Welcome to the Margins. Now Stop Living There.

I meant to blog about this last year when I first came upon this sign posted in a Chicago “L” train, but for some reason it got away from me. Jennifer and I were headed up to the North Side for a friend’s Bible study when we came across the advert:

Margins

At face value, there is nothing inherently wrong or even bad about the sentiment expressed here: No one should live on the margins! This is a commitment to combatting poverty, and the problems of the economically marginalized — the very poor — who lack resources and skills and who are constantly preyed upon by those seeking fairly easy profits and who possess far more resources and skills than they do.

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development has a long history of this kind of work (it is what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops created the campaign for), and I suspect it has had its measure of success. Based on some public service announcements from the early 1970s, I suspect the campaign has also understood that dealing with poverty is more than simply a matter of economics — it is also a matter of community, belonging, and the meaning of human existence.

So far as it goes, I’m okay with the sentiment expressed here.

But there’s also something that bothers me about this sentiment — No one should live on the margins. It feels … authoritarian, if not downright totalitarian. As a command, and a cultural aspiration, it means no one is allowed to not conform to cultural or social norms. No one should be allowed to live on the margins… Again, that sounds compassionate. After all, marginal lives are vulnerable ones, vulnerable to predators and abuse and the personal and institutional callousness that is all-too-often life in community for those who fall on either tail of the gaussian distribution of conformity or ability or identity. The law is rarely a shield to protect those who live marginal lives. Most of the time, it is a club. One that falls fast, and furious, and is often merciless.

I suppose, then, wanting to make sure there are no margins — and no people living in them — by expanding notions of acceptable conformity is humane. Even laudable.

Except I find frequently it is not. Progressives are limited simply by the way they think of people, as members of classes or groups defined by race/gender/sexual orientation. Personality and ability don’t count as difference, as least not as acceptable or tolerable difference, in the progressive worldview. Progressives have expanded the center — and the number of people who can now inhabit that center — and further squeezed the margins. But the progressive view, at this point, seems to be: “We’re a great deal more inclusive of difference so now it really is your fault if you cannot conform.” In a society inclusive of diversity, it’s actually harder to live on the social or cultural margin.

The diverse society that progressives are creating is actually more conformist and less tolerant. As Nicholas Kristof wrote recently:

We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.

Any community or society held together by a shared ideology is going to be inherently intolerant. Because it will assume anyone can and should embrace the ideology (and all good people will), and it will insist that the ideology — the right ideas — be the only thing that holds the community together.

So, there can be no margins in an ideologically constructed society. Anyone who lives on a margin is simply a victim of misfortune or discrimination who needs to be either elevated or educated. And anyone who persists in living there is a criminal and a threat to the community and they deserve what they have coming.

The reality is some human lives are inherently marginal. This is just a truth of being human that no ideology of inclusion or diversity can change. Going back to that gaussian distribution, there’s a large and well-inhabited center and increasingly thinner tails the farther you get from that center. This also includes non-conformists and dissidents from culture, depending upon how the majority (or plurality) of the community or society is constructed.

There is a truth that gets forgotten — the center needs the margin and the margins need the center. You cannot have one without the other. The margins are where creative energy resides, where the ability to regenerate a complacent center arises, where the art and literature of a people really comes from, where real liberty exists in all its rough and messy ways. The center is where order and stability lie, where the measure of what is marginal originates, and where the resources to sustain that margin come from. The center atrophies and collapses without the margin, and the margin sinks into a desperate and deeply uncreative hedonism without the center.

The center needs a creative margin (which is always poised on the edge of dissolute self-destruction) and the margin needs a confident center to both provide order (which is always poised to try and destroy what it sees as a deeply disorderly and frightening margin) but also to be the order to organize and identify against.

Our ideological world, however, wants a center without margins, or margins without a center. These end up being the same thing, though — a world in which conformity is so valued, so expected, so demanded, that no one is allowed to acceptably non-conform. In which the authority to compel is run amok, unchecked, and uncheckable.

It is also a world in which no one is really allowed to be human.

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