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The Dynamics of Liberal Indifference and Inclusion in a Global Era


Growing ethnic and economic diversity exacerbates a longstanding tendency for members of a modern, liberal democracy to disassociate from each other. On the other hand, a wide range of organizations and communities actively bring together members across societal cleavages. The dynamic of inclusion is exemplified among communities that expect a high degree of obedience to a set of beliefs and practices, but allow such authority to be limited and contested by different persons. Inclusion is also more likely among new or outsider organizations less associated with societal divides. To the extent that authoritative communities nurture diverse social networks, they contribute to bridging social capital and inclusive political attitudes. The essay draws on studies of various organizations and polities that articulate shared, moral goods (e.g., army, churches, martial arts schools, rural towns).

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  1. Liberalism is defined broadly as “a tradition of thought that emphasizes toleration and respect for individual rights and that runs from John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill to John Rawls” (Sandel 1996: 4). I use the broad, historical meaning of “liberal/liberalism” to describe American mainstream institutions.

  2. Simmel (1971: 71) writes that the logical opposite of cooperation is not conflict, but indifference, or the absence of social ties between two or more actors. “[Both conflict and cooperation] are fundamentally distinguished from the mere indifference of two or more individuals or groups. Whether it implies the rejection or the termination of sociation, indifference is purely negative. In contrast to such pure negativity, conflict contains something positive.”

  3. For this essay, group is defined as a collection of persons perceived to have certain similarities; organization is two or more persons grouped for a particular purpose; institution is a well-established social organization or practice; polity is a state or one of its subordinate civil authorities, such as a province, prefecture, county, municipality, city, or district. The essay uses the term community (or actor) broadly to include both social organization and sub-national polity.

  4. This essay draws on both on existing literature and my ongoing study of various organizations. Since 1999, I have observed and interviewed members of Christian churches, martial arts schools, and direct selling organizations, mostly in Chicago (1999–2003), but also in Spokane, WA (2006–09), Los Angeles and Orange Counties (1999-current), and Seoul, Korea (2012-current). Members of these organizations adhere to core doctrines and practices and active invite newcomers.

  5. “The political philosophy by which we live is a certain version of liberal political theory. Its central idea is that government should be neutral toward the moral and religious views its citizens espouse. Since people disagree about the best way to live, government should not affirm in law any particular vision of the good life. Instead, it should provide a framework of rights that respects persons as free and independent selves, capable of choosing their own values and ends…. this liberalism asserts the priority of fair procedures over particular ends” (Sandel 1996: 4).

  6. Acts of Convention, Resolution #2000-D039, “Acknowledge Relationships Other Than Marriage and Existence of Disagreement on the Church”s Teaching.”

  7. The term builds upon Charles Taylor’s (1998: 154) call for a “complex and many stranded version of liberalism.”

  8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Reeve translation; Volume II, “Of the Principal Source of Belief Among Democratic Nations.”

  9. The “martial arts” are defined as “various forms of self-defense, usually weaponless, based on techniques developed in ancient China, India, and Tibet…. The traditional Asian martial arts emphasize allowing ki (cosmic energy; also known as chi) to flow through one’s body.” Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2003.

  10. 2002 census statistics in Renee Tawa, “A kick, a jab and a ‘ki-up’,” L.A. Times, August 11, 2003, 1(F), (accessed May 27, 2008)

  11. Some martial arts schools have adopted the commercial, individualist ethos of American sports and fitness organizations: teachers are mainly motivated by money, students by tournament championships. Students bounce from teacher to teacher, without lasting attachment to any one martial art or instructor. In contrast, tradition-minded masters offer low-cost or free training to low-income students, in return for the latter’s personal dedication and loyalty. The commercialized, individualized schools are less likely to sustain intimate ties across socioeconomic lines than are schools that retain traditional Confucian mores (e.g., teacher-student loyalty).

  12. Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock, “From ‘Book of Mormon’ musical to Mormon convert,” Deseret News, May 3 2013.

  13. “A Portrait of Mormons in the U.S.,” Pew Forum, July 24, 2009,

  14. The term “frame” denotes “schemas of interpretation” or cognitive structures that shape how individuals define reality (Goffman 1974: 21).

  15. Elites refer to key actors that influence the distribution of material resources and social recognition and serve as gatekeepers to large populations.

  16. ‘Inside the Black Belt Way Inside the Beltway,’ AEHQ Blog, Fox News, 2012,−1

  17. John Eligon, ‘In Karaoke, Lawmakers Find a Catalyst for Collegiality,’ New York Times, June 22, 2012.

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Yi, J. The Dynamics of Liberal Indifference and Inclusion in a Global Era. Soc 52, 264–274 (2015).

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  • Liberalism
  • Tocqueville
  • Civil society
  • Social capital
  • Race
  • Religion