A major social, moral, and political issue dividing us is the issue of how inclusive and how exclusive we should be as a national society. But beyond and beneath the question of membership in our national society is the question of whose rights (and which rights) we aknowledge and respect under what circumstances.
There is clearly a balance to be struck: Few would recommend such inclusivity that we extend the same respect to the bacterial infection threatening a person’s health as we extend to the person. Most (not all) are comfortable with the notion of extending our inclusivity no further than the bounds of our own species (respecting human life above other forms of life), even if modified to prohibit outright cruelty to those of other species that we recognize as cognitively capable of suffering from such cruelty (i.e., other large mammals). Though I’ll come back to the broader issue of universal empathy and systemic sensitivity at the end of this little essay, the main thrust will be on humanity’s divisions and their historical and contemporary role in justifying self-serving exclusivities.
Another word describing “exclusivity” is “discrimination,” referring to members of some in-group discriminating against members of some out-group regarding the privileges of membership. I use the word “discriminate” more or less interchangeably with the word “exclude” in this essay.
The most obvious dimension to this issue is the moral and social one: Those who are excluded are defined to be of lesser value or lesser concern. Sometimes they are defined as such (i.e., are excluded) in reference to intrinsic characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation; sometimes due to choices or cultural inheritences, such as religion of political ideology; sometimes due to some social status such as geographic location, socioeconomic class, or subcultural identification; and sometimes due to talents or abilities.
The last is perhaps the most morally justifiable form of exclusion: If a hospital is hiring surgeons, those with no training or skill in surgery can be legitimately excluded. Issues sometimes arise over whether the criteria for discriminating between those with the necessary skills and those without are not proxies for other less justifiable grounds for discrimination, but, as a general rule, this is not a difficult problem to solve.
Another justifiable form of exclusion involves freedom of association and the logistics of allowing people to gather to accomplish a specific task or for a specific purpose. Obviously, people holding a dinner party in their home can invite who they like and refuse entry to all others. This freedom extends outward, but ends when the private property is open to the public (generally, a business) and the discrimination is of a now forbidden nature (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender). Similarly, if an organization meets to discuss or address a specific topic, they certainly are justified in excluding those who want to come to discuss or address a completely different topic. If not for this form of exclusion, no one would ever be able to get anything done.
At the other end of the spectrum, exclusion due to irrelevant inherent characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, is not yet a folly completely relegated to a shameful past, but the moral argument is clearly over, and the result is a general awareness that such discrimination is unjustifiable and indefensible. Clearly, those who still suffer from this form of discrimination justifiably feel no patience regarding any delay in ending it completely, and I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their efforts to end it now and forever. But, in the developed world at least, the writing is on the wall.
Another related but slightly different area of discrimination involves those with physical and mental disabilities. Unlike issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, inclusion of those with disabilities often requires an affirmative effort and investment by us as a society to create accessibility and accommodate special needs. Most people recognize that that is the decent and just thing to do, and many realize that it allows us to best utilize our pool of human capital rather than to create greater swathes of nonproductivity and dependence.
In between these extremes of the obviously justifiable and the obviously unjustifiable lies a broad swathe of contested terrain. I argue that we should only discriminate in the public sphere on the bases of merit or competence (or organizational relevance), and on no other basis whatsoever. Beyond that, we should be all-inclusive. Though that may seem at a glance to be a mainstream position, it is actually a radical fringe position, though recognizing it as such is the first step toward increasing its acceptance.
As the various debates revolving around immigration policy demonstrate, many Americans believe in excluding people on the basis of their legal residency status. That has nothing to do with merit: It is a status determined only by the way in which people migrated to their current location, what legal formalities they did or did not observe.
It also has nothing to do with orgnizational relevance, since studies generally demonstrate economic and fiscal gains to the organization (i.e., the nation), and, in any case, we do not only consider “organizational relevance” in national membership to depend on productivity (though illegal immigrants would generally benefit from such a criterion). In fact, those who are more inclined to exclude on the basis of “productivity” (i.e., who blame the poor for their poverty, and consider society as a whole to have no responsibility to them) are most similar to the historical archetypes we hold in least esteem (e.g., the Nazis).
The tautology that because it is illegal, exclusion is indisputably appropriate, ignores the historical frequency in which legal exclusion has been both morally and pragmatically wrong, and the reality of human migration and de facto (if not always de jure) membership in our society as a result of it.
Lest anyone exaggerate the “criminality” of not observing the formalities of legal immigration, I would recommend a review of both world and U.S. history, in both of which those formalities have rarely been observed or enforced to any great extent, anywhere, at any time. People migrate away from oppression or destitution and toward freedom or opportunity; they always have, they always will, and they don’t always do so by observing the bureaucratic niceties that would prevent them from doing so. That is the reality of the world we live in.
In America today, many right-wing ideologues who prefer more rather than less exlusion (excluding gays and lesbians from marriage, excluding Muslims from freedom of religion and property, excluding undocumented immigrants from most any rights whatsoever, and often, explicitly or explicitly, excluding those historically disadvantaged by race or ethnicity from redressment of those historically imposed inequities in order to create true equality of opportunity today), use rhetoric eerily similar to that employed by others who engaged in now discredited and reviled forms of exclusion in the past, including the rhetoric of German Nazis in the prelude to the Holocaust. We live in a country which continually flirts with the ugly inhumanities that history has reproduced so frequently in so many times and places, and does so with complete disregard for what it is doing.
(I use the somewhat “forbidden” historical reference point of Nazi Germany because it is important to heed the lesson it yields, embodied in the cry “Never again!” The error we must avoid is not limited to the sin of genocide, but also the sin of dehumanization that precedes and justifies all such crimes against humanity, on scales and in degrees large and small.)
If we, as a country, feel a pragmatic necessity to exclude some from entry to our country, let us do so reluctantly rather than overzealously, and let us recognize the de facto as well as de jure members of our society who have become integrated into it, into our economy and our communities and our families. Two recent studies, by The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, and The Bell, have demonstrated that illegal immigrants in Colorado yield a net benefit to both our state economy and our state coffers. The Economist magazine has frequently noted that our massive immigration of working age people serves to redress our increasingly critical demographic imbalance between a collapsing number of workers supporting an exploding number of retirees.
Research shows that several economic sectors suffer enormously from crack-downs on illegal immigration, that competition tends to be at the bottom of the economic ladder (mostly isolated to those who have just immigrated, and those who have recently done so) and that the new waves of immigration provide the foundations upon which established citizens and residents can climb the economic ladder. By most accounts, not only is it more humane to allow people to come here seeking opportunity, but it also benefits those of us who were already born into it.
Many Americans continue to see nationalism as an unassailably legitimate basis for exclusion, the nation as private property, and those who come into it uninvited as trespassers. First, as already noted above, since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we do not accord even private businesses such unfettered right to exclude, and the nation is more not less “open to the public.” Granted, the nation-state is a concept premised on some degree of exclusivity, of being a bounded entity defined as separated in some ways from the rest of the world. But nations have always been highly permeable entities, with people and goods flowing in and out in significant volume. There is little to indicate that stifling that flow has ever been particularly good for any nation (though much to show that encouraging it has been extremely good for those nations that have done so), and even less to indicate that it has ever been particularly good for humanity.
Even so, there certainly are some similarities between private property and national boundaries: Both are the institutionalization of historically violently acquired inequities, which, while eroded by subsequent enterprise, remain very evident in the distribution of wealth and opportunity. The main difference is that, while private property, despite its unsavory aspects in the establishment and perpetuation of inequity, is a highly functional system, facilitating the robust production of wealth through market mechanisms, nations, conversely, are for the most part mere barriers to such wealth production. Nations, in other words, enjoy the social defects of private property, while laying claim to none of the social benefits.
(That’s not to say that there are no social benefits whatsoever to the existence of nation-states. As with all forms of sub-global social organizational consolidation, there is, generally speaking, an immediate short-and-medium term benefit in terms of the utility produced within and for the bounded population, and a cost in terms of the barriers to larger scale social organizational consolidation which, in the long run, is a cost for the bounded population as well. Any level of social consolidation has variable value in terms of how well it articulates with both larger and smaller levels of organization. But focusing narrowly on wealth production, nation-states form barriers to the movement of the factors of production, and as such generally serve to impede global wealth production. There are some qualifications and exceptions to this general rule, but to go into them would be too great a digression.)
More easily grasped than the dissimilarities from private property is the historical infamy of ultranationalism, being the ideology which informed and justified the Holocaust, the attitude underlying which is uncomfortably similar to the attitude underlying our own current anti-immigrant hysteria.
Whether these analyses and this perspective prevail, the rhetoric that vilifies these humble people who migrate here to provide their children with better futures is absolutely and incontravertably indefensible. Several posters on The Denver Post message boards discussing the issue expressed the blatantly racist (and historically familiar) belief that our current wave of illegal immigrants is to be reviled for their supposed criminality (not immigration related), a belief based on the relative poverty of many in each new wave of immigration (and ironically emphasized the crime most commonly committed as a direct result of their illegal status: stealing social security numbers in order to obtain work, and argument in favor of precisely what they most vehemently argue against: “amnesty”). One sincerely opined that we should exterminate all undocumented immigrants in this country, all 12 million of them, thus doubling the record set by Nazi Germany in their own extermiantion of their own reviled “foreign” population living among them. That post received one parenthetical rebuke from one poster only, in contrast to the swarm of rebukes I received for my highly qualified comparison of their attitude to that of Nazi Germany, and for calling for a more humane and compassionate attitude.
One of the defining disctinction between the American Right and Left today revolves around our respective attitudes toward inclusivity and exclusivity. The left believes in social justice, in investing as a people in the increase of opportunity for those who currently enjoy the least opportunities, for more inclusion and less exclusion. The right remains the ideology that is the hier of racism, as well as to too great an extent its most fortified remaining haven, for not only do too many from that ideology defend the remnants of explicit and implicit racism, but, more universally and less ambiguously, they defend forms of exclusion that are logically and functionally similar.
It’s time to leave that kind of elitism on the dust heap of history, and recognize the humanity of all people, everywhere. It’s time to live up to our values and not just our greed, to be what we claim to be and not what others perceive us as. It’s time to give our children cause for pride, and the world cause for hope.
Beyond the specific moral, economic, and political dimensions of how inclusive we are, and how exclusive we are, is the systemic understanding. Human beings are woven of and into complex systems, ranging from the postulated basic building blocks of the universie (the “strings” of string theory, from which all other subatomic particles emanate), to the infinite and eternal. No systems are truly closed; all are open in various ways and to various degrees. The boundaries we perceive between them are more for our conceptual convenience than relfections of fundamental reality. From this perspective, “exclusion” is inherently unnatural, an arrogant insensitivity to the reality of our existence.
We are not first and foremost individuals, but rather first and foremost moments of a larger consciousness. Our happiness, our welfare, our liberty, and our humanity depend on recognizing our interdependence, not just with one another but with all of nature as well, more than on denying it. It is the smallest of demands upon this awareness to recognize that two people of the same sex who want to marry should be embraced without prejudice, and that all people who endure the difficulties of relocating in a foreign land in search of hope for themselves and their children should not be condemned nor robbed of dignity for doing what humans have done throughout history.