Featured Reviews

John Inazu – Learning to Disagree [Feature Review]

Learning to Disagree

A Resource for Building Bridges

A Feature Review of

Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect
John Inazu

Hardcover: Zondervan, 2024
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Reviewed by Erin Beasley

Canceled. The word’s meaning has shifted over the last decade or so. Sure, television shows have always faced the prospect of cancellation. Flights get canceled, and reservations fall through. Our favorite ice cream flavors periodically make their way to the “discontinued” bin. But who would have ever thought that we would start canceling people—living, breathing human beings?

American culture today seems to unite under a single rule: If you disagree with someone, you must become their enemy. So people cancel people. 

In Learning to Disagree: The Surprising Path to Navigating Differences with Empathy and Respect, John Inazu offers an alternative: recognize “the complexity of the people around you and the empathy this complexity can bring to you” (18). 

Going in, I expected a how-to book—with numbered points and labeled strategies and perhaps a few personal anecdotes thrown in. A section at the end does provide discussion questions which give a more practical means to apply the ideas in the book, but in the meat of the work, Inazu went a different way. He used the power of his own story to teach us not only that we should overcome ideological differences to see others’ humanity—but also how we can do so practically. In the book, Inazu—a Criminal Law professor—takes us on a journey through a year in law school. Each chapter represents a calendar month from August through May, and in each month he addresses a specific topic by giving us a glimpse into his everyday interactions with students, colleagues, and people outside of his work.

Inazu poses a different question as the title for each chapter. For example, chapter three—given the backdrop of October—asks, “What Happens When We Can’t Compromise?” Inazu makes his way through the month of October and explores the idea of compromise in different relationships and circumstances. He digs into law and policy, and how people will always face irreconcilable disputes in those and other areas. He doesn’t argue that we should completely rebel against laws we disagree with, or sacrifice our convictions and accept laws that don’t fit our standards of morality, but to “use the opportunity to deepen your understanding of what’s at stake in a disagreement and why others see things differently” (50). Throughout the book, Inazu shows us how to begin to see people as human beings with relatable human experiences—even the people who oppose us.

Inazu follows the same pattern throughout the book (November: “Can We Have Difficult Conversations?”; April: “Is Forgiveness Possible?”). Each chapter gives glimpses into different times of the “year” in which he had to navigate difficult situations and people. The format, along with Inazu’s humor, made the book easy to read. His conversational tone drew me into each story—despite not having a background in law. And, in many of the stories, I found myself getting angry. That anger made reading the book worthwhile.

My anger manifested at different times—usually during Inazu’s accounts of uncomfortable situations where someone attacked his personal ideology. The book doesn’t center around “Christian” themes, in the sense that Inazu does not include biblical arguments for his position. But he does make it clear that he belongs to the Christian faith, and that this faith plays a large part in his life. At one point, a colleague says, “I just can’t really think of any Christians who I respect intellectually” (87). Inazu chooses to remain silent, initially. And as I read this story, the air suddenly became too hot in my living room. In his place, I would have loudly made my Christianity known to the whole room, in hopes of hearing a stammering apology. Typically, if someone comes after me—whether intentional or not—I tend to do what I can to make them uncomfortable. But with one tiny anecdote, John Inazu showed me that a harsh response to a callous comment can sometimes stay tucked away. He experienced exasperation, but instead of lashing out at the offender, he interjected a harmless statement proposing that perhaps, among the millions of Christians in the world, some might be intelligent. And then he moved on. Surprisingly, the world didn’t implode.

I found myself convicted time and time again, as Inazu met difficult people with grace. He consistently recognized their humanity and dignity and treated them accordingly. He doesn’t advocate against confrontation, and actually chose to engage in tough conversations. He doesn’t write to deny the importance of personal conviction, either. He never stopped himself from feeling exasperated, or hurt, or angry. But he also controlled himself in interactions with people, rather than allowing his emotions to control him. He found ways to connect with others, even when it seemed like their viewpoints would drastically oppose his own. And in doing so, he experienced richer relationships. He led a stubborn student toward a new perspective. He celebrated with unlikely golf buddies. He mended a painful rift in a relationship with someone he cared about deeply.

Honestly, I often don’t want to love the people who disagree with me. My reflexes call them wrong. Stupid. Evil. Deserving of cancellation. Finding common ground, seeing people who oppose me as worthy of love and respect—it seems like a lot of work. But this book helped me see the importance of the work. Building bridges, rather than burning them down, can make life much more enjoyable—both for me and for others. Even if Inazu never explicitly states it in his book, he invites us to follow the way of Jesus. The way which shows us that all humans bear the image of their Creator, and that none are beasts beyond saving.

For the majority of my life, I have lived and moved in evangelical Christian spaces. I have watched the church move farther and farther away from unity. I come across polarizing differences in opinion—whether theological or political—which do nothing to build people up, but instead rip relationships apart. What might things look like if we approached each other with empathy first? How might things change if I looked at my neighbor, who voted for someone whose policies and personality I find abhorrent, and saw a man Jesus died to save? What kind of peace might our world find if we all recognized that the decisions we make—on both sides of any argument—come from what we personally call true and right, and that disagreeing doesn’t make the person on the other side evil?

Reading Learning to Disagree has brought these and other questions into my mind. I know that none of us will ever agree or get along with everybody. But, we can begin to cultivate spaces in which we treat people like people—not impersonal objects to cancel. In his closing paragraph, Inazu writes, “It’s a world of hard questions without easy answers. But…it’s also a world where a little bit of familiarity—and a little bit of empathy—can still go a long way” (166).

Erin Beasley

Erin Beasley is currently a master’s student in the Media Arts & Worship department at Dallas Theological Seminary. Her passions include songwriting, video games, and helping women develop biblical literacy. She lives in Garland, Texas, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.

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