The well-known adage of St Bernard of Clairvaux, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, may be traced back further to Julius Ceasar’s pronouncement that bad norms are preceded by justifiable principles. Be that as it may, the point is clear. Regarding the absolutisation of inclusivity, a norm that has brought a host of institutions in this country to their knees, it is necessary further to investigate the origin and expressions of this norm. The good principle behind inclusivity can be traced back, inter alia, to the homo equalis notion of Christianity. This implies on the one hand the idea that all are equal in the eyes of God, but that recognition for different roles within the body called the Church is necessary, with Christ as the head. The current expression of this notion, however, requires further study, given the challenges stated above.
Consider the following statement from Marshall McLuhan’s well-known book Understanding media, published in 1964:
“The aspiration of our time for wholeness, empathy and depth of awareness is a natural adjunct of electric technology.”
The above seems to indicate that the core values of our time reflect the functioning of the technology to which we are exposed, in this case our electronic technology. McLuhan is inspired by the Biblical principle that we adjust our behaviour to the things we perceive (hence his well-known adage “the medium is the message”). To what extent, therefore, is the electric age inevitably “inclusive”, and how does our behaviour form a mirror image of it?
Function and behaviour
During the Industrial Revolution a linear model of production was applied that started with production and ended with consumption. The electric circuit, on the other hand, enables the possibility of creating no longer in a mechanical-linear way but in an electronic-circular way, and of organising society accordingly. By linking circuits within the factory to wider networks (a buzzword of our time) in society, consumption is immediately translated into data, which in turn serves as basis for production. The bigger the circulation of consumption, the bigger the profit will be. From this the working principle of our time emerges more clearly, again in McLuhan’s words: “The electric [technology] is total and inclusive”. The electric age has become so total and inclusive that it joins together previously inconsistent systems, namely capitalism and socialism. The economic dispensation of our time, with China and the US as main protagonists, is evidence of the seamless collaboration in an increasingly integrated world order, as reflected by the themes of the recent Davos Conference.
Lowest common denominator logic
A lowest common denominator logic is best suited for inclusivity (more consumers can be generated in this way), and organisations applying this logic receive copious rewards and contracts. How does this aspect function in education, in the workplace and at management level, respectively?
In education we see how excellence and standards fall by the wayside and make way for minimum requirements. More particularly: maximum compliance with minimum requirements is common practice.
As far as work is concerned, the need to package tasks in large quantities of easily processable information, instead of performing complex and intense work that translates with hard effort into words, has brought about a change in the notion of work: “In the age of instant information man ends his job of fragmented specializing and assumes the role of information gathering”. Interdisciplinary work, yet another buzzword of our time (linked to so-called wholeness referred to by McLuhan above), often is nothing less than watered-down aspects of different tasks that have to be joined together and bunched up in reports, nowadays taking up more time than the performance of previously specialised primary tasks.
In the electric era, the most important task of managers initially was to cause the predictable output of machines to correspond with the erratic outputs of humans, but at present the order of the day is correspondence between the outputs of humans with widely differing levels of competence in order to maintain the appropriate social profile.
Inclusivity and cancellation
What effect does this have on society in general? Within communities with a shared appreciation of culture, values (morality in philosophic parlance) are cherished and freedoms granted in interaction with the values. One should not exist without the other. Values are established over time and provide a framework around which behaviour is determined. Freedom is being able to participate in or withdraw from these patterns of behaviour at will. The ideal is that the values will create spaces for freedom and, vice versa, that freedom will be expressed in honouring, criticising and creating new values. A society that adheres to values without appreciating freedom, and the opposite (freedom without consideration of values that are respected), are equally harmful. In an exclusively inclusive society, values as such are affrontive, meaning that freedom acquires only negative content. Freedom here means only unfettered movement. If anyone undermines my self-expression, such a person has to be cancelled. Eventually we find ourselves in the situation where the obviously contradictory principles of inclusivity and cancellation are equally vociferously elevated to the status of credo. Cancellation therefore does not happen in spite of inclusivity, but as a result thereof. Consequently, absolute inclusivity means absolutely exclusive. A concrete and contemporary example is the way the argument for the maintenance of Afrikaans is presented, namely that one should bear in mind that most of the speakers are not white, which is indicative of such an exclusive inclusivity coming into operation. Over time, this negative freedom turns into a smothering freedom.
Intention and effect
Good intentions without thorough reflection on the origin of the principles and consideration of the consequences of their application often result in problems. The problems are ignored because of the failure to appreciate any causal link between the purity of intent and the negative outcome. When the good intentions are codified in a statute that is supposed to take the consequences into consideration, it is a slow poison that can result in the downfall of a society. The defence against this surely cannot be burying our heads in the sand and removing ourselves from reality like ascetics. We are all children of our time, meaning that we are not isolated from the influences surrounding us. However, reflection and further debating cannot be avoided.