No one likes to be left out of the club, but every club can only exist by making a distinction between those who are members and those who are not. If everyone is part of the club, then there is no club. As soon as a school sets real standards of academic achievement and behavior, it necessarily puts expulsion on the table. Whenever a basketball team strives to win a tournament, the coach must make decisions about who plays and who sits on the bench. It can feel sad when we do not make the cut, but the possibility that somebody does not make the cut is a precondition for there being a team in the first place.
This principle operates at a deeper level than clubs, schools, and teams. Every time we begin to make distinctions between better and worse, we inevitably draw a circle around the excellent exemplars in that field. We put the greats in that circle, and by necessity, this means that others are out. It can be painful to recognize that—try as we might—we may never break into the circle. A professional pianist, for example, may happily find himself in a group of musicians invited to a particular music festival, but he may also be painfully conscious that he will never be counted among the true greats of his art. When we find ourselves on the outside, it may become tempting to resent the very existence of the circle and hence come to resent the standards of excellence that create it.
There is a flip-side to this, however. Groucho Marx joked that he did not want to be part of any club that would accept him as a member. If we change the criteria in order to expand the circle of membership we destroy the very principle of identity that made us desire membership in the circle to begin with. I once watched a short documentary about a woman who opened a legal suit against an exclusive men’s club in London. Once she won her case, however, she dropped her membership after only a short time. She was disappointed that the club turned out to have a different atmosphere than what she imagined a men’s club would have.
Consider a baseball player who earnestly wants nothing more in his career than to have his picture hang in the Hall of Fame. There are two ways for him to do this. He can achieve the level of excellence in baseball required for membership in the Hall of Fame, or he can insinuate himself into the politics of the Hall of Fame board so that he can change the standards. The problem with the latter path, although it is taken by many, is that he would know in his bones that the victory is hollow. He would know that he is not a member of the same Hall of Fame he wanted to join when he set out.
As we have seen in the previous posts in this series, however, we must preserve the real truths that the complaints against exclusivity are founded upon. We do, as a species, have a tendency toward mean-spirited exclusion for exclusion’s sake. Cliques are formed in high school with many shallow criteria for membership. The point of the clique is to exclude others simply so that its members can feel that they belong to some inner circle. This craving to belong to some group—any group—can lead to some of the nastiest behavior of which human beings are capable.
C.S. Lewis explores this theme in That Hideous Strength, as one of the main characters, Mark, goes from bad to worse precisely by seeking to be part of an “inner circle,” first at his university and then in a shadowy dystopian government agency. The flaw in Mark is not that he wants to belong, but that he does not remain conscientious about what exactly it is that he wants to belong to. His wife Jane, by contrast, finds herself slowly converted to goodness as she moves further and further into the right kind of inner circle, which excludes simply by its goodness.
More perniciously than cliques, many groups actually invert the proper order between excellence and exclusivity. They market themselves as exclusive hoping that people will see them as excellent. Just look at the advertisements of any luxury brand and you will see this inversion on full display. Much of the high-brow art world today also works this way. The members of this adult clique do not first look to the objective excellence of a work of art and only secondarily exclude that which is less than the best (the way it should be). Instead, they first look to see whether a work of art has an aura of exclusivity according to the current fads, and they especially look to see whether they can acquire for themselves some of that aura by praising the right pieces while panning others. Any actual excellence in the art that may or may not be there is then instrumentalized as one talking-point among many in the project of establishing clique membership.
Finally, the friends of excellence should readily concede to the friends of inclusivity that people have a tendency to be downright rude about exclusion—even in scenarios where the criteria of exclusion are objectively good. Imagine a child named Charles, for example, who has not played well in the basketball tryouts. There are fifteen other boys who are objectively better at basketball than he is. The coach is right to exclude Charles from the team, but none of this requires that anyone mock, belittle, or abuse Charles. There are kind ways to let him know that he has not made the cut, but too often kindness in such cases is the exception rather than the rule. As in previous sections, however, the solution to this common human predicament is not to abolish the principle of exclusion itself. Letting everyone play basketball and giving everyone participation trophies will not magically make human beings less mean. Our condition is such that people will be mean to each other in any case and it is the meanness that we must address, not the existence of the roster.