The Good Fight
Eboo Patel on Pluralism

Eboo Patel on Pluralism

Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patel discuss how interfaith work can serve as a model for engaging productively across differences.

Eboo Patel is the founder of Interfaith America and the author of We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy. Patel also served as an advisor on faith to President Barack Obama.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Eboo Patel discuss how the dominant diversity paradigm in many institutions divides individuals into oppressors and oppressed; how universities can draw from the intellectual tradition of pluralism to encourage mutual respect and cooperation; and how university leaders can alleviate the deeply polarized atmosphere that prevails at many institutions around the country.

This conversation is part of a new Persuasion series on the future of universities. Universities are in crisis—losing public support, shaken by internal divisions, facing angry donors and alumni, and increasingly straying from their core mission of intellectual curiosity and open inquiry. Persuasion's new series about the future of universities, made possible by the generous support of the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, will consist of a collection of longform essays and podcast interviews aimed at helping higher education tackle this crisis. 

The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You do a lot of interfaith work and you think very hard about what kind of pluralism we should encourage and how we can encourage people to be in genuine conversation with each other. 

What has gone wrong in the way that colleges and universities frame those questions and those stakes to their students, the way in which they address their students about the role that identity should play in their lives?

Eboo Patel: What's happened is an interesting critique morphed into a paradigm which then shifted into a regime. Anti-racism is an interesting critique. Here's what you're not talking about: you're not talking about structural racism; you're not talking about oppressed peoples; you're not talking about oppressors, etc. So I think that's an interesting critique. But when it becomes a paradigm, it seeks to explain all of the facts of the world. And now you're in trouble, because there's lots of things that anti-racism doesn't explain. It doesn't explain why 57% of the people in higher education are women and only 43% are men, right? That is not usefully explained by any kind of classic left-wing perspectives of patriarchy, structural racism, etc. It doesn't explain the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, rural Ohio, etc. 

Once you lock yourself into an explanatory framework or a paradigm, well, now you're in the situation of kind of twisting the facts of the world to fit your worldview, which, by the way, I think is the cardinal sin of an intellectual. But actually what's happened is in some places it became even worse than a paradigm; it became a regime. Now, all of a sudden, it has coercive force and the ability to punish: We are going to require you to write a DEI statement that agrees with our perspective for you to be considered a faculty member at this university. We are going to advertise our bias response team and we are going to encourage you to report what we think of as bias in order for us to kind of launch an investigation. 

I personally think that oppressor-oppressed frameworks, while I disagree with them, are an interesting thing to bring to the table. It's a useful perspective. It should not be a paradigm and it should absolutely not be a regime—that's what's happened over the last 10 years.

Mounk: Let's get specific here. How are these diversity programs put together and why do you think that might make some of the graduates of those programs participants in tribal warfare, rather than facilitating some form of compromise and some form of mutual understanding between the different warring tribes?

Patel: It was like a vise grip in much of higher ed. I think that this is easing right now. I think things are getting better. And I think that it's because there are a set of really kind of solution oriented leaders in lots of places, including DEI departments, that are leading things towards the better. But for a period of time, there was no doubt that the dominant diversity paradigm is what I would call “demonize, demean, and divide.”

You demonize some groups of people based literally only on their identity—because they're white, male, straight. They are only ever bad. You require other groups of people to demean themselves, to only tell a victim's story. I mean, I want to tell you all the ways that I'm inspired by Islam. It is not Islamophobia that makes me a Muslim. It's Islam that makes me a Muslim. I don't want to tell a victim story. That's demeaning. I want to tell an inspiring story. Identities are principally sources of pride, not status as a victim. So you demonize some people, you demean other people, and then you divide everybody. And it's a battlefield approach to diversity. 

It's not that I want that perspective entirely excluded. I just don't want it to be the paradigm or the default position, right? I think a much better way of approaching diversity work is what we call at Interfaith America “respect, relate, cooperate.” You respect people across their differences. You build relationships between diverse communities and you cooperate on concrete projects to serve the common good. 

These are clearly major civic challenges in our nation. Imagine signing your kid up for Little League baseball and the person running the league says, hey, who'd you vote for? Because I'm only going to have people on this little league who I agree with politically. Or you call the fire department and you say, my house is on fire, and they say, what's your address? And oh, by the way, who'd you vote for? Everything is political. But honestly, that's an adolescent view, right? Actually, lots of things are civic. 

Mounk: It strikes me that the idea that everything is political is what Coleman Hughes would call a deepity or the other term that is sometimes used for it is a motte-and-bailey, which is to say that there is a sense in which that phrase is broadly right, which is to say that politics plays a huge role in shaping our lives. The state has now come to have a huge role in society and so therefore even things that don't seem particularly political are in some ways touched and shaped by politics. And that is the kind of narrow interpretation of that phrase, which is broadly speaking one I would agree with. Then there's a much broader upshot from that phrase that it seems to suggest that because everything in some way is touched or shaped by politics, it means that every interaction, every aspect of our life should be open to partisan contestation all of the time. But that is of course a much more far reaching controversial upshot that some people might agree with, but I, like you, would for good reason disagree with.

One of the fundamental distinctions between broadly peaceable societies that are affluent and able to cooperate substantively and societies on the brink of civil war is precisely the ability of well-functioning states to take certain kinds of things out of the realm of politics.

Patel: I think that's a hugely important point. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois in the mid-1990s, I'd walk around all the time saying everything is political, kind of the equivalent of wearing a Che Guevara shirt. I was announcing myself as part of a tribe. But frankly, I wish somebody, a fellow student or a professor, would have asked me some rigorous questions about that. Like, hey, is everything really political? Like would you like the garbage service to only come to people's houses where the garbagemen vote the same? Because there are actually societies like that. 

I had to confront this head-on when I was reading a New York Times story five or seven years ago about Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And Mostar is not a city in hot conflict, right? And yet it's a city in this kind of civic cold war, you might call it: When there is a fire on the Catholic side of the city of Mostar, the Muslim fire department does not respond. And when there's a fire on the Muslim side, the Catholic fire department does not respond. And it just so happened that I'm reading the story when I'm in Bend, Oregon on a vacation with my family and there's like literally wildfires on three sides of us. And I have this realization, oh my gosh, there's all of these people fighting these fires and keeping my family safe. And I don't know how they voted. I don't know how they pray, right? And they probably disagree with me on lots and lots of things. I'm in some ways a quintessential urban, highly educated progressive. I live in Whole Foods America, and yet we have a nation because we fight fires for everybody. We pick up garbage for everybody. And to not pay attention to what John Courtney Murray would call the underlying community that holds our diverse identities and divergent ideologies together, to not pay attention to the strength of that, to not contribute to that—it is an adolescent perspective that displays how much we take for granted in the United States of America in the 21st century.

Mounk: I was really intrigued earlier by the three terms you used in describing the work you do in your interfaith work: respect, relate, cooperate. I can see immediately the resistance by some of the people who would claim that everything is political to say, well, how can you respect somebody who has voted for Donald Trump? How can you relate to somebody who is “white supremacist” and so on and so forth?

What does that mean? How do you respect somebody in a religious context when you might have very fundamental theological differences with them? How should you respect somebody in a political context who you think might be voting for a candidate who you consider dangerous to the survival of your political system?

Patel: I think one of the reasons that religious diversity is an excellent kind of entry point into broader pluralism work is precisely because you have to recognize that people have fundamental differences in doctrine, fundamental differences and disagreements on what Paul Tillich would call “ultimate concerns,” right? How do people come into this world and why? Who gets saved, what makes a good person, etc. You just have to recognize there are deep and fundamental disagreements and you have to figure out ways to work together anyway.

You don't begin principally with the question of power, who is powerful and who's not powerful. You begin principally with the issue of fundamental disagreements and the need to cooperate anyway. 

Mounk: Let me dig into this for a second. Why is it that there is this fundamental difference in how we approach interfaith work and speaking with fellow citizens who have different political views? When you approach interfaith work, I think it's intuitive to most people that the point is not to convert others, right? 

It feels much less surprising, much less counterintuitive to say, well, if I'm going over to speak with my neighbor who votes for the other political party, what I'm really trying to do is to make sure that eventually they vote for the same political party as I do. It's not obvious to me why that's something we find intuitive, because, after all, the stakes in religion are as high as they are in politics. 

Patel: I think one of the reasons interfaith work leads into the very important pluralism work of today, which is around political differences, is precisely because our approach to this is largely the same. Members of the Catholic faith and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have very different views on, for example, what the proper ecclesiology is. But they also both have large social service networks and disaster relief organizations. And therefore, in some instances around disaster relief, around refugee resettlement, they put their doctrinal differences aside and they work together on civic causes. I think it's the exact same approach when it comes to politics. People who vote for Donald Trump and Joe Biden clearly have hugely important differences and disagreements. I am not neutral on those, right? And yet I do not want basketball leagues to split up. I don't want YMCAs to split up. I don't want fire departments to split up because of who people voted for. 

Our big thing is, in order to have a diverse democracy, you have to be able to disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. Those things that we work together on are civic things that are in a different place in American life than our disagreements, whether they are religious or they are political in nature. And look, I have limits: I'm not buying a brownie from the Nazi bake sale. But otherwise I am learning how to cooperate with people and in the right time I might raise a conversation about those political differences. I might raise a conversation even about religious differences, right? I'm a Muslim. I believe in Islamic doctrine. The Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, etc., right? I'm happy to have that conversation, but I'm not going to threaten a civic relationship in order to have that conversation.

Mounk: So what does it mean to respect in the political context in that way? Presumably in a religious context, it means something like, look, we have fundamental differences about what God we believe in, but I recognize that you come from a meaningful theological tradition and that you're somebody informed by faith and that gives me a certain kind of respect for you even if we disagree very strongly about the important particulars, right? What is the political equivalent of that?

Patel: The first important thing here is curiosity and a recognition that each of us has a limited life experience. And in the United States, those life experiences are increasingly distinct from each other. So let me tell you a story.

I live in a world of people with lots of graduate degrees and in a comfortable neighborhood in Chicago and I host a dinner party with lots of folks like me. And one of the people I meet is a consultant and we're in this casual conversation and he says, “I work for a firm that basically unwinds factories. Once the decision has been made to close a factory, I'm the person that they send to kind of close it down.” And of course he's making all these disparaging comments about Decatur, Illinois and Youngstown, Ohio and all these places he's going to close down factories and I say to him at one point, “How do the people who work at those factories feel about you showing up and basically shutting it down?” And he takes another sip of wine and he says, “By the time I show up, they already know what the deal is. They've already gotten their pink slip. The writing is on the wall. So they kind of accept it.” Then he pauses. “You know what? The truth is, I never asked them how they feel.”

And I think to myself, this is just my world. My world is a set of people who close down other people's factories. And I just think that that's natural. It's creative destruction. Oh, but my friends get to be the creative ones. Other people are the destroyed ones. And all of a sudden I'm like, huh, I wonder what it would like to be on the other side of that. I wonder what messages might appeal to me. I wonder what figures I might find compelling.

Mounk: One of the sort of strange things about the dominant paradigm which has taken over in many institutions is a pride in not being interested in the other side. One way of telling the story is that when The New York Times and other mainstream news outlets had missed the boat on Trump in 2015 and 2016, there was a brief moment afterwards when they did this sort of diner journalism, where they would go around to diners in the middle of the country and speak to people about how they felt. And there was something slightly ridiculous about some of those pieces (they were trying to overcompensate for a much deeper lack of curiosity that was much longer in standing in a way that felt performative) and I didn't like all of the pieces that came out of that. But at least it was in fact trying to understand half of the country. And then there was a huge counter-reaction against that. And I think it created, at least for a while, a new set of norms where trying to understand the life stories and the motivations of people with very different political views came to be seen as in itself a political failing. 

Patel: Yeah, I think this is bad. So I spent a lot of time on college campuses. My organization, Interfaith America, does a lot of work in higher education. We work currently with a network of 600 campuses. And as you can imagine, our phone has been ringing off the hook in recent months. But I distinctly remember that not long after the election of Donald Trump, I'm at some elite college in Ohio. And I'm meeting with the students of color group and there's overwrought self-righteous talk about being oppressed and the institution not understanding their experiences, and it's self-righteous in nature—by the way, I was this 19 year old, I'm not being judgmental or trying to not be judgmental. But I'm listening to all of this and at some point I notice the woman putting out the coffee and tea and cookies for our students. And a student says something especially self-righteous and revolutionary and this woman turns around. She's 55, kind of this small white woman and she opens her mouth and she's missing half her teeth. 

And I just have this thought, would you rather be a 19-year-old South Asian-American student at Kenyon, or would you rather be this 55-year-old white woman putting out the tea and cookies for the students at Kenyon, missing half of her teeth? And I kind of wanted to say to these students, why do we never count elite education as frankly the single most important identity that puts you at the top of the hierarchy, right? You are seeking to be part of an institution that by definition rejects the vast majority of the people who want to be a part of it. Its place in the world is based on rejecting other people so you know, as Jon Haidt writes, “Why are you mad at the Catholic Church for rejecting women as priests—which I’m not crazy about, but they have a right to their identity—if you're not mad at your own institution for rejecting ninety-five percent of its applicants and you recognize that is a part of why you want to go there?

Mounk: So how do we do better, Eboo? If a lot of the problem is that the wrong kind of mental framework has become part of a governing regime of universities; if it feels like, to some extent, there's started to be a little bit of pushback against this in the last months, at least there now seems to be a genuine opening for university leaders to rethink the way in which they do pluralism work with diversity work on their campus. What is, in the first instance, the content we should put in the place of the old framework? And how do we go about actually making those changes?

Patel: One interesting thing we haven't talked about so far is DEI. I almost never use the word DEI anymore because it just polarizes, right? But I have a metaphor that I think might be useful, which is, I think of DEI as the equivalent of an athletic department at a university. So I think of it structurally, and, again, I spend a lot of time at universities and so I'm kind of involved in these structures quite intimately. And an athletic department is meant to have many sports. And one of my favorite sports is football. It's a confrontational sport, right? And I think for the past several years DEI departments have been dominated by football. It's been dominated by confrontation. And I think it's time for baseball season. It's time for cooperation. Now, because I operate from the center-left, I think that cooperation should be towards kind of generally center-left goals, like social mobility, intellectual inquiry, civic cooperation. 

Incidentally, I'm very happy for my friends on the center-right, David French and Elder Clark Gilbert and Father Jenkins at Notre Dame and Phil Ryken at Wheaton College, Shirley Hoogstra—I'm very happy for them to say these are also center-right goals, great, then we share them, right? But basically, I think it's time for us to shift the approach from confrontation to cooperation, from the raised fist to the extended hand. And this is going to be counterintuitive, I think, to your audience, Yascha: I actually think most people in diversity work are instinctively cooperation people, right? I just think that the loudest voices, and, in effect, suffocatingly loud voices, have been the confrontation people over the past few years. And it's the equivalent of every season being football season, every stadium being a football stadium. And when it's finally time for baseball season, actually the football players show up in full gear and they're tackling the baseball players.

By the way, let me say again, I like football. I think confrontation is okay at some points, but it cannot be the only way we do things all the time and it cannot be the default mode. 

Mounk: So in concrete terms, let's say that you are the president of a university or you're the dean of students at a university and you take an audit, formal or informal, of how your institution is doing, and you recognize that there isn't really much emphasis on civic cooperation and the ability to work together. And you also realize that any change you are trying to make in this is likely to be decried by perhaps a small number of the members of the institution.

What is your first step? How do you actually transform the kind of atmosphere that your university is creating for the incoming students as well as the other members of the community?

Patel: I co-wrote an article with my colleague Rebecca Russo here at Interfaith America on pluralism practices for higher education. And it's seven practices that college campuses can implement that will help a campus be what we call an exemplar of pluralism. So one is the president makes public statements and speeches about the importance of pluralism. You go to the local chamber of commerce and you say, hire our students because they can help your company, your school system, your hospital system’s people cooperate across their differences. You have a crisis management plan: Crises are going to hit, whether it's pro-life issues and pro-life, pro-choice issues or violence in the Middle East, how do you handle a crisis that naturally polarizes when it hits? 

Every first-year student should be trained in the skills of cooperation across difference. There should be standard training. Certainly every student leader on campus—if you're a resident advisor, if you're the president of a club, you should be trained in the kind of things that David Brooks, Mónica Guzmán, Arthur Brooks, and Peter Coleman talk about in their books. You should have a curriculum. You should have some kind of certificate or degree program in pluralism that teaches both the intellectual tradition and these pluralism practices.

Very often, diversity is presented as a battlefield. Identity is viewed as either a source of shame or as a source of victimization. Neither of those ways of thinking of identity, either shame or victimization, lends itself to let us live in this enterprise and experiment we call America, which is, I think, what we all have to dedicate ourselves to now and for a long time into the future.

Mounk: That seems exactly right to me. I deliberately didn't start this conversation talking about the headlines, but obviously there is a huge protest movement going on at American universities at the moment. There's very, very deep division on campuses between different groups. We have seen both the occupation of many common spaces and violation of university rules, and then the decision by a good number of university presidents at this point to call in the police. To what extent do you think that good pluralism work could have prevented the escalation of these situations? And what would you say to university presidents who are now faced with difficult decisions about how to respond?

Patel: It's hard to tell if these things could have been prevented, right? Arguing a counterfactual is impossible to do, but I will say, if the default mode on campuses were set to civic cooperation, if campuses years ago were implementing these pluralism practices, if first-year orientation presented identity and diversity issues as a potluck and not as a battlefield, I think there is a greater chance that people would have said, “I'm going to lean in and learn how to understand people with whom I might not understand and look to cooperate with them.” By the way, I want to say that is happening in lots of places. The media covers planes that crash, not planes that land. We all know that. But it is also the case that the default mode on many campuses has been set to confrontation. 

I come out of pacifism. You know, I come out of the thinking of King and Gandhi and Jeanette Rankin and Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who are like “stop wars.” And I think that all sides should be asked to stop, incidentally, but I have a lot of sympathy for that. I also think there's so many people, including me, who just feel helpless in this moment. And I think part of what 18 and 19 year olds do is say, “I'm going to do something,” and I appreciate that. And at the same time, I think it is absolutely egregious that a student says “I'm going to kill Zionists” in January and that person is still a student on campus. One has to ask oneself, is there a permission structure that has been built for demeaning, ugly, violent, anti-Semitic things to be said to some people? And I think the answer to that has to be yes, right? And so what is that structure? And I think some of it is oppressed-oppressor frameworks. The oppressed can never do anything wrong in this framework. The oppressor can never do anything right. I also want to say that I do not think it is the dominant experience on college campuses. There's 2,600 campuses in America. The New York Times pays attention to 50, okay? Most days and most college campuses are good days. 

But I think this notion that you come to a college campus, you find people who you don't understand and don't agree with, and then you scream at them—I just don't think that that's what the default mode should be on any campus. And I think that it's an important thing for campuses to employ professionals who specialize in cooperation across disagreement.

Mounk: I agree with you on all of that. I still wonder what university presidents should do at this point. Obviously that's going to depend on the particular circumstances and particular campuses, right? It depends on the extent to which the normal functioning of the university is disrupted. It depends on the ability to negotiate with the leaders of these protests in good faith. But what kind of principles do you think university leaders should apply to how to respond to these protests?

Patel: One of the things that people should do is to remove themselves just a little bit. I want to encourage two exercises. One is the Harvard Business School exercise, which is to imagine you're in charge, and it's the case study approach: So imagine you are President Shafik at Columbia University and these are the reports you're getting and these are the rules and this is the pressure you're getting. What would you do? And I always think that's a much more challenging position to be in. Imagine you're in charge and what's the decision you would make as opposed to what is your critique of the decision that somebody else made—

Mounk: —a brief interruption on that, Eboo, I think that's absolutely right. And I know Minouche Shafik a little bit, and I think she's a very decent and principled person and she's in a terrible position right now, as are many university leaders. But the thing that always annoys me about a lot of punditry is that when you're a policymaker, let's take it out of the current context of campus, right? You have course of action A available to you. And that is going to have good effects K and bad effects L and M, right? Or you have option B in front of you and that has good effects A and X and bad effects Y and Z. And let's say that you choose A because on the whole it’s mildly preferable, right? And then there's people pointing out saying, “You damn idiot, don't you see that you've caused L and M? How can you be such a terrible person?”

And it's just unless you've actually engaged seriously with the different trade-offs, that is a very, very simplistic thing to do because the leader may well have been aware of those bad consequences. They may have rued those consequences, may have sleepless nights about those consequences, but perhaps Y and Z are even worse. 

Patel: I think that's exactly right. And these are unpredictable situations. You get several hundred people together and right then it's a demonstration. Who knows when it's gonna become a mob, or a riot. Now, I am not saying that that is the case, right? But what's interesting, living here in Chicago, there is all kinds of legitimate criticism about how it is that you call out a police response in such an aggressive way on Laquan McDonald, who was shot several times by Jason Van Dyke in an egregious situation. And then similarly, how did you not call the police on this fight outside of Fenger High School in which a kid got murdered, right? And these are unpredictable: one situation at one o'clock in the afternoon, another kind of situation at two o'clock in the afternoon. And that is an enormously challenging place to be. But one of the things our institutions of higher education should do is not simply produce critics but produce leaders. And so I think that that is an exercise that people should go through: What decision would you make and at what point would you make it? 

Here's a second kind of standard intellectual approach to this—and by the way, I think rigorous thinking is really important, even in the heat of the moment—which is to find an interesting analogy. And when it comes to protests around a divisive issue on campus near commencement, there's actually a very close analogy from not that long ago, and that is the protests against President Barack Obama's commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009. Hundreds if not thousands of people come from off campus to participate in these protests, and there's an overnight element, too—at Notre Dame, they called them prayer sessions, but you have an overnight encampment of people who are breaking campus rules to engage in their protests. And there is some aggressive language being used: “baby killer” is said a lot. There are dozens of arrests. And finally, there is actual disruption of the commencement proceedings. And so people stand up during President Obama's commencement address and they start to scream things.

Of course, this is part of how intellectuals work: You find an analogy and you work through it and you think to yourself, okay, if you believe your cause requires or allows you to create protest, civil disobedience, disruption in this kind of a way—and let's be clear about what's happening at a place like Columbia or NYU right now, which is cancer researchers cannot get to their laboratories. You are causing a disruption in the everyday life of a university and that everyday life is actually really important. People do very important things at university. So if you judge your cause important enough to cause that disruption (and, incidentally, note I am not betraying my own view on that) can somebody else judge their cause important enough to cause that disruption? Is every cause on the planet important enough to be able to shut down a college? Or in my case, I had a very important event that I was speaking at a couple of weeks ago in DC, and I could not get to O'Hare because protesters had shut down the airport, right? So if your cause is important enough to shut down an airport, and maybe it is, is somebody else's cause that important? What can somebody else shut down your life over? 

I would say the default position in most situations should be to cooperate. In most situations, the norms of American life are that we recognize we will disagree on some fundamental things and agree on other fundamental things. And that is how you have little leagues and hospitals and fire departments and city councils. And it is actually a miracle to have a nation where people of diverse identities and divergent ideologies are most of the time cooperating in those civic institutions. I think it is a treasure that we should cherish.

Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.

If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.


Podcast production by Brendan Ruberry and Jack Shields.

Connect with us! Spotify | Apple | Google

X: @Yascha_Mounk & @JoinPersuasion

YouTube: Yascha Mounk, Persuasion

LinkedIn: Persuasion Community

The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.