those more aggressive displays. And persuasion, which you mentioned earlier, is very difficult to do in an atmosphere of fear. So what does disagreeing well look like in that context?

John Inazu: Yeah. I mean, so just to stick to the particular example of higher ed here, I don’t at all mean to say that these events and issues don’t happen or they don’t have effect, but I do think that there is a way to overemphasize the effect. So good leadership matters here, to respond to those and to set a tone. But I also think, I mean, frankly, people just have to have a little more courage. I’m thinking especially here of tenured faculty. I mean, I’m not unsympathetic to the effect of stigma and social responses and cultural pressures. Those are very real, and they’re very real for tenured faculty, too. But I just don’t think that we should be in jobs like this and be scared to death when we have a degree of job security and when we’re supposed to be modeling a kind of example to others.

Now, the qualifier here is you don’t have to fight every battle, right? And especially in a diverse, pluralistic setting like a university or, frankly, the rest of society today, the world doesn’t need to hear from you on every single issue. You know, every single issue that offends you or worries you or bothers you. Pick a couple things and be smart about them. Be educated about them and engage over them. So I think, in some ways, the sense of fear can be driven by a sense that you have to control everything, and you have to provide an answer to every challenge you face. And I just don’t think that’s the right way to think about engaging in the world today. 

Cherie Harder: That all makes sense. At the same time, there are going to be, from time to time, issues that come up, with big stakes, where neither neutrality nor compromise are truly possible. And you’ve mentioned some of these in your work where there’s not really the possibility for win-win outcomes. You know, it’s zero sum. Somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose. And the implications of that victory or loss often go far beyond just the people having the conflict. You gave this great example of the Texas textbook industry, which I thought was brilliant, that essentially the decisions made over Texas textbooks, because it’s such a big market, affect the entire country. And someone’s going to win the battle of what children get taught. And the implications go far beyond just the dueling school boards or what have you. So how does one disagree well in that kind of context where neither neutrality nor compromise might be options on the table?

John Inazu: Yeah. And I think the example of education, particularly when we’re talking about educating our kids, is an important one. But it’s true at all levels of education. There is no neutral classroom. There’s no neutral syllabus. There’s no neutral decision just to teach “history.” We’re making these non-neutral judgments all the time about what and how to teach. And I think the best we can do is to ask people to be aware of their lack of neutrality and to push hard in good faith to bring other perspectives into the picture.

And then to realize that, at the end of the day, a classroom might be able to just have a conversation. But when it comes to our laws and policies, there are going to be zero sum examples where we can’t compromise. And that means that in a diverse society, we’re going to have political winners and losers. And I think the one takeaway there is to realize we’re not likely to win everything. And so we should think about our posture as we win and as we lose. And then I think the real opportunity of democracy is that there is an ongoing conversation. So sometimes these wins and losses are over extremely important matters. And depending on our perspective, we think these are leading to vast harms in society, with people being harmed. And in many cases we care about these issues because we care about the people they affect. And in that case, the response, if you lose in the political process or in a court or something else, is to keep trying. It might be zero sum for the moment, but there’s still the ability or there should be the ability to dissent and to persuade and to make your case over time.

And that brings me maybe to a related point here. When we talked earlier about “can we find any common ground across these differences?”, there needs to be at least, at a minimum, common ground for a concern for our civil liberties to give us the ability to dissent and to advocate for different positions. And that has to be true not only for us, but also for our political adversaries. And unless we are unified and consistent in that goal, then the process of democracy is not going to work.

Cherie Harder: You mentioned persuasion just now, and you make the argument for persuasion, and I think it’s really beautifully done. And in many ways, it seems like in a lot of our disagreements right now, especially our really toxic ones, persuasion is not the aim. It’s domination or humiliation or total victory over your antagonist. But, you know, I will say it’s almost impossible to persuade someone who’s not open to it. It’s just very difficult to do. And I wanted to ask you sort of how you go about that. You know, you’ve been trained as a lawyer. You’re a constitutional scholar, also a former litigator. But I’ve also noticed that it seems like, outside the law, people are often less persuaded by a propositional argument rather than essentially being introduced to something they find beautiful or attractive. And I want to just ask you how you think about persuasion at a time when, one, a lot of people don’t seem open to it, and it seems increasingly difficult to do just using logic.

John Inazu: Yeah. And so as a threshold, I think there has to be a kind of discernment and judgment when you encounter someone who seems not at all open or persuadable. Because sometimes the answer is, you don’t need to be in that conversation. Sometimes life’s too short to try to persuade the unpersuadable, and there’s no way to generalize that. You have to know yourself and know the particular relationships. But don’t think that you have to save the whole world and try to persuade everyone. If you do sense or discern that this person who seems very resistant to persuasion is someone with whom you need to engage, then make sure that this is kind of a reciprocal relationship and it’s not just your soapbox to preach to the other person. Because, I mean, setting aside even logic, the idea that there should be some one-way effort to persuasion is usually not going to cut it for most people today. Most people, when they encounter disagreement, they want to know about the person across from them. Does this person care about me as a human being? Does this person respect my intelligence and the fact that I might have a very different starting point for a very good reason? Or is this person just judging me to such a degree that the only objective is to get me to change my mind or see the error of my ways, and nobody likes to be treated that way. So I think if you are called to a relationship in which you are trying to persuade, make sure it’s a conversation and not a monologue and make it invitational and, even over a very important issue or something that you hold dearly, ask genuine questions and be open to genuine questions. Not the bad faith ones, but the ones that are going to cause you to think more carefully and more deeply about what you believe about your own position.

Cherie Harder: Let’s talk about forgiveness for a minute, which is something you’ve written about and [how] we really need more of it. And it does seem like we’re in a fairly graceless time. And I found it kind of interesting to think about because, you know, you’re a former litigator. And in a litigious society, it seems, well, it’s increasingly unlikely that people will either admit fault, much less ask forgiveness for it. How do you counsel people to seek forgiveness in a way that it may not expose them to further danger?

John Inazu: Yeah. Yeah. Well, so to start with the danger point, there’s again a front-end judgment that has to happen. I mean, there are some relationships where at least the immediate encounter shouldn’t be a vulnerable question of forgiveness, but should be to get outside of a dangerous situation. So I want to not overgeneralize on that. But I think outside of those contexts, one of the very powerful aspects of forgiveness is that it lets us get past the innate desire we have for human justice that actually can’t ever happen. So when I teach criminal law and lots of other issues related to the law, we have this entirely appropriate desire for justice when we see an injustice or a harm in the world. But perfect justice isn’t going to happen this side of eternity. You can’t remedy a torn piece of the social fabric just by ordering someone to pay restitution or giving a monetary payment. The harm done when someone loses a loved one or someone experiences bodily injury, there is not going to be perfect justice in that situation. And whatever that gap is between the injustice done and the inability to find justice is going to leave—even in the best of situations—it’s going to leave people feeling not whole and unfulfilled and restless.

And then you have this possibility of forgiveness, a deeply theological one, although there are non-theological arguments for forgiveness as well. But it lets you come into this space and reorient the future and free yourself from that gap of the injustice not fully remedied. And as Desmond Tutu said in his famous book, “There’s no future without forgiveness.” I think he meant that as a political point, but in our individual lives, too, when we are able to extend forgiveness, we really reshape the set of human relationships involved in a way that is otherwise not possible, given the inability of worldly justice ever to correct the injustice that has been done.

Cherie Harder: You know, with forgiveness, for example, one would think that you start with your closest relationships and kind of work outward from there. But one of the bits of advice that you gave that seemed counterintuitive to me that I wanted to ask you about is you said, if you want to essentially practice the postures of disagreeing well in actual relationships, sometimes it’s best not to start with your family. Why is that?

John Inazu: Yeah. You know, so I’ll say, as I discussed in the book, this is from personal experience, but also talking with a lot of people in my life, students who feel particularly fraught with their parental relationships now and close friends who have family rifts. And I think there’s something about family that is so close and so intimate, and you have these shared histories, that it just makes everything harder. And it feels like there’s a lot on the line. And sometimes the response is, or the initial thought is, “I feel like I don’t even know you anymore. I feel like we’re living in two different worlds.” And that’s because you don’t know each other, and you are living in two different worlds, and you’ve been living in two different worlds for a long time. And the frame of family can sometimes occlude that or make you think, you know, we’re the same people and we should be able to figure this out. But really, if you, for the last few years, have been watching very different news sources and been formed by very different sets of ideas, then whatever assumed baseline might have been there, might be very frayed. And it’s frayed in a way that makes it even more complicated than if you’re just trying to get to know somebody, because you have that prehistory.

So I suggest, you know, try this out with a friend or an acquaintance first. And then, if you’re going to engage with family on these questions, make sure that you have rebuilt that relational capital, and that you’re going in in the context of a broader relationship than just the issue that divides you. I think in many cases today, the family rifts are because the more robust relationship that has been there is no longer there. And so what remains is this deep division, often over politics or religion or some other issue.

Cherie Harder: You know, I see the questions piling up, and we’re going to turn to audience questions in just a second. But first, I wanted to ask you, the arc of at least your writing career— you’ve spent much of your vocational life really focused on questions of disagreement, of living across difference, understanding pluralism. And it seems like the arc of your books at least have gone from constitutional rights to civil society to this latest book is much more focused on the interpersonal. And I want to ask you, just over the course of your vocation, what have you learned and what do you do differently now in terms of disagreeing well with those you care about but have real substantive differences with?

John Inazu: You know, I think the first way to answer that is I’m still very much a work in progress. And, you know, even as I was writing this book—I would spend the morning writing it and then have to go have some encounter in the world in the afternoon and realize, “Oh, I just whiffed on that one.” I just misapplied everything I was writing about in the morning. And so some of the stories I tell in this book are experiences I had as I was writing the book and still not always knocking it out of the park with some of these relationships across difference.

But I think some of the things I’ve learned are to start with, not the differences, but where the common ground is, and to have some modesty in your goals. I mean, I feel like when I was younger, I just thought my goal here is to persuade someone of the truth or the right perspective. And the older I get, the more I think my goal is to work on a relationship and be committed to a friendship. And it doesn’t mean we’re never going to talk about hard things. You still need discernment about when to talk, but you don’t have to— the pressure should not be on you to ultimately change someone’s mind or soul. And I think the more that we make it about us, the more we get ourselves into trouble, and also maybe the less reliant we are on God’s working in the world, sometimes in spite of us.

Cherie Harder: So the questions are piling up, and we’ll go to questions from our viewers. And just as a reminder, if you’re joining us, you can not only ask a question in the Q&A box, but you can also like a question. And that helps give us some idea of what some of the most popular topics are. So our first question comes from Jim Case, and Jim asks, “What part does humility play in our disagreements, especially over huge issues or with those who don’t have any interest in respectful listening and are intent upon discrediting and destruction?”

John Inazu: Yeah. You know, this relates to something we talked about earlier today, the idea that I don’t think we can go into any conversation or relationship with the expectation or demand of reciprocity. If we are people who are called to be full of grace and patient and humble in the world, then that’s not a conditional request based on how people respond to us. It’s something that we have to exercise, maybe even more importantly, when we’re not receiving that back. But I think the concept of humility goes even deeper, which is to say, we don’t always have all of the answers, and we’re not always going to be able to persuade fully someone else why their perspective is flawed or why we have the right view. And that’s okay, too. And we don’t know everything in the world. We are not God and we’re not supposed to be. And I think when people see that in a relationship— humility is something that’s probably better shown rather than stated. You don’t want to go into a conversation and say, “I’m going to be really humble here,” but you want to be able to demonstrate your ability to qualify your claims, be less strident, be more listening and empathetic in your conversation. 

Cherie Harder: Right. So our next question comes from Mary Ellen Scarberry. And, Mary Ellen, I’m paraphrasing your question slightly, but how can we deal with people who don’t seem to grasp that thoughts, feelings, and opinions aren’t facts, that differing thoughts and opinions might be equally valid, and that someone who thinks differently from oneself would therefore always and unfairly be wrong? How do you deal with people like this?

John Inazu: Yeah. This is a great question. And it’s increasingly important when we are part of a society that includes people who are disagreeing about basic facts of the world. What day of the week is it? What’s the, you know— there are factual claims that are now being disputed by some parts of this country. And the worst thing that we can do, given that reality, is to overclaim the factual rightness of our own position. Most of the positions we hold in the world are this complex amalgam of some facts and some values in our perspectives and our experiences, and it’s seldom the case that we’re going to reach the objective or the neutral position on anything in the world. There is no neutral Covid policy, for example. There’s no neutral immigration policy. And the more that we make claims like “we’re just following the science” or “we’re just conveying the facts” or the “truth” rather than recognizing the complexity and the nuance of the positions that we and lots of other people hold, the more we’re playing into that same game of the people who are just denying facts. And then their response to us will be, “Well, you’re making it up too, so I can also make it up.” And it becomes really important in that world and that reality to be very careful in our claims and our speech and what we’re saying, and just to recognize that we’re making arguments in this world that are far more complex and include far more of who we are than just sort of stating the objective truth.

Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Zach Curie. And Zach asks, “Can you speak to the psychological and emotional formation and skill necessary to disagree well? I’m thinking about the emotional nature of relating along these lines and how we develop skill in this, as opposed to simply adopting an ideological approach or framework.”

John Inazu: Yeah, I think we need a balance here of getting good at, almost in a clinical sense, having a conversation, honing in on what’s being said, and also, at the same time, retaining your humanity and the humanity of the person across from you. And this is actually what I think is at the core of good legal training. I want the lawyers that I train to be very good at hearing complex and emotional and nonlinear arguments, and distilling them as clearly as possible to come up with a level-headed response that’s not an overly emotional response, that’s not a response that’s given out of offense or fatigue or anything else. And at the same time, I want them to remember the humanity of the conversation. In the same way that if I go into the operating room, I don’t want my surgeon freaked out by blood, but I also want my surgeon caring about me as the patient. And I think we can maybe think about that in the context of ordinary relationships as well, that the skill of hanging into the conversation is going to require some reflection and thoughtfulness to what is being said instead of just an emotive response, and at the same time, don’t be robotic about it. And don’t forget that there are emotions and feelings in the midst of these conversations.

Cherie Harder: So Arthur Mastriolla asked, “How can we approach or initiate a return to decency, objectivity, and the search for truth in the contemporary world of news media, which is certainly formative of public opinion?”

John Inazu: Yeah, this seems kind of like a bad-news question, to be honest. I think the state of media, for lots of complicated reasons, is really hard right now, and it doesn’t seem to me that the structural incentives are getting any better. I would say, though, that I don’t think our goal should be a goal of objectivity, especially when we’re talking about the news, because the news is not going to be objective. I think we need to recognize that when people are covering human-centered events and issues, there’s not going to be an objective gloss on it. There’s going to be a non-neutral, normative take on what’s going on in the world. And the best journalists and the best consumers of journalism should minimize biases and partisan lenses and those sorts of things, but they’re not going to go away. And so I worry about, you know, even some of the news taglines, like “fair and balanced” and those sorts of things, it’s much more complicated than that. You can report on facts, you can report on events, and you can also recognize that you’re not going to be objective in your coverage.

Cherie Harder: Just to press into that, I can imagine there are some people thinking, well, shouldn’t we aim at objectivity, even if we know that we’ll never be able to fully achieve it, just given the constraints of being human? Would something be lost by abandoning that as an ideal, even if we never reach it in practice?

John Inazu: Yeah, but, you know, what would be the objective way to cover the crisis in the Middle East right now, for example, just to name something? So I think careful and qualified and humane and empathetic, those are all goals. And frankly, they’re goals that a lot of news outlets are not pursuing right now. So there’s certainly lots of room for improvement. But I would say, when it comes to covering the events of the world, I don’t think it’s helpful to think about objectivity.

Cherie Harder: So a follow-up on one of the questions on social media comes from Philip Byers, and Philip asked, he says, “You note in the book that empathy ‘attaches to people, not an abstraction.'” It sounds like Philip has already read the book. “So do you have any thoughts about how social or other forms of media might increase our instinct to abstract our neighbors? And any tips about how to resist that impulse?”

John Inazu: Yeah. So yes, they do. And the tips are to maybe get offline. Especially when we’re only engaging with people online, it’s almost inevitable that we’re going to reduce them to abstractions or these one-dimensional manifestations. And this is, I think, part of why the social-distancing thing exacerbated so many of the tensions in our society, because we weren’t present with the complexity of people who are breathing and have emotions and are doing lots of other things than just presenting issues online. And I just feel like the very design of most of our online interactions is wired to bring out the worst of us. It calls for shorter and quicker and more entertaining and snarkier, and those are the things that are rewarded by the algorithms and the “likes” and the dopamine hits and everything else. And that’s not good, because that’s not a healthy way to engage with other human beings—period—but especially when it comes to these very difficult and fraught and emotionally laden issues. So I don’t think there’s any— I mean, I’m not saying that, you know, all of social media is bad. I think there are lots of good things that happen there. But when it comes to these deepest, hardest issues, I think there’s no substitute for an actual conversation in the presence of another human being.

Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Nathan Swanson, and it sort of references the fact that some of the same difficulties over disagreeing have infected our churches as well. Nathan asked, “How can local congregations help foster the ability to disagree better and to persuade in a healthy way?”

John Inazu: Yeah. You know, this is— I’m glad this question surfaced because I think churches are a huge part of the problem right now, and they also need to be a huge part of the solution moving forward. And so one basic foundational point, it seems to me, is that Christians who are a part of the same body and under the same common authority have to be able to give and receive admonition and challenge to live by the fruits of the Spirit. And if those aren’t manifested in the way that we’re engaging with each other and with the people from the church who left our denomination a year ago, or the people who aren’t Christians down the street, if we’re not showing the fruits of the Spirit in all of those conversations—and not just the conversations that people hear, but in the private conversations we’re having with our friends—if we’re demeaning people and speaking poorly of other image bearers, then we’ve got a lot of baseline formational work to do within ourselves. And it seems to me we need to be modeling this better, for our own sake, but also for the sake of the world around us, for the sake of our kids who are watching, and a lot of churches are not doing a very good job of this right now. And there’s a lot of work to be done.

Cherie Harder: Our next question comes from Richard Emmons, who says, “You’ve written about distinguishing between primary and secondary issues. Do you have any thoughts about how to approach intra-church discourse—which things are about God’s truth and which aren’t and are thus negotiable?”

John Inazu: Yeah, I’m actually— I don’t think I’m a big fan of trying to say there are primary or secondary issues or major or minor issues, because the whole problem is we disagree about what goes in which category. So, you know, what might be major to me could be minor to you. But I do think a kind of clarity around institutional boundaries can be really important here. So I don’t actually know how to adjudicate what’s major and minor at the level of society, for example. But within an institution, within a church or a school or a ministry, you should be able to say, here is our purpose, mission, and values. Here are our boundaries. Within those boundaries we have robust disagreement. And outside of those boundaries, those are the major issues. And that’s where we’re not going to just have a conversation because we’ve set those boundaries, and then to have clarity about them. 

And when you’re clear on your boundaries, then it makes it easier, I think, to engage across those major issues because you know who you are and what you are, and it’s less threatening and less weird to partner with and build coalitions with people who are way outside of those boundaries. Right? I mean, there’s no reason that the church and the mosque can’t put up sandbags together when the flood comes, right? Or serve the homeless or whatever it is. And that goes also for the PCA and the PCUSA church. Right? They should be able to do a lot of things while maintaining their institutional distinctiveness. And that doesn’t mean the differences don’t matter. In fact, they matter all the more. But when you’re clear on what those boundaries are, you can work across the major differences to do lots of things together. And I think that’s really important for the world to see right now. When you think about the broad distrust of institutions and collaborations in the rest of society, if Christians and churches could model that well, that’d be a really great thing to see.

Cherie Harder: In some ways the next question, which comes from Jill Shaw, is a natural follow-on to that. So Jill asked, “What are some actual grassroots ways of organizing intentional conversations—maybe it’s intentional actions, as opposed to just conversations—where we can discuss hard issues and achieve social cohesion and safer communities?”

John Inazu: Yeah. Social cohesion would be nice. I think we’re a long way from that goal. So we have to start maybe more modestly. But I think in terms of on the ground, don’t just have a conversation. Don’t say we’re going to get together for a Saturday morning and discuss and that’s it. But set up a series of conversations. Make sure you’ve got good food and time to talk. And then when you have that time to go away and think and then come back, the process of hanging in there for more than one conversation is a way to build trust and to allow for better and deeper questions to emerge. And start small. I mean, this is not going to work in a lecture hall or something like that. So keep it with a small group of people.

And then the other thing too is to find common-ground efforts that are going to take some time. And I don’t think there’s any way to shortcut this. You can’t just do the half-day service project and call it quits with the people you don’t really know. So if you’re actually interested in building real relationships over time, then commit to a project that’s going to get you back and going to allow for, not just the formal work that you’re doing, but for the informal conversations and the kinds of things that actual relationships and friendships flourish in.

Cherie Harder: So Meryl Hoopengarter notes, she says, “I’ve read that researchers often observe how strident sports fans watch the same play and come to very different conclusions about whether the ref made the right call, perhaps because we can become so embedded in our own perspectives. How do you think this insight could apply to other aspects of disagreement?”

John Inazu: Haha yeah, I was tempted to, as a Duke fan, I was tempted to make a comment about objectivity in sports calls, but I will resist that. You know, I think it certainly applies to lots of other areas. I mean, the sports analogy kind of holds as politics become sports for some people, and it becomes this kind of passion-driven game that we engage in. So we always want to see things differently than the other side. But I think the law gives us lots of examples where this unfolds, whether something was murder or self-defense, and depending on your view of the situation, even absent having all of the facts or absent having been there, you have a kind of judgment that seems to be impermeable to a different possibility. 

And it relates also to my earlier point about the caution about looking for objectivity in news coverage, that we are prone to include our own biases. I mean, the best antidote here, I think, is to read the perspectives of people who see a situation quite differently than you do and ask whether your own biases are overreading the situation in a way that is closer to you than what might have happened. And then in some cases—and this goes to just the point about the tragedy of living in a fallen world—sometimes the same exact event will just be seen differently by different people. And they might both actually be right about their sense of what happened, and they just experienced it differently. This is not always the case, but it’s the case enough in law and in conflict, where to claim or to double down or to ignore the possibility that someone else might have actually experienced that differently, it can be deeply harmful to trying to move forward in relationship.

Cherie Harder: So for the last question, I’m actually going to combine two somewhat related questions. One is from an anonymous attendee who asked, “Do you think disagreeing well is partially a character issue?” And they quote Proverbs saying that “a fool has no delight in understanding, but in expressing their own heart.” And a somewhat-related question comes from Jim Case, who notes that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 was for the Church to prioritize oneness, as is true in the Trinity. And he asked, “How would true unity among the body, even amid disagreement, influence how we converse and relate with others who don’t know Christ?”

John Inazu: Well, I would say that Christians have an opportunity to model a different form of engagement. I mentioned earlier the fruits of the Spirit, that these should be informing how we engage, and the manner in which we engage is really important. I mean, what we say is also important. We have to speak truth. And this doesn’t apply to just any view about any issue. But how we say things matters and how we cultivate the habits and practices in our life to be those people. There’s no shortcut to any of this. We’re not going to learn how to be a patient listener from watching a TED talk. You have to practice it, and you have to invest in it and do it with other people. And I think that churches ought to be the places that are forming people to do these things well. And then also to form the people who will go out into the world and continue to do those things well, even if they don’t receive reciprocity, because Jesus doesn’t say, just love the people that like you. Love your enemies as well. And love people because you know that you were first loved. And I think these are kind of, in some ways they’re basic Christian principles, but we need to keep reminding each other about them because they’re being lost in many of our own manifestations with each other.

Cherie Harder: Thank you, John. In just a moment, I want to give you the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with our viewers first. Immediately after we conclude we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We would love for you to fill that out. We read every one of these. We try to incorporate your thoughts and feedback to make these ever more valuable. And as a small thank-you and incentive for filling out that feedback form, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are several that we would actually recommend that we think kind of build on some of the themes that we’ve even discussed today, including Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” “Politics, Morality, and Civility,” “Wilberforce: A Man Who Changed His Time,” “To Bigotry No Sanction,” and “Politics and the English Language.” So hope that you will avail yourself of that online feedback form.

In addition, tomorrow we’re going to be sending around an email with a link to the video of today’s Online Conversation. We’d love for you to share that with other people. There will also be a list of other readings or resources if you want to go more deeply into the topic. So be on the lookout for tomorrow’s email coming probably right around noon on Saturday.

In addition, we wanted to invite all of you watching today to become a member of the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who work together to advance Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. There are a number of advantages to being a member of this community in addition to just being part of the work, but those advantages include a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, a subscription to our daily What We’re Reading list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for those of you watching, with your membership or gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of John Inazu’s new book, Learning to Disagree. So we would love to welcome you all to the Trinity Forum Society.

In addition, if you’re watching and you would like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, we would love to hear from you. Please just indicate that in the online feedback form. We have a number of other fascinating Online Conversations coming up, including next week, we will be hosting poet Christian Wiman on his new book entitled Zero at the Bone. And then the week after that, we will be hosting John Mark Comer on his new work, Practicing the Way. So those are the next two Fridays. We would love for you to tune in, and registration should already be up on our website at

Finally, as promised, John, the last word is yours.

John Inazu: Well, thanks so much for having me. And I would just say, make this practical. Think of one person in your life who you’re having trouble with, and remind yourself that that person is an image-bearer, is fighting a battle you might not know about, is a work-in-progress, as are you. And figure out how to start engaging. And that might just be praying or listening for a while first. But work on that one relationship. And if that feels very personal or very individual, it is. But we’re not going to see social change, we’re not going to see broad-based responses to what we’re all feeling, without a whole lot of that individual change. So start there, make it practical, and let Cherie know how you did.

Cherie Harder: Thanks, John. It’s always great to talk with you.

John Inazu: You too. Thanks so much.

Cherie Harder: You bet. And thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.