Lately, I have been thinking of exclusion and acceptance in societies, something that is of personal interest to me, as it probably is to most people. What I have thought about is interesting, although I have to admit that this is not serious sociological thought, but is instead musing, with some personal bitterness thrown in.
Societies, in some ways, can be defined by being systems of exclusion and acceptance. A society is defined by who is inside of it, who is outside of it, and who holds the nebulous position of being inside the society but held of lower status.
Societies must exclude, but that exclusion can be broken down in several ways. In brief, a society can choose to exclude a small number of people a lot, or a great number of people a little.
I should give a more specific example, that will be familiar to most of the people reading this. In 1955, this is what someone needed to do to be accepted my American society:
- Be white.
- Achieve a minimum level of education (high school preferred, although 8th grade was still acceptable).
- Adhere to a clear code of acceptable hygiene, dress and public behavior.
These steps were pretty clear, and as long as someone could complete them, they were accepted into society. On the other hand, for people who couldn't or wouldn't fulfill them, such as racial minorities, the physically or mentally disabled, political dissidents, or men with hair longer than three inches, there was no way to be accepted. You were either in or you were out
Over the past sixty years, one by one, the hard barriers to entry to society have come down. Along with the legal fight against discrimination in employment and housing, and the gradual transformation of views on physical disability and mental illness (and the passage of the Americans with Disability Act), there has been a great movement towards accepting different choices in lifestyle and personal fashion. Something as simple as a nose ring or a tattoo, which once would have been a sign of non-conformity and social exclusion, are now seen as just another mainstream fashion choice. I could expand on this, but I am sure it is obvious enough to most readers.
The question is, where did all that exclusion go? The answer is, it went into everybody. The steps to acceptance, once so clear, are unfathomable, and perhaps impossible for anyone to complete. Some of this makes sense: I have to complete a background check when filing for employment because in 2015, unlike in 1955, we don't believe that sexual predators are all derelicts hiding in alleyways. But some of it seems to be exclusion for the sake of exclusion: the constant treadmill of more education and experience when applying for jobs, all taken to see if an applicant has completed the nebulous steps necessary to show that they are in touch with the culture's values.
Much of this was formed by my own experience with the change in American culture over the past few decades, some of which I was alive for, some of which were before my time. I think that this probably is a pattern both in a culture as it changes over time, and also between cultures. All cultures and societies must exclude, and when a culture loses its rigid rules of acceptance and exclusion, it adopts a more pervasive, unspoken code of exclusion.