The Inclusive Democratic Society:
Need, Universal Acceptance, and Limitations
By Colleen Slebzak
An inclusive society excludes no one, it does not displace, discriminate, or gentrify, it does not take away ones cultural values or identity, and it promotes a feeling of interconnectivity and value among its members.
Anthropologically speaking, I have studied many egalitarian societies, and they are a great example of this concept. Every individual in an egalitarian society plays an equal role- there is no class or social separation, there is an equal division of labor and each role is important, and all bring something to the table (men hunt, women ‘set’ the table and take care of the young- to give an extremely broad example).
On the web-site titled: Victorian Government Health Information: Aged Care in Victoria, the site explained, … “a socially inclusive society is defined as one where all people feel valued, their differences are respected, and their basic needs are met so they can live in dignity. Social exclusion is the process of being shut out from the social, economic, political and cultural systems which contribute to the integration of a person into the community (Cappo 2002)” (Quoted in VicHealth Research Summary 2 – Social inclusion as a determinant of mental health & wellbeing (January 2005)). Inclusive societies instill a feeling of belonging, equality, and purpose within society members.
In Community: the Structure of Belonging, by Peter Block, the author said an inclusive society or, “community offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence…to be welcomed even if we are strangers. As if we have come to the right place and are affirmed of that choice” (3). Once members feel included in their society, members of that society then begin to discuss issues for the well-being of the group as a whole. When all members are included in the decision making process, a democratic society is born.
Block describes a democratic society as follows; “the social fabric of a community is formed from an expanding shared sense of belonging. It is shaped by the idea that only when we are connected, and care for the well-being of the whole, that a civil and democratic society is created” (9). Block stresses the importance of interconnectedness and inclusively of all society members to create a functional democratic society- as do I.
In Democracy Watch’s Definition of Society, the site supports Block’s and my assertion of ideas- that an inclusive and democratic society go hand-in-hand. The site said, “a democracy is a society in which all adults have easily accessible, meaningful, and effective ways: to participate in the decision-making processes of every organization that makes decisions or takes actions that affect them, and; to hold other individuals, and those in these organizations who are responsible for making decisions and taking actions, fully accountable if their decisions or actions violate fundamental human rights, or are dishonest, unethical, unfair, secretive, inefficient, unrepresentative, unresponsive or irresponsible…”.
It is consistent with the ideals of a democratic society to be completely inclusive. A true democracy does not exist without the inclusion of all its members in the decision-making-processes that concern the group as a whole. Universal inclusion of society members is a necessary element in all societies (which in turn creates a democracy); however, not all aspects in life should be universal like inclusion.
If all aspects of life were universally acceptable, there would be no diversity. The uniqueness in individuals are what lead them to greatness, and what may be good for some is not necessarily good for others. Universally acceptable principals are valid in most aspects of life, but they often tend to lack the ‘human element‘. For example, whaling is an important part of survival for the Inuit of the Arctic (the whales also define their culture/spirituality), but most cultures see this as an inhumane practice. Across the globe, hunting policies change from state-to-state and region-to-region to protect diversity of species and control population numbers of certain species, these policies cannot be universal in all areas or a severe imbalance of ecosystems would occur- and possibly extinction of select species. Another example of where universal principals would not be efficient would be in political elections; which, need diversity for a truly democratic process, as do many social, cultural, political, and global decisions. This is only to name a few of the many examples of where universality is inappropriate. Along with the idea that all aspects of life should not be universal, comes the limitations of universality/inclusion.
A few of the limitations to inclusion that I feel are worth mentioning are: in many systems that are automated; such as, healthcare and other government services. In a sense the individual is “just a number”, and the human element is lacking. Block said, “as soon as you professionalize care, you have produced an oxymoron…systems are capable of service but not care” (13). The systems currently in place are acceptable to deal with the volume/masses of the population; however, these systems tend to let people that are in real need fall through the cracks, so in this sense the human element is crucial, and all are not included. These limitations tend to often affect the poor and marginalized members of society.
Bonding and Bridging social capital are other ways inclusion is limited. “Bonding social capital are networks that are inward looking, composed of people of like minds [(universal inclusion)]. Other social networks encompass different types of people and tend to be outward looking-bridging social capital. A society that has only bonding social capital will…[be]…segregated into mutually hostile camps. So pluralistic democracy requires lots of bridging social capital, not just the bonding variety” (Block 18). Prejudice, small-mindedness, intolerance, and extreme fundamentalism are created under these conditions (Bonding only). Diversity is indispensable in any society, and is crucial in the educated-decision-making-processes that concerns the group/society as a whole. Both Bonding and Bridging social capital are needed to keep diversity flourishing within a society.
In education policy, inclusiveness has harmed many special-needs students more than it has helped. Children with learning disabilities get lost in the educational system, and the schools in the public school system do not address the needs of the children in the standard classroom. In The Limits of Inclusion, Howard Sharron said, “with the growing government emphasis on inclusion, the role of special schools has become marginalized in education policy. Yet for many children, inclusion in the mainstream is a route to failure”. Unless a universal design principle can be implemented in the standardize public school system, inclusion can be the enemy for many learning-disabled students. *
And finally the last limitation I will mention for inclusion, is in the consumer society. Many marketplaces unintentionally marginalize the poor. Products of lesser quality are put on the shelves at a low cost to appeal to those of limited means. These products contain ingredients that can cause health problems further down the line, contain very little nutritional value, and are often considered “unsafe” in their packaging and processing- according to many U.S. Health Department regulations. In From Margins to Mainstream: Why Inclusive Design is Better Design, Roger Coleman explained how the poor have incorporated these products as staples in their diet, relying on the low cost of these products. Coleman said, “in the context of a consumer society, the attempt to bring the elderly into the market place could further marginalize those with limited means, whose needs can only be met through the inadequate supply chain of assistive products. Not only are vulnerable people disabled by bad design and put at risk by poor quality assistive products, the whole semantic of such products is one of dependency and often poverty“; which, outlines how the poor and elderly are relying on the lesser quality products because of cost appeal. This severely marginalizes people. From our local grocery store to a marketplace across the globe, to much bigger issues like affordable healthcare and housing- many people are being marginalized due to their financial situation- forced to consume foods/purchase goods of lesser quality. An ideally inclusive consumer society would eliminate the healthy food desert and provide adequate products for all members of society. This concept also includes various other products on the market today (non-consumables)- the aforementioned limitations are only a few examples I will give, although many more can be outlined in various aspects of life.
The inclusion of all members in a society is a crucial element for a just and democratic one; although, diversity is also needed for this democratic ideal- and by definition, diversity cannot sum up everyone with one universal principal (put them in the same category). Even with the limitations of inclusion, this ideal should be strived for in as many aspects of life as possible, keeping with the ideas of what is good for society as a whole.
*I’d also like to quickly mention that many students don’t know they have a learning disability and struggle in standard school systems, especially in the Western world.
* I decided to use sources from across the globe, with many different sites from professional institutions- to illustrate the global view of the concepts I have mentioned.