Mapping the margins

Sometimes I think that my interest in the margins is – well – marginal. But recently I’ve appreciated how it can shape the world we live in.

Christopher Wylie is the person who, aged 27, came up with the idea that led to Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU referendum and later was heavily involved in digital operations for the Trump campaign.

In an interview in The Observer last week (18th March) Wylie recounts the time in 2013 when he met Steve Bannon. Bannon was editor-in-chief of Breitbart News at the time, which he had brought out to Britain to support Nigel Farage in his bid to take Britain out of the European Union. Wylie (who is gay) described Bannon as ‘the only straight man I’ve talked to about intersectional feminist theory…’

‘Intersectionality’ was a term first coined by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989 (Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics). In her work, Crenshaw discussed Black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and being a woman independently, but must include the interactions which frequently reinforce each other.

In this analysis, for example, women are not all a homogeneous category sharing the same life experiences: the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual women will be significantly different to those of black, poor, gay or disabled women. It is only when the intersection between these different factors are taken into account together that it is really possible to see how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalised in society.

Wylie says that Steve Bannon immediately saw its relevance of intersectional feminist theory ‘to the oppressions that conservative, young white men feel.’ I assume (though the article does not fully spell this out) that the implication is that many young, white, conservative men feel oppressed by many different factors (eg poor childhood, low self esteem, low and largely static income, inadequate housing, relative lack of opportunities) which all come together to shape their attitudes and behaviour. It is only when such people feel that it is safe to ‘come out’ as they are, to face those in power, that they will feel secure in voting for someone with what many would see as populist views.

The key, as Wylie says in the article, is to find the ‘inflection point’: the point at which people decide that something they had hitherto seen as unmentionable suddenly becomes desirable and achievable. If politics is dependent on culture, Wylie maintains, then politics is all about changing that culture.

This is nothing new: it is what advertising has sought to do all along. What is new is the extent to which it has used data on a huge scale (via the personality profiles that most of us have filled in at one time or another), and the way it has carefully adjusted messages delivered to different audiences, as defined by those profiles. It is also apparent that Bannon, in helping to orchestrate Trump’s rise to power, focused on the weak, marginal position of many electors – especially white men. What is paradoxical is that a notion – intersectionality – originally developed in a feminist context, has been brought to bear against both women and feminism.

A marginal commentary on today’s Bible reading: John 11:45-56

So far I have chosen not to focus on biblical passages in this blog, but reading today’s bible passage I found the references too strong to avoid. My comments in red.

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. Some saw this strange, eccentric man doing unusual things on the margins – he’d just raised Lazarus from the dead – and inwardly felt drawn to trust him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. Others felt fearful of this person on the margins. Perhaps they never saw or heard Jesus themselves, but just relied on hearsay. They reported on him to those close to the centre of worldly power.

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ Those at the centre are often fearful of those in the margins – especially if they are attracting others. The last thing they want is trouble – just want to keep people in their historic and rightful places.

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. The best route for those in the centre to retain power is to choose a scapegoat. That not only gets rid of the apparent problem, but also teaches others not to go down the same path.

Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. Jesus chooses to go to Ephraim, a marginal place: near the wilderness and well away from the centre at Jerusalem.

Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ The Passover celebrated the time when the first-born Israelite children were spared death, and the Israelites liberated from slavery to the Egyptians – free to journey towards the Promised Land. Here the question is whether Jesus – man of the margins – will have the courage and desire to be seen in the centre of power.

Chernobyl on the margin

Svetlana Alexievich is a journalist who, in ‘Chernobyl Prayer’, recounts the words of people who were involved with or affected by the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. I found it a deeply moving book that made me appreciate the enormity of the event and its impact on people’s lives.

Chernobyl is in the Ukraine, but close to the border with Belarus, described in the opening sentence of the book as ‘terra incognita’: an obscure and uncharted region. I remember – vaguely – reports of the explosion in 1986: The radioactive cloud that gradually dispersed around the world; the attempts to move people out of the area; visits of children from Chernobyl to other parts of the world; the plan to build a sarcophagus around the original reactor.

What I hadn’t appreciated was the extent to which it was seen by local people as a war –a war against a largely invisible enemy whose damage was invariably not evident until years after the event: the death rate in Belarus increased almost seventy four times from 82 to 6,000 in 100,000. People who were already largely on the margins of world consciousness became ostracized by others. The clean up workers were state heroes, but few women wanted to have children by them.

In this extract, Nadezhda Petrovna Vygovskaya, one of the people who was resettled from the area, talks about the impact on her son.

Picture from abandoned house

From the very beginning, we had a sense that we people from Chernobyl were now outcasts. Other people were afraid of us. The bus we were travelling in stopped for the night at a village. Evacuees were sleeping on the floor in a school or at a club and there wasn’t an inch of spare space. One woman invited us to stay with her. ‘Come, I’ll make up a bed for you. I feel sorry for that son of yours.’ Another woman nearby pulled her away from us. ‘You’re crazy!’ she said. “They’re infectious.’ After we had resettled in Mogilyov, my son went to school. He burst into the house after his first day, crying. He had been sat next to a girl, and she complained she didn’t want to sit there because he was ‘radiated’ and if she sat next to him she might die. My son was in fourth grade and, unluckily, he was the only person from Chernobyl in the class. They were all afraid of him. They called him the ‘Glow-worm’, or the ‘Chernobyl Hedgehog’. It frightened me that his childhood cane to an end so abruptly.

Spiritual evolution through the margins

Last week there was an interesting piece by Teresa Pasquale Mateus on the website of the Centre for Action and Contemplation. She observes that when Western Christianity revived contemplation in the 1970s, it did so primarily through the lens of white, upper-middle class, celibate men. Contemplation became synonymous with solitude and silence. Yet there are many, many ways to enter into non-dual consciousness and presence with God, self, and others. The contemplative tradition should reflect the diversity of the divine image. Teresa suggests that we need to move into the margins if we are to evolve spiritually.

There are so many . . . people deeply yearning for what the contemplative path has to offer—but often there is a great divide between the prayer circles and the activists, the people of faith in communities of color and the contemplative retreats. The spaces seem remote and inaccessible to many who need them the most: those suffering from poverty and homelessness; those on the frontline of protests and marches for justice; those who sit in non-contemplative church contexts. . . . Further, members of each group carry practices from their own traditions and cultures that could serve the current contemplative containers—rituals of healing from street protests, mantras of lament and hope from those in the margins, and prayers and songs from African and indigenous cultures. . . .

For people existing in the margins—who desperately need contemplative wisdom—a path of contemplation without action . . . doesn’t have meaning. Because their struggles are for survival, for themselves, their loved ones, and their communities, these struggles cannot be set aside in pursuit of an individual spiritual journey. The journey is inherently communal. . . . It necessitates action, but desperately seeks contemplation. The current contemplative container was not built for them and cannot contain their hurts, their actions, their needs, their identities.

When the container is too small for the contents, it must expand. It must evolve. . . . God’s great love story with us calls us into discomfort—the gateway to evolution. For the majority culture, this call is to be in the margins, alongside marginalized persons, and learn what is needed to authentically walk beside them in their suffering. It calls for the discomfort of being in spaces where the mystical path may not look like your own. . . . It calls for the discomfort of hearing God’s voice through the woman of color, the queer teen, the under-heard and under-seen . . . and to reorient perspectives and actions according to the lessons taught through deep listening. . . . For people of color, like myself, and others in the margins (women, LGBTQI, and beyond), it is also a time to let our voices rise and join this conversation as vital partners in the unfolding of this new evolution in the collective soul of contemplative faith. In the process, together, we co-create the contemplative evolution and the mystical revolution. . . . In a world in pain, we are in the crescendo of birthing ourselves for this place and time. Only together can we push through to the next phase of our spiritual evolution.

Margins near Pagham Harbour

This field has been sown with special crops and rough field margins created to benefit wildlife. Early flowering plants are specifically for insects such as bumblebees that emerge in February. Special seed crops are for turtle doves which have declined by 97% since 1970 and are now one of our rarest birds. Other seed crops are for overwintering finches and buntings and the grassy margins provide ground nesting opportunities…

Comparisons are odious

The old school magazine came through the post this morning and plunged me into depression. Normally it goes straight into the rubbish bin, but this time I intercepted it and that’s when the damage is done. I started looking at how former classmates are doing but then found myself caught up in comparing myself with them. But as Dogberry says in Much Ado about Nothing: ‘Comparisons are odious.’  What is it about this drawing of ourselves into competition which is so compulsive, and yet also depressing – except perhaps for the winners. I console myself with the thought that only 3% of my contemporaries had a mention it it – and that the most interesting and touching stories are probably hidden in the margins. It’s a bit like the worst sort of Christmas card round robins which are full of successes but say little or nothing of the struggles which is what, ultimately, make us more human.

Life on the margins is great!

I was touched, after leading workshops on margins at the national Quaker meeting in Warwick, to receive an email from Carolyn Matthews. It seemed to me to be a great example of how, when we accept our place on the margins, life becomes so much easier.
We move from fighting to try to be at the centre – a fight we can never win – to being centred: being ourselves, which is a very different experience, with a sense of healing and wholeness.
This – with her permission – is what she wrote:

Hi Chris

I was at your Margins event at Yearly Meeting and it really spoke to me.  I had already worked it out, but I wasn’t describing it in quite those words but thinking about life in these terms makes sense.

I have always been on the margins. I found life difficult and I couldn’t work out why I didn’t seem to be quite like other people.   I was somehow all wrong,  and suffered a lot with depression, anxiety, stress etc. Despite trying very hard, I couldn’t get into the mainstream.

Then, a few years ago, things went from bad to worse.  I had a serious cycling accident, I was unconscious for several days with skull fractures, brain haemorrhages etc.

So now everything really was wrong, but I felt that I had to find out what on earth was happening and I started on a steep learning curve, doing research and to cut a long story short, last year I was diagnosed (in my mid-sixties!) as being on the autistic spectrum.  I have Aspergers Syndrome!

Gradually, everything began to fall into place and make sense.   I will always be on the margins (I’m not going to be anywhere else with Aspergers and the after effects of a brain injury) but now I don’t care that I’ll never be mainstream. I’m so much more confident now I know what my problems are, it has made such a difference, and I’m happier now than I’ve ever been.

I just thought I’d write and let you know that life out here on the margins is great!  

with many thanks


Art on the margins

I recently held two margins workshops at a national Quaker Gathering at Warwick University. I’d planned for 20 people, but 60 turned up to first workshop, and 50 to the second.

As always, I was fascinated by the mix of stories and knowledge I gathered. One person (unfortunately I don’t have their name) introduced me to a form of art of the margins called Thomasson or Hyperart Thomasson.

It was developed by the Japanese artist Akasegawa Genpei in the 1980s. It refers to a useless relic or structure that has been preserved as part of a building or the built environment, which has become a piece of art in itself. These objects, although having the appearance of pieces of conceptual art, were not created to be viewed as such. Akasegawa deemed them even more art-like than art itself, and named them “hyperart.” In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Thomasson, especially since the publication of Akasegawa’s work on the subject in English in 2010.

The term Thomasson comes from the professional baseball player Gary Thomasson, who was signed by the Yomiuri Giants for a record-breaking sum of money, and spent his final two seasons with the team (1981-1982) coming close to setting the league strikeout record before being benched. Akasegawa viewed Thomasson’s useless position on the team as a fitting analogy for “an object, part of a building, that was maintained in good condition, but with no purpose, to the point of becoming a work of art.

A few examples are given below:


A margin of land as a place of decision

‘Last night I was transported to a thin bar of sand in the middle of the ocean. The sand could only just be seen above the surface of the water; different currents pushed from east and west. The motorboat came from the east. Once on this margin of land would I take another boat and go onto the west, into the unknown, or seek to return to the east the way I had come? This margin of land represented decisions: how small, often marginal, changes can make all the difference.’