Mission statements are always trite and often as short as a sentence or two. But somewhere around 2015, a new sort of statement began to be generated by the people at Human Resources. The idea of diversity was now augmented by “belonging”: full and constant participation in a common enterprise. If, half a century earlier, authenticity was said to spring from a rooted sense of self, belonging was, instead, a gregarious sense of connection owing to the togetherness of the group. The school or team or corporation was conceived as a home away from home, and perhaps more homelike than home.
Google’s HR department exists (according to the flattering summary at impraise.com) to assure employees that “like everything at Google, happiness levels too are monitored.” In this way, belonging is properly quantified as data. A more intuitive and rhetorical approach was propounded in a 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review, “What Does It Take to Build a Culture of Belonging?” The answer here is contained in four words. Workers must feel that they are seen for their work, connected to fellow workers, supported in daily and career matters, and proud of the company product.
Harvard Divinity School would seem to have taken the hint. Its statement on “Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging” declares that theological training at the school is “vibrant” with an energy that will guide students to “unlearn and heal” the vices planted in them by society and thereby allow them “to flourish and feel a deep sense of belonging.” The corresponding document at NPR vouches for a workplace in which “everyone is learning and growing, expanding their understanding of themselves and others and shedding the flawed and consequential views and practices” that persist outside the NPR community.
Ed Bastian, the CEO of Delta Air Lines, framed the desiderata of belonging in terms at once theological and businesslike: “You can’t figure out where you’re going unless you know where you came from.” Fair advice, you might say, to a passenger on a layover, but Bastian shifts at once to a loftier register: “There is a soul to Delta, there is a focus. We touch the world—we connect the world. No one better connects the world than Delta Air Lines, because we bring people together.”
A related but more somber idiom has long been familiar on the academic left. This style of pronouncement is marked by its origins and trajectory, having begun in literary theory and gone on to museums, schools of architecture, social science think tanks. Here, you interrogate assumptions even as you commit to powerfully responding to structural challenges. The idea of a common project gives a special resonance to the collective appeal: an advantage the straight corporate sloganeer can only envy.
“Project” was once a potent term for existentialists. It brought ethical commitment into anxious relation with chance and gamble, and thus lent a note of romantic uncertainty (as well as hard-bitten realism) to the everyday notion of a plan of life. As Sartre put it in Existentialism Is a Humanism: “Man is nothing more than his own project. He exists only to the extent that he realizes himself, therefore he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.” Great as are the demands of human solidarity, “we are left alone and without excuse.” Sartre believed there was such a thing as too much belonging.
By contrast, the therapeutic catchwords that pervade our contemporary chatter about society all agree on the good of working, thrashing things out, and deciding in groups. Why? “People console themselves,” Adorno wrote in The Jargon of Authenticity, “by thinking that something has already been done about what is oppressing them when they talk about it.” Hence the importance of conversation, in an expanded sense, which, Adorno went on to say, “becomes an end in itself.” And in the new regime, the conversation must continue—even when a participant is threatened with expulsion.
Accordingly, the three indicia of group membership cataloged by Albert O. Hirschman—exit, voice, and loyalty—have been joined by a fourth: apology. Listen to a contemporary virtuoso of belonging, Philip Gwyn Jones, publisher of Picador, the British book imprint, as he responds to criticisms from sensitivity readers:
I now understand I must use my privileged position as a white middle-class gatekeeper with more awareness to promote diversity, equity, inclusivity, as all UK publishing strives to put right decades of structural inequality. I believe in the crucial necessity of this change.
Notice that this is a “crucial necessity”—occurring at a crux, a crossroads, a once-in-a-lifetime moment of passage into a redeemed society. The stakes are as high as the delivery is humble.
The locus classicus of this mode was A.O. Scott’s 2018 essay “My Woody Allen Problem.” Scott had credited and taken to heart the charge by Dylan Farrow against her father. “Mr. Allen’s films and writings,” he noted, “are a part of the common artistic record,” and yet, “I don’t mean this as a defense, but an acknowledgment of betrayal and shame.” Why, though, should Scott beg the world’s pardon when he did nothing worse than watch those films in his unguarded youth? Because their harm was incalculable. “I will not blame you,” he concluded, “if you want to stop watching Woody Allen’s movies,” but he vowed for his part to do the work: “I also think that some of us have to start all over again.” The catch in the throat at “some of us” and “all over again” would not be lost on the sensitive.
Apology, it seems, is endless, and perhaps it should be, but narcissism has many rest stops for the ego to graze in, and the self-denying self-acquittal affords a boost as satisfying as any athletic exertion. It means that your missteps are now more than accidental, and more than important. They have become essential to the larger social project of belonging. There is a mirror on every wall and, just possibly, a microphone behind the mirror.