Membership Has its Privileges

Yesterday’s blog included a “you aren’t one of us” moment, and it got me thinking about the nature of membership and exclusion.

We all value membership–in a club, a society, a community, a polis. Political thinkers suggest that one of the stabilizing elements of a liberal democratic society is the widespread phenomenon of “cross-cutting” memberships; that is, the fact that we are all members of multiple, different communities. In my case, I’m a member of the Jewish community, the academic community, the downtown community, the legal community, etc. etc. At any given times, some of those ties are stronger or weaker, but the net effect is to embed me into a number of different (i.e. “cross-cutting”) groups. If that were not the case–if each of us belonged only to a single group–the liklihood of competition for power and comparative advantage between groups would cause constant conflict.

The bottom line to this theory is that the more groups in which we claim membership, the wider our perspective and the more inclusive our definition of “we.”

The problem is, in order to define membership, we have to be able to distinguish between those who belong and those who don’t. And therein lies an apparently inescapable problem.

If you think about it, human progress–or at least American progress–has been defined by extending┬ásocial membership to people who were previously identified as “other.” The Irish, Catholics, Jews…and more recently and incompletely, Asians, Latinos and GLBT folks. Even women.

When people are “other,” when they are not members, not one of “us,” it becomes easy–and acceptable–to generalize about them and to demonize them. The Irish are all drunks, Catholics do the Pope’s bidding, Jews are shifty businesspeople, women are too emotional…Membership definitely has its privileges, and the most significant of those is acceptance into the group and the right to be judged on ones own merits, as an individual.

This all leads to a conundrum. With membership we also have exclusion and its negative consequences. Without membership, however, we lose cohesion. With no “we,” society becomes atomized, a collection of self-serving “I’s.” Exclusively nationalistic “we’s” can lead to fascism (defined as the identification of the individual with the state) or authoritarianism.

The trick is to find the proper balance–enough community within enough communities to give us comfort and generate mutual support, enough individualism to facilitate the exploration of our human distinctiveness. The Greeks called it “The Golden Mean.”

We have a way to go.

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