Inclusivity. Has there ever been a word so self-evidently good that only an ogre would dare question its benignity? Everyone, or at least every rational person, buys into this unchallengeable shibboleth of twenty-first century culture. And yet.
Earlier this year, France’s professional football organization called for all players from its top leagues to wear shirts with rainbow-colored numbers to express support for The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Five players refused and chose not to play rather than show solidarity with the inclusivity signaled by the special day.
A year ago, the Paris St-Germain football player Idrissa Gueye declined to play in a match rather than wear a rainbow symbol in support of LGBTQ+ rights. The then club manager Mauricio Pochettino said only that Gueye missed the game for “personal reasons.” Gueye was born and raised in Senegal, where about 97% of the population are Muslim and homosexuality is illegal and punishable by prison sentences of up to five years. It is also illegal in Qatar, the home of Paris St-Germain’s owners. Last year’s men’s World Cup was staged there, of course.
Among the players who declined to participate this year was Zakaria Aboukhlal, who plays for Toulouse and was born in Morocco, another Muslim country, where blasphemy against Islam is a punishable offense and same sex relationships are legally prohibited. “Respect is a value that I hold in great esteem,” Aboukhlal wrote on Twitter, explaining his refusal to participate in the day of celebration. “It extends to others, but it also encompasses respect for my own personal beliefs. Hence, I don’t believe I am the most suitable person to participate in this campaign.”
It seemed a measured response and contrives an answer to a question that has so far not been asked: Is inclusivity inclusive? It sounds like a pun or some other form of wordplay, but it conveys an uncertainty about one of today’s most momentous cultural trends: Does inclusivity undermine the very groups it seeks to embrace?
Civic Unity vs. Individual Liberty
Every right minded person agrees inclusivity is desirable: We can never right history’s wrongs, but we can at least equalize conditions in a way that ensures no repetition. This policy aims to provide equal access to opportunities and resources for groups that have historically been oppressed. By promoting understanding, challenging stereotypes and encouraging empathy, it’s possible to create spaces where diverse populations can come together, engage in respectful dialogue and live and work together.
The trouble is: certain groups that have been subordinated sometimes oppose the policy of inclusivity. Muslims are one such group. They have no particular interest in contributing toward building a society in which LGBTQ+ groups are accepted, integrated, respected and treated as equals. Understandably so: The Qur’an stipulates that homosexuality is sinful.
Muslims have faced discrimination, sometimes known as Islamophobia, and continue to do so. They assert their right to believe homosexuality is a sin. Religious freedom is as much a human right as anything we can conceive. So, how do we respect both Islam and groups it deems sinners and so unworthy of respect? Squaring this circle requires us to distinguish between cultural inclusivity and individual rights.
The philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) considered what conditions need to be satisfied in order to achieve what he considered a just society. Balancing social good against the protection of individual rights and liberties was the key. It seems rational to preserve basic liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly, as well as ensuring equality of opportunities. No rational person would willingly sacrifice these in pursuit of something as indeterminate as the social good, but Rawls entertained the possibility of civic unity amid a diversity of worldviews. He argued that curbing the liberties of an intolerant group that intended to harm the liberties of others may be justified. But what if the intolerant and potentially harmful group is one that’s been denied equal treatment? And what if the group’s apparent intolerance is based on a religious mandate. In other words, the group’s unwillingness to accept views, beliefs and behavior that differ from its own derives from its commitment to a faith. One answer to the question came via a case in England in 2010.
A Christian owner of a bed-and-breakfast in England refused a double room to a gay male couple. The owner insisted that it was against her religious convictions to let two men share a bed. A court concluded she unlawfully discriminated against the couple. Her appeal was supported by the Christian Institute, a national charity that defends the civil liberties of Christians. She lost her appeal. The word inclusivity was not in the popular vocabulary at the time, but the import of the court’s decision was clear: Her religious beliefs, no matter how fervently held, provided no justification for her action, which breached Britain’s equality law and was therefore harmful, in the sense it had an adverse effect on particular groups. The verdict portended the arrival of inclusivity, prioritizing the social good over religious beliefs.
The Mailed Fist
Inclusivity describes the endgame fought for over the decades by those who oppose racism, sexism, homophobia and many other forms of bigotry that have blighted society. But it’s an ideal: Desirable and perfect but unlikely to become a reality. The cracks appeared in the late 1970s when Louis Farrakhan took over the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a predominantly African American organization advocating black economic independence and separatism. Farrakhan denied allegations of antisemitism, sexism and homophobia but used the phrase “Satanic Jews,” prompting the uncomfortable recognition that belonging to a group that had been disparaged historically did not prevent someone reiterating the disparagement of others.
Similarly, women who railed for decades against sexism, or to use a more current term, misogyny have, in recent years, been accused of bigotry when they’ve opposed the induction of transgender women into institutions traditionally reserved for biological females. It’s hardly surprising many women have responded angrily to the appearance of transgender females in sports competitions, prisons, shelters and bathrooms designated for women. But the logic of inclusivity is irresistible. Women’s groups will flail, but inclusivity bears the feelings and ideas of our times and, when necessary, reveals a mailed fist inside its velvet glove.
For example, in England, some football crowds voiced their disapproval of the Premier League’s introduction of taking the knee before games. The gesture was to signal the sport’s alignment with Black Lives Matter and demonstrate football’s fight against racism. Thus it was consistent with the inclusivity project. When fans remonstrated, they were instantly denounced as racists. In fact, much of the resistance to the gesture was based on the manner in which a symbolic display had replaced a genuine fight against racism. In other words, it seemed worse-than-futile. But honest criticism of a ritual that advertised football’s embrace of inclusivity was condemned. Personal beliefs were crushed, along with alternative perspectives and criticism that would have been considered valid in previous decades.
Inclusivity distinguishes the early twenty-first century from previous epochs. It is an unquestioned, incontestable and unassailably virtuous ideal. It is also a juggernaut of secular culture that will overwhelm everything. It aims to provide acceptance and equality by persuasion and, if need be, by force. And this is why the recent disagreement in French football is worth scrutinizing. Dismaying as it sounds, this case suggests that a policy designed to protect and enhance the experiences of previously marginalized communities will surely engender clashes with individuals who solicit respect for their beliefs, especially when those beliefs are based on religious scriptures. Ten or fifteen years ago, their solicitation would have been heard and considered. Now, it’s likely to be ignored. Religious beliefs and rights will be subordinated.
I’ve spent much of my professional life researching, writing about and opposing racism, sexism and other bigotries, so I instinctively approve of inclusivity. I also subscribe to cultural relativism, meaning that I don’t believe in absolutes: knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to society, culture and historical contexts. “Live and let live” is my favored proverb: tolerate the beliefs and behavior of others in order that they’ll tolerate yours. Inclusivity chimes with that. But only if it’s discretionary and refrains from compulsion. European football’s instruction rather than suggestion to its players seems coercive, controlling, even tyrannical. A display of solidarity is just window dressing if some of the participants are performing under duress. It may be a way of promoting one of the great policies of our age, but it’s also misleading.
A different way of pursuing inclusivity is to recognize that cultural differences are not always reconcilable. We just have to tolerate them and prevent them from promoting harm to others. Tolerate is an old-fashioned verb but one worth reimagining: Allowing, accepting or even just enduring with forbearance beliefs and practices we don’t like seems a mature approach. Persuasion often works, but, when it doesn’t, coercion is no alternative: it’s more like a tacit admission of defeat.
[Ellis Cashmore’s latest book is The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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