A Society of Exclusion

What draws people into a politics of hatred – not just the killers who have made the news lately in Witchita and at the Holocaust Museum, but all those whose primary political motive is hostility against cultures and ethnicities different from their own?

Let’s approach this question by going back to basics: What do human beings really want? If we knew that, we might know what people are really after when they do crazy things, and perhaps we would know what to do about it.

In her book The Hidden Life of Dogs,[1] Elizabeth M. Thomas says that what dogs want more than anything else is each other. Isn’t this true of that other social animal, the human being? We spend most of our energy plotting and striving to get into the right relations with other people. This is not just because we have to arrange our own survival and well-being by negotiating with others (getting a job, buying food and shelter). We want a lot more from others than just the food, shelter, and sexual satisfaction they can provide. More than anything else, what we want from each other is recognition, in all the senses of that word. Each of us only becomes an individual, comes to be self-conscious, through the games of recognition we play with each other. It is only by seeing ourselves mirrored in the faces of others that we know ourselves. We manage the world around us by learning the names and the common uses of things. So if we lose our connections with others, we are also disconnected from the world.

There is nothing worse for any of us than to be invisible, to go unrecognized, in the eyes and the lives of others. The need for recognition is as basic as any of our needs; without it, we die or go crazy. So perhaps a great deal of what we call crazy behavior is, in the end, the result of a recognition deficit.

There are many varieties and degrees of recognition deficit, and there are many ways of reacting to it. No one can predict what any individual or set of circumstances can produce. But one of the ways in which people go crazy is to become extremely angry and to look for someone to blame for having turned the world against them and deprived them of recognition. This is one way of understanding people who go on murderous rampages against people or institutions that seem to undermine their world, or what they thought was their world. For example, someone who had built his sense of inner security around the subordination of women to the needs of men could feel threatened by anything that empowers independent women, abortion clinics, for example.

But why do people feel so fragile that they would build their ideal of a safe world on the subordination of women or white, Anglo-Saxon privilege? There can be no single answer to this question, for individual circumstances and reactions vary tremendously. But there are sources of insecurity built into the fabric of our kind of society.

We live in a social order of exclusion. Human beings have a deep and natural desire for recognition and inclusion, and yet our social system is fundamentally one of denial and exclusion. Our institutions, public and private, revolve fundamentally around locked doors and restricted access whose purpose is to keep people away from what they need. This is the essential function of money: it’s a key that opens the door to getting your needs met, and without it, you are excluded. Thus you are nothing, you are invisible to others and your needs do not exist, unless you have money. What you need is there, behind those locked doors, that others could unlock – if you have money.

If you are ill, you can be left to languish or die if you don’t have the money for the right treatment. If you are laid off, or lose your home to foreclosure, you can wind up on the street – where respect and recognition are very scarce.

There are vast resources of wealth in this country – you can see them advertised and on display in store windows and being worn and driven through the streets, but most people, most of us, are exiled from that wealth. If we’re not, right now, out of work, hungry or homeless, the threat of being so is all too real. And that’s true not only in these tough times, but all the time in a society that revolves around having and not having, inclusion and exclusion. We all, or at any rate most of us, live on the cusp of exclusion.

I’d like to suggest that this pervasive sense of being excluded, now or later, is what keeps a barely contained cauldron of rage simmering somewhere in many souls and which circumstances can ignite into an explosion seeking a reason in some imagined cause. Often the force of the explosion is used self-destructively upon oneself. Or it stays home to be vented on spouses and children.

The principle of exclusion is a method of extortion: it enables the rich and powerful to shake down the rest of us for our labor and our wages. But we don’t have to live this way. Lots of people have joined movements to replace the principle of exclusion, and the hatred it generates, with a principle of inclusion. What if the recognition of mutual need were the norm? What if we had a politics and an economy whose goal was getting people what they need, rather than keeping them from getting what they cannot pay for? That could put an end to political hatred and make it possible to get what we really want –– a life of peace and cooperation, based on mutual recognition.

[1] Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Hidden Life Of Dogs, Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993.

Clayton Morgareidge for The Old Mole Variety Hour, June 15, 2009

























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