As anyone who has ever lived on the fringes, been picked last on sporting teams or been scrutinized for a rather colourful choice of fashion can attest, being excluded sucks. What sucks even more is when the deeper socio-cultural reasons behind social exclusion are shrouded, ignored or swept under the carpet by cure all and patronizing notions of social inclusion.
Don’t get me wrong … conceptually social inclusion is the ‘right’ thing to do – I mean who would argue otherwise? But what is at stake in any consideration of social inclusion (or indeed anti-discrimination, equality, human rights etc) is the ways in which the discourse of inclusion works publicly, politically and practically to give meaning to, as well as handle a wide range of issues that relate to inequality and disadvantage. In short perhaps social inclusion does not solve the problem of social exclusion, disadvantage or inequality at all? And perhaps it actually exacerbates it?
There are a few risks involved in speaking about and implementing the notion of social inclusion in society.
Risk 1: Social inclusion calls on individuals, institutions and businesses to promote acceptance, accept diversity and respect difference – like these are things that don’t happen or are somehow new or novel.
→ Question: What planet do we live on where we have to remind each other, create a policy and then have workshops on the implementation of ‘being nice to people’?
Risk 2: Social inclusion is a complex, oblique and contested term both in Australia and Internationally in that it references rather than deals with issues of exclusion
→ Question: How do we all deal with the realities of our own lives and of those in our communities who are excluded from the usual civic and social functions within society? Who speaks for those who are silenced?
Risk 3: Social exclusion has its roots in issues of equality and inequality, social advantage and disadvantage, social justice and injustice for all. It is not just about poverty, it is also about the normalised ways in which millions of people are left out, treated unfairly or alienated socially on a day to day basis.
→ Question: When will we see the face of another as our own? Why does meanness trump compassion? Is genuine peace and harmony possible in our lifetimes?
Undoing the social inclusion agenda
The irony is that most of us have either been or are currently being excluded socially in some way or another. So as a catch-all phrase social inclusion will not work until we all do the following:
- Work tirelessly to expose, talk about and deal with the multiple exclusions too many people in society experience before doing any of the inclusions
- Try to break down the binary inclusion/exclusion (us/them) and instead use language that opens up the ways in which people experience inequality and/or disadvantage as a process of listening to each other and caring
- Problematise the ways in which difference and diversity, skills and abilities, bodies and lifestyles are spoken about eg embrace difference (rather than ‘accepting’ it); celebrate diversity (as opposed to ‘respecting’ it). To accept or respect means that there is an inside and outside – there is not! We are all on the same side!
- Be wary of the ‘normalising tendencies’ of social inclusion discourses. Always question who makes the rules, who says what and how the rules are deployed to determine who is included and who is not.
The main thing to be wary of is the ways in which social inclusion discourses tend to normalise the activities and aspirations of the dominant culture. The key to undoing this is to continually ask yourself: how can social inclusion be achieved within a framework that includes the hopes and dreams of diverse individuals and communities?