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Social Exclusion: a metaphoric trap?

Moving beyond false dialogue

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Paper for the European Continental Forum on Citizenship and Ways out of Social Apartheid (Paris 16-17 February 1995) on the initiative of Europe 99 and with the support of the Fondation pour le Progrès de l'Homme

There is little difficulty in agreeing with the individual suffering raised by the expression 'social exclusion' and the associated concerns. It is important however to recognize the nature of the metaphor through which these concerns are articulated and which may be responsible for the lack of real social progress on them -- despite a multitude of debates.

Exclusion as a mechanistic concept

'Exclusion', as with many communication-related expressions, is based on a very mechanistic understanding of human relations. As analyzed by Lakoff and Johnson (Metaphors We Live By), it belongs to the same class as such polarities as 'In vs. Out', 'Up vs. Down', 'Forward vs. Backward'. Many such terms are used in the analysis of human and social development in order to identify desirable progress. Essentially it is based on the notion of a container or framework establishing a boundary. Some people (the 'haves') are then within this boundary, others (the 'have-nots') are outside it. To be 'in' is unquestionably associated with 'good' and the 'good life', just as to be 'out' is necessarily 'bad' and to be avoided.

Whilst this container observation may appear trivial, its effects on cognitive processes are not. As a generative root metaphor (following Donald Schon), it predisposes people to think in terms of mechanistic solutions to a problem which may call for quite different approaches. As an urban planner, Schon's classic example is a public policy approach that defines a slum area as a 'blight'. This medical metaphor then evokes and legitimates a surgical response which legitimates the excision of the slum with bulldozers. He pleads for alternative metaphors to counteract this tendency.

'Exclusion' has the obvious consequence of implying that some people are 'shut out', which is clearly totally unacceptable. However it tends to structure thinking in terms of obvious mechanistic responses such as how they should be 'let in'. Simplistic proposals invite simplistic counter-proposals. Furthermore the metaphor sets up a mind set that echoes the past tendencies to create fortified walled cities and monasteries to keep unwanted people out and to protect the privileged. The 'European fortress' is one possible consequence.

Options in response to mechanistic exclusion

Framed in this way, the metaphor encourages and justifies thinking to 'break down the walls' -- in fact few other options are suggested. Are those living 'outside' to be allowed 'in' for a visit? From this perspective it also becomes clear why those inside might be reluctant to allow the outsiders in. What would be the consequence if all the outsiders came in? How would 'in' be transformed? Is there space 'inside' for all those who are 'outside'?

The 'exclusion' metaphor may therefore be highly motivating for those outside, but it may be totally counterproductive in motivating those inside to respond to their condition.

Fake dialogue through counter-productive over-simplification

Dialogue concerning the issues relating to poverty is easily confused by the use of the exclusion metaphor. Fake dialogue can then easily result.

For those suffering from poverty and related conditions 'social exclusion' provides an identifying label which motivates and focuses protest. This label is a convenient one for those desiring to support them.

But the label only works if there is agreement on a single boundary and on the unquestionable value of what is on the inside compared to what is on the outside. This boundary can be defined using economic and social statistics which typically divide the population into bands of relative wealth or poverty. The difficulty is that those within any of these statistically defined bands (however they are defined) tend to desire to move to a position of greater wealth. They seek to do so by competing with those of equal or lesser wealth, and having successfully competed will endeavour to maintain their position by various forms of social exclusion process. In these terms there is always an 'inner' circle from which the person is excluded and to which he/she aspires.

Many groups have a vested interest in this process. Competition is widely advocated as the motor of economic and social progress. 'Up market' products are advertised in such a way that people strive to acquire them in order not to be socially excluded from the group for whom they are a symbol of a desirable lifestyle. It is to the advantage of business to transform luxuries into necessities -- effectively defining those who do not possess them as impoverished, at least in their own eyes. The pursuit of social status is based on the definition of exclusivity -- exclusive clubs, restaurants, hotels, parties, etc.

But people can be subject to social exclusion in other ways. Meat-eaters and vegetarians, users and non-users of alcohol and recreational drugs, are also examples of mutual exclusion. Especially striking is the case of smokers and non-smokers. In many cases smokers are now socially excluded. This follows a period in which non-smoking led to social exclusion, especially among young adults. To smoke was then a way of ensuring social inclusion, as it still is in many instances which it is in the interest of the tobacco industry to reinforce.

Social exclusion is also manifest in the formation of youth groups and gangs, with those excluded being vulnerable to harassment and bullying. It has long been evident as a consequence of the various obvious forms of discrimination: by religion, by political affiliation, by age, by gender, by colour, by ethnic origin, by educational background, etc. It also results from differences in matters of taste and fashion. Young people are especially sensitive to those they include or exclude from their social activities, but their elders may also go to great lengths in this respect. In all such cases great pain can be experienced by those excluded.

In the richer countries, ironically it is often those most disadvantaged who feel most threatened by the arrival of migrants from countries with even greater levels of poverty. This is a further illustration of the pervasiveness of social exclusion and its limitations as a conceptual tool.

One feature of fake dialogue on social exclusion is that the above argument can readily be labelled as relativising the issue of human suffering in order to avoid dealing with it. The point to be made is that the issue of human suffering will not be effectively dealt with in any dialogue which fails to recognize that social exclusion takes many forms whose value is often systematically reinforced as an indicator of success and well-being. Economists have not been able to invent a system that is not directly dependent on a significant level of unemployment and poverty. From a business perspective, the pattern of social exclusion is vital to ensuring increased consumption in a continuing attempt to alleviate it. For the labour force, it is natural that those with jobs should want to protect the benefits deriving from those jobs.

Dissociating poverty from well-being

In the present economic and social situation, there are no indications that experts, academic disciplines or governments can design a system which will significantly reduce poverty as it is currently defined. If they could design it, there is little political possibility that it could be successfully implemented. The rising world population, and the probability of unstoppable mass migration, offer little hope. More conceptually radical possibilities merit exploration.

One possibility lies in delinking quality of life from the tangibles promoted by economists and commercial interests, and clarifying how it might be carried by the intangibles of community life. To this end experiments are required to reframe exploration of 'voluntary simplicity' and 'living lightly' to determine in what ways could well-being be maximized whilst reducing dependence on tangibles. As many have discovered, the quality of tangibles is no guarantee of quality of life, although it is in the interests of conventional economic growth to present it so. But since such growth is now only sustained by what amounts to a global 'pyramid selling' scam, alternative perspectives urgently merit exploration. The fact that they are not is itself of interest.

What makes for a sense of well-being in those for whom tangibles are of secondary significance? Extreme cases are perhaps hermits and austere religious communities. Perhaps also of little interest are contemporary examples such as New Age travellers, gypsies, and young people exploring newly acquired independence. Others include those obsessed with scholarly, artistic and sporting (surfing) pursuits, as well as inventors and adventurers. Most striking is the case of those in love or imbued with an ideal. Like any sense of well-being, it has occasionally been noted that 'falling in love' does not contribute detectably to GNP or economic growth -- in contrast to a costly divorce or an accident involving hospitalization.

Little wonder that the role of intangibles in community life remains unexplored except as an advertising gloss to assist the sale of tangibles. The key may lie in recognition that a sense of social exclusion results from identifying well-being with the tangibles used as symbols by particular social groups. Such tangibles then function as a substitute for the sense of well-being -- if it is not in fact experienced. There is pressure to acquire more expensive foods when this sense of well-being is lacking. Soft-drink companies exploit this among the impoverished in developing countries, drawing them into the monetarized economy.

A major opportunity for the future seems to lie in dissociating 'poverty' from 'well-being'. For many this might prove to be the only route offered in the savagely competitive global environment favoured by economists. The challenge is then not how to 'reduce poverty' (according to the standards of homo economicus) but rather how to 'increase well-being'. The reality of the desire of some for large automobiles and second homes is not about to be prevented.

The challenge is not how to produce tangibles but how to nurture the intangible pattern of behaviour by which people feel sustained as members of a real community. This raises the question of the sustaining capacity of a community and its relationship to government 'safety nets'. This is as much a choice for the individual as a choice for a community -- as those who choose to leave the 'rat race' have long established. Having an expensive automobile or meal may be one way to feel a sense of well-being in a community, but it is certainly not the only way -- as the aspiration of many to withdraw to a simpler lifestyle demonstrates, even among the wealthy.

What then is this sense of well-being which is the reverse of what is experienced as social exclusion? How is it represented to people? By whom and why? Why is it almost exclusively represented in terms of tangibles on which a monetary value can be placed? What has the European Union or the United Nations done to encourage people to develop alternative understandings of well-being?

Concrete example for investigation

A striking, but little-known, contemporary example is provided by the Swadhaya Movement, notably active along the western coast of India. As described by Shri R K Srivastava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi): 'Swadhyaya is neither a cult nor a sect; it is neither a party nor an association; it is neither messianic nor limited to a particular section of society; it is neither directed against centralising state power nor to overcoming flaws in Indian society, though such consequences may follow. Swadhyaya is both a metaphor and a movement. It is a metaphor in the sense of a vision, and a movement in terms of its orientation in social and economic spheres.'

Building on qualities long articulated within the Hindu spiritual tradition, emphasis is placed on the quality of relationship between people, especially within the context of the most impoverished villages. This has led to a remarkable, and growing, capacity to regenerate village life. Refusing any economic assistance from either Indian government or foreign sources, unusual achievements have been made in thousands of villages, even in such physical terms as managing farms. The cost of recharging wells is one tenth of government projects, for example.

Such an example, and the Grameem Bank, raises the question whether there are lessons to be learnt for sustainable communities in the West. Perhaps more challenging is whether such examples, or those of The Farm and the Amish communities in the USA, could be understood within a context like the European Union or the UN Conference on Habitat (Istanbul, 1996). Community sustainability is as much a question of psycho-social patterns as of an appropriately resourced environment. The former may in many cases be secondary to the latter, but the latter is not necessarily capable of engendering the former.

Ironically representatives of the Swadhaya Movement were invited to the Conference on Poverty**** (Brussels, October 1995). Despite 'aid fatigue', their perspective was considered irrelevant because they were neither potential donors of funds nor eager recipients. This suggests that the logical framework of current national and international approaches to poverty and social exclusion may be fatally flawed. Where there is a great lack of conventional resources, it is vital to be attentive to those who do not require them -- especially when they have unusual achivements to demonstrate. Convinced of the validity of their perspective, like Galileo's colleagues, the 'social exclusion' establishment was unwilling to look through one telescope that was offered. How many other such leads are being ignored? What questions are deliberately designed out of dialogue on social exclusion? Why?

New metaphors

Without losing the strength of the exclusion metaphor, what complementary metaphors might be more appropriate to offer creative possibilities for reframing the polarized relationship? Each such metaphor will necessarily have its own inherent disadvantages. How many such metaphors may be necessary to counteract each others limitations and provide a more general framework through which appropriate initiatives can be engendered? And are there metaphors, like crop rotation, which suggest ways of interrelating such mental frameworks as a basis for sustainable policies?

One richer and less mechanistic metaphor is that of an 'ecosystem'. From this perspective there are those who are higher up the 'food chain'. And there are those who live in 'arid zones'. The policy challenge is somehow to transform the ecosystem. The more complex skills required may then be inspired by considerations familiar to farmers and gardeners. Schon's alternative to sending in the bulldozers was to treat a slum as an organic community which called for just such skills.

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