I have been fascinated by the problem of exclusive [non-inclusive] conduct by many folks who would seem to be otherwise inclusive. It has different dimensions and degrees of manifestation – from inaction to obstructing to active acts of exclusion.
Here I want to offer a few thoughts on my effort to make sense of this.
Our instinct for inclusion
Deep in our primate nature is a profound instinct for belonging. Upon it our psychological wellbeing depends. We crave connection, acceptance and having a sense of belonging. Many of our deep psychological troubles arise from that instinct to belong being denied its natural and full expression – or is betrayed. When ‘one of us’ denies us, or injures us, we are harmed at an existential level.
When we belong, are embraced, and included, we are happiest. This instinct is the foundation of our impulse to be inclusive and nurturing.
Our instinct for exclusion
Our impulse to nurture must include a protective impulse to exclude those who might be a danger to ‘one of us’. This is an essential instinct – to keep threat at bay and ensure the safety of our core community – and our individual sense of self.
But what we define as a threat can be based on beliefs, memories, traditions, habits, and cultural conditioning. We can also find the roots of aversion to disability in religious and historic traditions where the celebration of the unblemished was a fundamental ideal of perfection that applied not only to representatives of the divine but to those offered in sacrifice. On a human instinctual level, the unblemished and unimpaired were favoured in the mating contest, and the contest for status in a community.
We can and will exclude for deep, mostly unconscious, reasons that resolve some sense of threat we feel. This is why we have ‘anti-discrimination’ laws. But the problem isn’t that we discriminate [it just means making distinctions – and choices based upon those distinctions].
In our haste for snappy shorthand terms, we have left off ‘inappropriate and unjust’ to describe the forms of discrimination we abhor.
So, we can see that someone that triggers our protective impulse to exclude may be activating a response that is now neither fair nor appropriate – and which may actually contradict our intent to include.
The novelty of complex pluralistic communities
Not since the Roman empire have we lived in communities so rich in cultural diversity that have taxed our ability to widen the embrace of our sense of ‘one of us’ and question our sense of who is or is not a threat.
Essentially allied to this influx of people from diverse communities we have also opened up to members of our own community whose attributes have previously excluded them from our embrace as ‘one of us’.
Our communities are now experimental settings for the wider evolution of instinct to nurture – to expand the embrace of ‘one of us’. But to make this work to its highest potential we need to bring our protective and exclusionary instinct into conscious awareness to ensure they appropriately activated – in line with contemporary values.
In a sense what we call ‘discrimination’, exclusion, is triggered by the application criteria for exclusion that are not considered consistent with the values necessary for a successful complex and pluralistic community.
The choices we make
The evolution of our contemporary culture isn’t a simple or easy business. It takes deliberate effort – because we all have exclusionary biases. Depending on our personal histories, responding to those biases, and reducing their impact can be more difficult than for others – but nobody has it easy.
Advocates for inclusion, seeking to activate nurturing impulses, can make it harder by introducing blame for inaction or perceived slowness of response. That attitude can trigger a protective response and make exclusion seem justified. No body wants to be blamed for responding to unconscious impulses.
We are all free to agree or disagree with the proposition that the evolution of an inclusive complex and pluralistic community is a good thing. There are many who do not – for reasons they feel are entirely valid. However, when it comes to being a member of an organisation’s workforce there cannot be a justified conflict between the organisation’s values and the values of members of its workforce. There must be alignment to ensure integrity and accountability.
I think that by understanding that we are all driven by essential nurturing and protective instincts is important. Finding the right balance between the two is essential for our sense of wellbeing – psychologically and morally.
But it is equally important that we know we are also free to choose whether we agree with the values that are needed to evolve a functioning complex and pluralistic culture – whether that’s our community at large or the organisation we work for. Inclusion’s not for everyone. Those who disagree are free to do so, so long as they do not act deceptively and misrepresent their non-conformity in a culture that champions and celebrates inclusion.
There will be those who support inclusion but struggle to match their reality with the ideal. That’s most of us [me included]. We share the aspiration and struggle to grow into the ideals we agree are worth our effort. We must be kind to our allies, and not mistake them for opponents. And we must be kind to our opponents too – so there is a better chance they can become allies.