Pulling Together

Identity and Inclusion

I had an interesting conversation with a fellow believer I met at Church yesterday. We were talking about our aspiration to be an inclusive group where everybody felt welcome irrespective of their identity. It’s an easy thing to aim at but, I observed, much harder to achieve.

In fact, as we thought about it we realised it isn’t just hard; it’s actually logically impossible. For a church, or indeed any organisation, has to have a character. It needs a distinctive way of being. It needs purpose. It needs an identity of its own. Otherwise it would be purposeless, pointless, and not worth joining. “Join this group. It doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t stand for anything. It welcomes everyone to nothing for no purpose other than to be bored together.” That would hardly be an attractive invitation! Of course a group needs to have a purpose. It needs to have an aim. It needs to have a point, an ethos, otherwise it just would not be worth forming, let alone joining.

Yet, immediately a group has some sort of identity, it will naturally lose its appeal to people who don’t share that identity, people for whom that ethos does not express the way they see themselves, people who feel alienated by it for one reason or another. That’s inevitable. Such people could therefore, quite legitimately, complain they don’t feel welcome, or even that they feel excluded because the group fails to meet their needs, and they’d be right.

Equally, in order to retain its identity, a group must exclude, or at least limit the influence of, those whose actions would destroy that identity. Hence, political parties usually have a rule that no member may join another party and remain a member of the first. The incompatiblity can only be managed by effectively excluding the incompatible. A chamber concert cannot welcome people who desire to make loud noises during the performance, because that would destroy the effect of the performance. What about people who involuntarily make loud noises: people with certain kinds of learning disabilities or neurological conditions, for instance? Do they not fit into a protected category under the Equality Act? Can they be lawfully excluded from a chamber concert they wish to attend on the grounds of their disability? Should they be? Should chamber music be banned because it cannot accommodate such people and is therefore inherently discriminatory?

In my conversation I questioned whether our congregation could accomodate someone whose style of worship were to dance on the chancel step waving a flag. Such people do exist and there are churches where that would be a regular feature, but ours is not one of them. Yet, if that is a gift someone believes they have and is their main vehicle for expressing their love of the Divine, will they not feel excluded if not permitted to use it? Most likely they would exclude themselves by seeing such behaviour would not fit in, but they would still be excluded. Another example is of a small boy I know whose learning disability means he cannot understand the concept of boundaries he can physically cross, and who can become very upset and violent if thwarted in his desire to go somewhere. This means he might want to go into parts of the building where he should not and be in the way of those who should be there, or even trying to rearrange the furniture while others are trying to use it. It would be impossible to stop him without creating a very disruptive scene. Therefore, his mother does not feel she and her son are welcome.

We concluded full inclusion is not possible. There actually have to be boundaries, and the issue then arises as to where the fair place to put those boundaries should be. We then considered what basis for boundaries might exist, and came to the view that everyone must be able to be themselves, but that does not necessarily mean they can impose themselves on others, because others are also people who are entitled to be themselves. So boundaries need to be set around people to protect their identity, but must not impinge on the identity of others.

And it is then I saw the relevance of this to modern politics, for it is fashionable in modern politics, not only to have ones own view of the world, but to demand others must share it, thus denying them their right to their own view of the world. This sets people in conflict because it becomes impossible for views to be harmonised if everyone demands assent to their own particular perspective. My sister agreed, citing current conflicts within feminism. It is one thing for me to have a sense of who I am, but if I demand you see me the way I see myself, I deny you a right to an opinion, a world view, an identity of your own. Thus, by insisting it is my human right to be seen as I would like to be seen, I deny the rights of everyone else.

If people overreach in their belief in their own entitlement in this way conflict becomes inevitable, and this leads to the worst form of Identity Politics, namely vilification, intimidation, and violence. If people believe they are entitled to force others to agree with them, we should not be surprised to see them applying force to achieve that.

So we have a potential root of much of the conflict in modern societies around the world – the imposition of values on people who do not share them, the denial of everybody’s right to form their own opinion on the facts as they see them. Whether it is the political or religious terrorist, or the activist starting a clamour for someone to be sacked because they don’t like their beliefs, is this not basically an attempt to impose someone’s values on someone else by force? Do not these attempts then produce a sense of injustice which drives a desire for revenge? Naturally, they would. Indeed don’t extremists generally cite some injustice by those they regard as enemies as justification for their own actions? That is almost always the case as I have heard it.

So we need to resist any tendency to reduce society to conflict between identities and find a more constructive way forward; a way based on tolerance and mutual respect, on listening and explaining, and never imposing. After all, it is not identity groupings which really get hurt when things go wrong; it is actual people who might claim membership of those groups but experience good or harm at the personal level. No group feels pain. People feel pain. So rather than protecting groups, perhaps we should protect every person whoever they are.

Full List