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When it comes to inclusion, worth precedes worthiness

“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” You probably know those immortal words from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” by heart. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made a similar observation when he said, “We are admonished […]

“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” You probably know those immortal words from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” by heart. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made a similar observation when he said, “We are admonished to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots.”

Before we judge anyone as less exalted, let’s remember that the Reverend King and Pastor Niebuhr are talking about worthiness of character. Here’s the point: Worth comes first. Worthiness comes second. Inclusion is not about worthiness. It’s about treating people like people. It’s the act of extending fellowship, membership, association, and connection—regardless of rank, status, gender, race, appearance, intelligence, education, beliefs, values, politics, habits, traditions, language, customs, history, or any other defining characteristic. Inclusion marks passage into civilization. Withholding inclusion is a sign that we’re engaged in a fight with our own willful blindness, that we’re self-medicating with enchanting tales about our distinctiveness and superiority. If it’s a mild case of snobbery, that may be easy to dismiss. But if it’s a more severe case of narcissistic supremacy, that’s a bigger problem. And then there’s everything in between.

In our social units, we should create an environment of inclusion before we begin to think about judgments at all.

Worth precedes worthiness.

There’s a time and a place to judge worthiness, but when you allow someone to cross the threshold of inclusion, there’s no litmus test. We’re not weighing your character in the balance to see if you’re found wanting. To be deserving of inclusion has nothing to do with your personality, virtues, or abilities. There are, at this level, no disqualifications, except onethe threat of harm.

Let me give you a subtle example. I have two cars. One is old and rusty, has 315,000 miles on the odometer, and a resale value of $375. The other is a black sports sedan. When I take my sedan in for service, the attendant is highly responsive. When I take in my rust bucket, the attendant can be mildly disdainful. In both cases, the car is the lead indicator of my social status, and people grant or withhold inclusion based on my car, the artifact in which I sit. Some days I’m politely ignored, other days solicitously attended to. That’s how sensitive people are to these indicators because, as a species, we scramble for status like apes for nuts.

Key questions: Do you treat people that you consider of lower status differently than those of higher status? If so, why?

What should it take to qualify for inclusion? Two things: Be human and be harmless. If you meet both criteria, you qualify. If you meet only one, you don’t. The great African American social reformer Frederick Douglass made a definitive statement about inclusion when he said, “I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity.” That statement can apply to any characteristic. When we extend inclusion to each other, we subordinate our differences to invoke a more important binding characteristic—our common humanity.

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