I recently commented on the current emphasis on marginalization as a central moral issue, and said the tendency should not be idealized. Its basic effect, I suggested, is to support the movement toward an administratively integrated system covering the whole of social and economic life, and thus the interests of the bureaucrats and billionaires who would dominate such a system.
I might have added that the tendency won’t do anything to reduce marginalization, since every social order marginalizes. To say “this is how things should work” is to say “that isn’t how they should work, so let’s exclude it.” The division of labor adds a “who/whom” aspect to the process, since there are those who decide what’s what and those who have to swallow the decision. And the centralized nature and comprehensive reach of the system of social administration that is now thought the natural remedy for exclusion and other social ills pushes that tendency to extremes. That’s why globalism and the nanny state lead to populist uprisings: everyone ends up marginalized except those at the very top.
As an illustration, Yale and Harvard are the alma maters of all current Supreme Court justices and most recent presidential candidates. Those institutions narrowly restrict admissions in order to maintain the prestige and value of the degrees they grant. They would show no tolerance whatever for an “undocumented student”—one who showed up without the approval of the admissions committee. Rather than offer him a path to registered student status they’d summarily deport him from campus. So their proclaimed devotion to acceptance and inclusion has its limits: it only applies to aspects of personal identity they don’t think should matter socially.
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But are they right that things like sex, religion, and cultural community shouldn’t significantly affect social life? Does that view even reduce marginalization? After all, promoting some connections and suppressing the effect of others marginalizes those who were integrated with society through the latter. If women are treated primarily as careerists for the benefit of bureaucracies and commercial enterprises, then family ties are weakened, mothers lose the support of husbands, and children lose fathers and maternal attention. If close-knit local communities are destroyed for the sake of multicultural diversity and integration with global society, you end up with a lot of people who aren’t well connected with those around them. Such tendencies look good if you’re Angela Merkel and want to go on to a glittering international career after you’re done being German chancellor. For the weak and vulnerable, though, they mean further marginalization.
Beyond that, marginalization is used as a tool of social control even by those who claim to oppose it. If you want the world to go this way rather than that you’ll try to promote those who favor the one and sideline those who favor the other. That’s why the Holy Father attempted to marginalize as Pharisees those who opposed his strategy for dealing with people in irregular unions. It’s why the United States Supreme Court stigmatized as malicious those who accept a natural law understanding of marriage that excludes couples of the same sex. And it’s why politicians who strongly favor “inclusiveness” routinely try to tar their opponents as hateful extremists, sometimes going so far as to refer to a quarter of the nation as an “irredeemable” “basket of deplorables.”
Many people read the current emphasis on fighting marginalization into the Gospels, but without much justification. Christ’s comments on wealth and social position raise issues for us today, but they hardly support secular progressive views. He cured people with disabling afflictions, and was happy to make his pitch to disreputable people like prostitutes and extortionate politically connected businessmen, but his words and deeds indicate a concern for overcoming separation from God rather than fighting worldly marginalization. When he invited the rich young man to give everything away and follow him the point was not to help the recipients of largesse become members of the middle class. It was to benefit the young man himself, whom Jesus loved, by helping him break worldly ties—accept social marginalization—for the sake of closeness to God.
With such considerations in mind, it seems clear that if we concern ourselves with well-being in society what’s needed is not an impossible and self-contradictory war against marginalization as such but a concern for social justice, defined as a state of affairs in which individuals and associations can obtain what is their due according to their nature and vocation and consistent with the common good.
Man is social, so it’s a problem when there are disconnected people who find it difficult to participate productively and rewardingly in society. If there are many such people it’s a natural topic of concern for public authority. The question though is what to do about it. That’s a serious practical problem, since human life is not easily manageable by public authority, and I’ve given reasons why a more comprehensive system of social administration is not the answer.
What would help is social justice for associations. That principle, along with the principle of subsidiarity, tells us that families, religious bodies, and local and cultural communities should be in a position to function as what they are so they can make their specific contributions to human life. Those contributions include, of course, connecting people to social life in ways not dominated by economic considerations.
To that end, such communities require a certain relative autonomy, including the ability to determine who they are, what they are about, and who their members are, so they can largely go their own way within their own boundaries. The Catechism recognizes that point when it tells us that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions.”
But that means rejection of the demand that all significant forms of social participation be equally available to all kinds of people in all settings. Satisfying that demand—suppressing the social arrangements that make an Afghan Muslim marginal in Catholic Italy and vice versa—would involve suppressing associations like families and religious and cultural communities that depend on elective affinities, traditional ties, common understandings, and transcendent loyalties rather than bureaucratic and market mechanisms.
The cultural Left recognizes more and more clearly that abolishing worldly marginalization in all its forms means abolishing particular communities. That is what lies behind their demands for open borders, multiculturalism, and the deconstruction of the family, and their view of religious liberty as a mask for malicious discrimination. Catholics and others who recognize that the social world needs to be something more than a rational structure for maximizing equal preference satisfaction need to recognize the point as well.
Editor’s note: German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to journalists at the Bratislava Summit, September 16, 2016. (Photo credit: Andrej Klizan / Wikimedia)