Words like “exclusion” and “marginalization” have become central to high-end and high-visibility discussions of moral and social issues. To all appearances, those who are most visible, vocal, and well-placed now feel called upon to show special concern for those who are least so.
Why is that? A common view is that our leaders, along with other respectable people, have taken a great leap forward in moral sensibility. That’s one reason, apparently, they feel such a need to apologize for their predecessors. One sign of the change is that the cover of Rolling Stone, the formerly rebellious rock and roll magazine, now features admiring cover photos of pope and president. The global governing class, it seems, has suddenly become cool.
There’s something odd about the situation. Have the well-placed and powerful really become moral paragons, or just better at turning public discussion to their advantage? Analysis, it seems, is needed to sort matters out.
Expressions like “marginalization” are somewhat novel. They appeal to the older conception of the outcast, of someone people avoid, perhaps because he violated a taboo, or belongs to a people regarded as somehow accursed. The current expressions are different, though, since they extend the conception so far that it becomes strictly complementary to “include.” If someone is not fully part of a network of social relations, then to that extent he’s excluded and marginalized.
The apparent assumption is that “we’re all in this together” in a very strong and even totalitarian sense. People, it seems, don’t carry on life through myriad small, local, and relatively independent networks. If they did, everyone would be excluded in most settings, and it would be hard to define a center and margins for the society as a whole in any clear way.
In a clan-based society, for example, a Campbell would be marginalized among the Gordons and a Gordon among the Campbells, but it would be impossible to say either is marginalized in the society as a whole. Clan society, of course, has gone the way of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Even so, we see all around us that functional social networks—families, neighborhoods, business enterprises, religious and cultural communities, even whole nations—normally include only minorities, usually small minorities. That applies even to the largest networks: maybe a sixth of the world’s people belong to the Catholic Church, a twentieth to the United States.
That’s not surprising. Networks that matter usually start from the bottom up through common goals and elective affinities: people link up voluntarily, because they recognize something in each other, and start cooperating for some purpose they find beneficial. Whatever it is now, the Catholic Church started when people recognized something that led them to connect to each other and join together in a project they thought important. The same is true of one’s own family, and even of America, since what is now the United States began with small groups of voluntary adventurers.
Life goes on, of course, and if a network through which people carry on important aspects of life is successful it is likely to become less ad hoc and personal and more institutional. If it’s extremely successful, it may become a social world that people can inhabit throughout their lives and pass on to their children. In the ultimate case it becomes a nation or civilization, an extremely complex and extensive network of networks dealing with all aspects of life. Catholicism and Islam have provided examples.
However large, complex, and institutional a network becomes, however, to remain functional it has to maintain an element of particular affinity and concern for common goods. Without that it becomes an unwieldy aggregate that must be kept together and moved—if at all—by force. Thus, Catholics become so through baptism, a formal act, and are automatically excommunicated if they reject the Faith or fundamental doctrines, reject Church unity through schism, or engage in various other acts. And Americans become American either through birth or a long process in which they sign on to the national project, and if they turn the other way and give their support to the national enemy they can be executed as traitors.
So even the largest and most comprehensive networks include only minorities, and if members don’t maintain their qualifications they get bounced. In other words, the world is one big structure of exclusion and marginalization. If I just showed up in Japan and wanted to live there, I would be marginalized if not simply tossed out. I would have very few and very distant connections, and couldn’t easily make new and productive ones because I don’t know the language or customs. So I’d have problems. The same applies, of course, to a young adventurer from Nigeria or Afghanistan who shows up without a visa in Europe.
The restrictive nature of functional networks, up to and including religions, national states, and civilizational complexes, is not simply an historical relic reflecting antiquated circumstances that no longer apply. Social diversity is a challenge—meaning a problem, present almost everywhere to some degree—that should be dealt with prudently in accordance with the common good. It’s a difficult problem, though, in part because it makes the common good more difficult to identify and agree upon, and often leads to reduced functionality, social conflict, and, in the ultimate case, succession or civil war. At the very least, it is very likely to mean reduced social trust at the level of everyday life.
Nonetheless, the attitudes behind expressions such as exclusion and marginalization as now employed makes such concerns seem morally out of bounds. Multiplying and radicalizing diversity has become a moral imperative, a sort of horizontal transcendence that serves as a religion for those who have lost sight of vertical transcendence. With that development has come a principled refusal to draw lines or accept boundaries, a view that has meant increasing unwillingness to distinguish (for example) between marriages and non-marriages, or Americans and non-Americans.
The result is that it’s now viewed as wrong, among the most well-placed people, for those of one nation to feel special obligations to each other that they don’t feel equally to the rest of the world. So if an Iraqi shows up in Europe and wants to stay he should in principle be treated the way a jobless, homeless, and penniless EU national should be treated. To do less would be to exclude and marginalize him, evidently for racist reasons.
Such are the implications of the attitudes that are now most prestigious morally. But why is support for such attitudes so strong among those at the very top? Such people would presumably want to maintain the cohesion and functionality of the networks (like nation-states) that support their power, and in view of their obligation to promote the common good of the communities under their care it seems their duty to do so. The horizontal mysticism of abolishing distinctions might account for the emotive appeal of the tendency, but those in powerful positions can be counted on to have self-interested policy reasons as well.
Such reasons are not hard to find. Globalism is an effort to organize the world through global markets and transnational bureaucracies with comprehensive supervisory power over local arrangements. It is evidently in the interests of the most powerful, since it means they and their colleagues run everything without effective accountability to anyone but each other. The demand that all humanity be integrated into a single universal system of production, distribution, and social control, which is implicit in radical opposition to exclusion and marginalization as a moral standard, makes such a system morally necessary. And that means spiritual leaders such as the pope must line up on the same side of the fundamental public issues of our day as bureaucrats and billionaires like Ban Ki-moon, Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Zuckerberg, and George Soros.
For the world’s movers and shakers, what’s not to like?