Lilacs

Imagine a little path through a local wooded area. It’s not an official park or anything, and it doesn’t belong to anyone – just those little sections of woodland that you can find hidden tucked in corners between more civilized areas. This path in particular gets traveled with some frequency as people use it as a shortcut or a convenient dog-walking path, things like that.

One person likes to walk this path frequently. This person also has a reasonable amount of spare time, and loves lilacs. As a result of these things, they plant a bunch of lilacs along the path. They have no way to control whether others will care for them or vandalize them, but they enjoy the act of planting alone enough to make that not matter. Soon, there are lilacs in bloom in a few places along the path.

Someone else may strongly dislike lilacs. They have a particular fragrance that some may find very disagreeable! Or they may not like the color, or maybe even they’re allergic. As a result, that person doesn’t want to walk along that path anymore. The opposite may be true for other someone else – maybe another person really loves lilacs, and is drawn to the path because they spot them from the road, whereas otherwise they wouldn’t have wandered in.

Changes to the environment of any kind push some people away from that environment, and draw others in. This is unavoidable, and I’m not sure it should count as a problem. Or at least, there should be some well-understood parameters around when it is or isn’t.

I’m thinking about this at all because topics like inclusiveness are important. There are a lot of people who have been traditionally excluded from a lot of important spaces in deliberate and unkind (to say the least) ways. When whole sectors of society and culture – important ones, like banking, employment, real estate, governmental representation – are walled off from whole demographics for no reason other than the demographic itself, that’s clearly a problem. And if we have become zealous in our attempts to remove these barriers, huzzah! But we should still make sure we aren’t being over-zealous to the point where the efforts make no sense.

Imagine a little restaurant in the village of the Sneeches. If the restaurant has a sign up that says “Star-Belly Sneeches are NOT ALLOWED,” then we have a problem. Especially if many, most or all other restaurants are following suit! But if the proprietors of that restaurant have no such sign, and in fact Star-Belly Sneeches are welcome any time and there’s no animosity towards them at all, then it’s not a problem – even if the restaurant doesn’t actually sell any food that Star-Belly Sneeches want. Not every space and experience has to be for everyone. The restaurant owners would be wrong to deliberately excluse Star-Belly Sneeches. But they’re under no obligation (and in fact it would be silly) to alter their menu until they had a relatively even mix of both kinds of Sneeches.

So, this is nuanced and thorny. How can we tell if we’re looking at problematic exclusion or just the natural result of harmless environmental preferences? While there will always be situation-dependent details, I think we can safely start with some broad questions to at least get us close.

  1. Is the environment that we’re talking about something “essential” to operation in the broader society? There’s a big difference between a wooded path and, say, the higher education system. There’s no clear, bright line between one and the other, but certainly it’s a reasonable thing to ask as a starting point.
  2. Regardless of the environment, is the exclusion happening deliberately and directly? Even something as simple as a wooded path is not immune from the immorality of saying “NO IRISH.” If you’re going out of your way to exclude people because of who they are, and not as a side effect of normal influence on the environment, then it’s a problem no matter what.
  3. Definitely a rider on #2 – is the exclusion de facto deliberate, even if you’re pretending it’s not? Let’s go back to the Sneeches example. Let’s say that the restaurant by policy welcomes the Star-Belly Sneeches. But the owners also put up a lot of traditionally anti-SBS art or logos, dogwhistles that everyone recognizes as such. Those things don’t serve any purpose except to chase away the Star-Belly Sneeches, and so we’re back to immoral actions.

Number 3 is the trickiest, because it’s the most subject to interpretation, and intent absolutely matters. Reasonable people can disagree about what an “anti-SBS” piece of art might be. It might be art that Star-Belly Sneeches really hate, but other Sneeches genuinely love for innocent reasons unrelated to the opinions of the Star-Belly Sneeches. If that’s the case, we’re back on the Lilac Path – it’s something that some people may wish was different, but so what? You can be welcome somewhere without wanting to go there, and the people who are (genuinely) welcoming you are under no obligation to try harder to make you want to.

I keep my house very, very cold. I hate the heat, so my AC is cranked all the time. Some of my friends don’t like that, and complain about it when they visit! They joke about bringing blankets or sweaters (or they actually do). But I didn’t turn up my AC in order to repel or exclude them. I want them to come! My AC is cranked because I like it.

But you know what? I’ll make it milder when they visit.

Which brings me to the last and most vital point. In most cases, no one is obligated to encourage everyone into shared, non-essential spaces, only to allow it if desired. But if you do encourage it, that is morally praiseworthy. Going above and beyond “allowing” and truly reaching out, inviting, and even changing things you otherwise wouldn’t want to change in order to make your fellow humans – star on their bellies or not – want to be in that space?

Well, that makes you the best on the beaches.

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