Inclusiveness

“Through its grantmaking and convening with nonprofit leaders,” a regional philanthropy announces on its Web site, “the foundation discovered a widespread community interest in developing a deeper understanding of how inclusiveness of diverse voices and experiences enhances and expands the work of nonprofits.”

We have no choice but to trust the accuracy of this surprising revelation: The community in question (a major metropolitan area, not a secluded retreat for social theorists) apparently has a “widespread interest” in “developing a deeper understanding” of INCLUSIVENESS. Whether this community has any interest in actually including anyone is an unexplored question. Its interest, as far as a reader can tell, is merely in understanding how inclusiveness enhances things. It’s hard to resist the thought that this is a community where way too little is going on. But who are we to judge?

In any case, the foundation has marched boldly ahead to form an “inclusiveness initiative,” complete with steering committee, convenings, and a recommended list (you knew this was coming) of inclusiveness consultants. Elsewhere, another large regional foundation has a similar initiative called “Embrace Inclusiveness,” which exhorts “organizations and businesses” (note that the latter are included even if they are disorganizations) “to embrace the demographic changes” in this region, which elsewhere are described as creating “a more effusive ethnic, cultural, religious, and lifestyle setting.”

The malapropism here is especially unfortunate. The use of “effusive” (“unrestrained or excessive in emotional expression; gushy” according to The American Heritage Dictionary) might strike one as touching dangerously on stereotypes of some of the ethnic and cultural groups in question. Fortunately, we learn at the end of the sentence that this excessive emotionalism does not apply to any of those groups, but merely to the setting, whose very hills and prairies evidently gush forth lifestyles, like the fountains of paradise.

It would be fine to have a laugh at the expense of all this inclusiveness, were it not for the important ideas being held incommunicado behind a fortress of weird vocabulary. The organizations cited here are trying, in their different ways, to bring groups of people into activities from which those groups have been left out. The effort may be aimed at correcting a social wrong or simply improving some activity by bringing more people (and their perspectives) into it. Either way, if the groups to be included were named explicitly, and if there were some specificity about how their exclusion is to be ended, and why, then an important social and practical purpose would no doubt be served. And people would probably want to read about it and learn from it.

But when the allegedly excluded people are obscured behind sweeping banners like “cultural and lifestyle groups” (which is obviously code for something unstated), and when the activity being promoted is gauzed over with empty feel-good expressions like “embrace this,” practically all meaning is lost. Rather than focusing on what needs to be done to include whom, readers are encouraged to dwell instead on the self-congratulatory piety of those who espouse INCLUSIVENESS. Are these “inclusive” organizations urging us to hire, elect, and solicit views from members of certain ethnic groups, women, gays, or some combination? If so, why do they seem so embarrassed about saying so? The problem isn’t the term inclusiveness itself, which is tired and overused but not completely meaningless. The problem is the uncompleted thought: Include whom? In what? Why?

Some organizations do manage to use the fashionable jargon and then promptly clarify it with specifics. An engineering group affiliated with the National Science Foundation, for example, starts off with calls for an “inclusive environment” but then helpfully adds that “engineering education must be made more open to women and underrepresented ethnic minorities, since their contributions would strengthen the enterprise.” Thanks to that clarification, we now know which groups are to be solicited and why. It’s also clear from context that the people who need to do the soliciting include educators, admissions officers, and professional groups, at a minimum. That is more than enough information to make us forget the gushy jargon and concentrate on what needs to be done.

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