Thursday, January 25, 2018


I have been thinking of the lefty concept of inclusiveness and of the concept of a wide tent in politics in several contexts recently.  What does inclusiveness mean?  Is it just opening the gate or does it require more fundamental changes?

When we aim for inclusiveness, do we simultaneously exclude anything or anyone?  Should Democrats support very pro-life politicians when the party platform is pro-choice?  Does this mean changing the platform? Are pussy hats as the banner of a movement something which excludes people who do not have vulvas from participating in Women's Marches as women?

And who decides the answers to such questions?  Is it the previously excluded people?  Is the decision done by one or two individuals in power?  Or should it be a democratic majority vote that decides the answers?

I have no answers to these question.  Instead, I offer you a  parable which might clarify some of the questions.  I offer it in three modifications, but there are more possible modifications* which might be relevant in some real world situations.

First, a warning:  My parable is truly terrible in one sense: I use two medical conditions, one invented and one real**, as very rough stand-ins for someone being oppressed or mistreated  by the general culture or for someone having minority views and values (such as in the case of being pro-life when the majority in some group is pro-choice). 

This does not mean that there's anything objectively wrong with oppressed groups (defined by, say,  race, sex, gender identity, sexual preference etc), something that would justify the oppression they experience, or that having minority views is somehow objectively wrong. 

I just couldn't make up an example which would otherwise demonstrate the dilemmas we face in equally simple terms.  So read the parable with that in mind, please. 

With that reservation, here are the initial three forms of the parable:

1.  This form of the parable sets out the basic case which applies to the other two, except for the modifications I introduce.

You are the organizer of an amateur oil painting school or club in an imaginary word which looks almost like ours except when I introduce changes.  You currently have one hundred members, and new members are admitted or refused based on your decision alone.

A new member applies for membership.  This person suffers from red-green color blindness.  You decide to accept this member into the school, but because of the red-green color blindness, you also decide to remove all green and red colors from the colors the school uses, because you feel bad that the group would be employing colors which one of the members cannot appreciate.

What is the outcome of this decision?  Note that if you had included the person without any modification of the colors that are used, the only outcome is that a new person has been accepted, but that person cannot enjoy all the colors others can in the school.

By ruling out the use of red and green, you create real equality of access to the arts and you completely include the latest member in the group.

But you are also excluding something by that choice:  The other one hundred students no longer can use red or green in their work.

2.  Assume the basic facts of the previous parable, but now add something new:

People with red-green color blindness in the imaginary world of my example have been treated dreadfully by the general culture.  They have been formally and legally excluded from all arts education where red and green colors are used, and they have been physically attacked by bigots in that culture for being different.  Indeed, some of those bigots are probably among your existing school members.

How does that modification affect your decision to include the new student and to remove green and red colors from the palettes? 

It seems to me that the decision to do all that now has a greater feeling of justice.  Something more is achieved by the simultaneous inclusion of this new student and the refusal to have that person's source of oppression used by others in the group.  In short, the costs and benefits are different in this formulation than in the previous one, where the ignored costs to the initial one hundred members loom much larger.

3.  Let's complicate things even more.  Keep everything from the second form of the parable, but add more details: The weird imaginary world I'm painting here doesn't only have red-green color blindness, but also a problem where the only colors someone clearly sees are red and green.

Individuals who suffer from that are also mistreated by the general society, tend, on average, to have lower status and lower incomes and so on.  And it so happens that all of your one hundred initial students suffer from that condition.

What would your decision about the new student be now?  Suppose that it's the same as in the first form of the parable.  What are the benefits and costs of your decision now?  You are being fully inclusive toward the new student, but you are making the experience of painting worse for your other one hundred students.

Both the new student and the existing students are subject to oppressive acts by the wider culture.  How are you going to evaluate the fairness of this decision, compared to the second version of the parable?


It's worthwhile to go through these examples by varying the decision-maker.  I used a dictator model in these decisions, but the outcomes might be different if we let the entering student decide what to do or if we used some form of voting.

I think different real-world examples match different forms of my parable, so the conclusions we might arrive at will not always be the same, and of course in the large majority of real-world cases inclusion just means opening the gates.  The goals of the group might change later, in an organic sense, but there would be no specific need to alter them at the outset. 

It's also probably the case that the gains and losses in each form of the parable*** when applied to real-world examples, will vary in different places and at different times.


*  An interesting modification would be one where the incoming student is clearly more privileged than any of the existing students, has a better eye for all colors and so on.  Would that affect anything about how to include that student or not?

**  I chose the color blindness because my family has so much of it.  I even have one female family member who has simultaneously two different types of color blindness (a very rare event).  The conditions have very little real-world significance and in one sense could be interpreted here as seeing the world differently because of different life experiences.

***  Some costs to the existing group, for instance, could be very minor, almost trivial, while the benefits to the incoming individuals are very large.  The reverse is also possible.  This really depends on specific examples we are using and the whole history behind them. 

And sometimes the losses to the existing group are necessary losses, because what is lost is the very advantage due to oppression.