Color & Control:

The Right to Belong


Why Inclusion Depends on the Ability to Imagine the Other

In this, the third of our series from the Belonging Initiative, John Ralston Saul advocates for a circular approach to inclusion and community. The following is excerpted from his keynote address for the PLAN organization’s 20th anniversary.

I have thought a lot about this over the seven years since I first became involved with PLAN. There are many kinds of intelligence. You wouldn’t know it in our society, because we pretend that intelligence is some sort of neutral thing that can be—and is—defined and we know, therefore, what “the best” is.

What is dominant at the moment in the West is the talent for a linear, logical, rational specialist silo. This wins you Nobel prizes, tenure and positions of power. Add to this speed—the faster you can do things and think of things, and say things, the more impressive you are and the more interesting and powerful you can become. And yet, if you look at our history, you will see that, with time, definitions of intelligence have changed. There was a time when, in order to be really intelligent, you had to be able to ride a horse well, wear armour and carry a heavy sword.

I think if you were to stand back and ask yourself, “So, if there are many forms of intelligence, what would be the thing that links these intelligences together?” I would say the most interesting forms of intelligence are capable of integrating ideas of tolerance and empathy—of imagining the other.

It is not an accident that when you are looking at philosophy—through thousands of years in the West, Aboriginal philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, Chinese philosophy—it always comes back to one question: the capacity to imagine the other. If you can’t imagine the other (empathy) and if you can’t imagine yourself in a community with the other (the person you don’t know or the person who is different from you), then, in effect, you are not functioning as a civilized human being. You are not functioning in an intelligent way.

Joseph Conrad said: “Tolerance is an extremely difficult virtue—more difficult than heroism, more difficult than compassion.” So, where does tolerance come from? I think that it comes from understanding the possibility—or the necessity—of a non-exclusive idea of community; of belonging to something in which people are different inside the community.

I think that in this country we are particularly well suited to understanding that kind of thing because we have such a strong Aboriginal tradition; this means that the idea of living in a circle into which people are invited—and once they are in and adopted, everyone tries to figure out how they are all going to live together—is alive.

That is the description of our immigration and citizenship policies at their best. It is a description of how this country works at its best. It also sounds like the ideas of this organization (PLAN) and which represent the people who made the creation of this organization necessary.

This is an organization that I instinctively understood before it was explained to me. This was in part because I had a brother, Anthony, who died at age 19 and who had some disabilities, and who was the most important person in my life.

I think that all of us sensed in our family— the way all of you sense in families where there are people who appear to have disabilities—that there is another way of understanding how people can live together; how communities can live together. And it isn’t the way that is rewarded and pushed forward in our society. It is a different approach and understanding of how human beings fit together.

Canada was a very different place 40 years ago. Before organizations like PLAN, this was one of the worst countries in the world for people who had disabilities. It had no services. It had the wrong attitudes. My mother had to fight on virtually a daily basis to make people understand the role that people with disabilities have the right to play in our society. Now, Canada is a much better place, in part because of organizations that have created systems that work for people with disabilities and their families.

And yet, we are still struggling with the language around disabilities. As a society, we still principally talk about the “needs” of people with disabilities. And, of course, there are needs. But this is a utilitarian and demeaning approach to belonging. We need to spend more time thinking about the contributions that those who apparently have disabilities are already making, and how many more they could make if they were able to exercise their citizenship in the fullest way.

The needs of people with disabilities have no relationship to charity. We are not talking about a gift from others. People with disabilities have the right to the full exercise of their citizenship for the simple reason that they are citizens.

I think that the isolation and loneliness that we struggle against in our society, which affects everybody, comes in large part from the way in which we have defined our society and the way in which we have defined responsibility for dealing with need in this society. In one sense, needs have to be dealt with as a matter of administrative organization, of legal protection, of legal limitations and of financial organization. All of that is true. But that is not the heart of the problem or, more to the point, the heart of the opportunity.

If we eliminate the whole idea of citizenship as belonging, we start to accept that ridiculous language in which citizens are referred to by politicians and administrators as clients. We’re not clients of government. We own the government. We are not stakeholders; we’re citizens.

If this idea of citizen—of friendship and belonging and inclusion—is not at the centre of everything we do, then our society can’t function. This society would fall apart overnight if you were to withdraw volunteerism from the way it works. What is volunteerism? It is nothing more than active citizenship. It’s given a technical name today because everything has to be specialized. So, suddenly there are volunteers in the volunteer sector. But what they really are, are active citizens compared to inactive citizens. And every citizen has the obligation to be active.

There are hundreds of examples of what friendship, belonging and community can look like. I was very struck a couple years ago in Nunavik by the fact that each town has a community freezer. Just think of this, in comparison to our food banks. You go into Nunavik’s communities and you find a large walk-in freezer. So, when the Caribou are running, the community goes out and gets enough for the season. They are properly butchered and put in there properly organized by cuts. There is a section for the elders. And when the char run, they put them in there. And if someone goes out hunting and gets a caribou and they only need half for their family, well, they throw the other half into the community freezer.

And there is nobody there when you give the meat or the fish to say, “Thank you, John. That was so generous. Here’s a tax receipt.” No bureaucracy, no paper. And when I go in and take the meat, no one says, “God, John has been here twice this week. Better watch him. He is not carrying his weight.”

Using southern rational theory, there ought to be a run on these community freezers, because people are selfish and need to be structured into responsibility. There is no run on the freezers because they are citizens. They take when they need to and give when they can. It is a non-linear idea of belonging.

I say all of this, knowing that ours is a society filled with a large and growing percentage of people who feel loneliness and isolation—not simply people who are thought to have disabilities but many people in this society. These are people who desire deeply to belong, because belonging is at the core of our civilization.

In a sense, the members of PLAN, and others like them, stand for the possibility that this society could find solutions to their isolation and loneliness. The circle of friendship of the sort we are talking about is necessary for all of us.

If you look at those who have apparent disabilities, you know immediately that they are not asking for charity, or for help. They are asking for us to join them in an alliance to help them to their rights as citizens—their right to belong. And to the extent that we take up this cause, we are first embracing a friend. But secondly, and most importantly, we are embracing a friend who will be able to help us find a way to belong in this society.

John Ralston Saul is an award-winning essayist and novelist whose works have been translated into 22 languages in 30 countries. He is included in the prestigious Utne Reader’s list of the world’s 100 leading thinkers and visionaries and devotes much of his time to supporting Canadian and international causes. He is also the patron of PLAN.

John Ralston Saul gives his keynote address for the PLAN organization's 20th anniversary.

John Ralston Saul gives his keynote address for the PLAN organization’s 20th anniversary.


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