[Viewpoint] Social exclusion is destructive

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[Viewpoint] Social exclusion is destructive

Solidarity is essential to democratic societies, otherwise, they would fall apart. Despite it’s necessity, many view the development of an individualistic outlook as the greatest threat to solidarity nowadays. However, solidarity is closely linked to a diminishing sense of common identity.

For example, it is no accident that the most successful welfare states in Europe were created in ethnically homogeneous Scandinavia. People in those countries felt that they could understand their neighbors and fellow citizens, and that they shared a intimate connection with them.

Today, the challenge is to maintain that sense of intense solidarity amid the continually diversifying populations. There are two ways to achieve this. First is to hark back to older modes of solidarity. French identity, for example, is based on the country’s unique brand of republican secularism, known as laicite. But France’s efforts to shore up solidarity by insisting on laicite and erecting a dam against Muslim immigrants is not only ineffective but counter-productive as well.

The second way to preserve solidarity is to redefine identity itself. All democratic societies today are faced with the challenge of redefining their identity in dialogue with some elements that are external, and some that are internal.

Consider the influence of feminist movements throughout the West. The people involved are not people who came from outside of their countries. They are people who, in some ways, lacked full citizenship, and therefore demanded it. Throughout the process of working towards their goal, they were able to redefine the political order.

Today the greatest task is to calm the fear that our traditions are being undermined. This task involves reaching out to people who are coming into our land from other countries while finding a way of recreating our political ethics around the kernel of human rights, equality, nondiscrimination, and democracy. If we succeed, we can establish a sense of belonging with each other, even though our reasons for believing may be different.

But increasing individualism - a focus on one’s own ambitions and economic prosperity - in many countries poses as a stubborn obstacle to realizing this vision. Indeed, the utter lack of a sense of solidarity among so many people - horrifyingly evident in the U.S. healthcare debate - is now undermining the very basis of what a modern democratic society is.

A society’s sense of solidarity can be sustained only if all of its different spiritual groups recreate their sense of dedication to it. The many various kinds of philosophies must see solidarity as being central to their philosophy. Christians must see it being central to their region, Muslims must see it being central to their Islamic faith.

Religion provides a profound and powerful base of solidarity, and to marginalize it would be a big mistake, just as marginalizing atheistic philosophies would be a mistake. Democratic societies, in their tremendous diversity, are powered by many different engines of commitment to a common ethic. If they hope to maintain a political community, they cannot afford to switch off any of these engines.

Historically, the political ethics of confessional societies has been grounded in a single, basic foundation. In Europe, various kinds of laique societies have tried to invent themselves out of the ruins of the Christian foundation, but they have made a similar mistake in a different way, with a kind of Jacobin insistence on the civil religion of the Enlightenment.

We can no longer have a civil religion - based on any particular view, whether it be based on God, or on laicite and the rights of man. We live today, in uncharted territory. We face a challenge that is unprecedented in human history.

The challenge of creating a powerful political ethic of solidarity that is self-consciously grounded on the presence and acceptance of a variety of different views. This challenge can be won if only we develop mutual respect for the different views, which can achieved by engaging in vigorous exchange with each other.

The advancing force of Islamophobia in Europe and the US, with its attempt to reduce Islam’s complex and varied history to a few demagogic slogans, is the kind of utterly ignorant stupidity - there is no better description of it - on which democratic societies are founded. But that is true of any kind of dismissive view of the “other.” Our societies will hold together only if we talk to each other with openness.

*The writer is professor emeritus at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2010.

by Charles Taylor
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