Posted by: Dan | January 19, 2011

The Discourse of Marginality: Closing Thoughts

Well, this is probably going to be the final post I write on the series that spontaneously arose regarding what I perceive to be the bourgeois appropriation of marginality.  I wrote my initial thoughts here, and then posted some follow-up thoughts by Thom Stark, and would now like to make a few concluding comments.

In many ways, Thom’s response reminds me of Zizek’s remarks about America’s justification for invading Iraq.  Zizek writes:

We all remember the old joke about the borrowed kettle which Freud quotes in order to render the strange logic of dreams, namely, the enumeration of mutually exclusive answers to a reproach (that I returned to a friend a broken kettle): (1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you.  For Freud, such an enumeration of inconsistent arguments of course confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny – that I returned you a broken kettle.

I see Thom deploying equally mutually exclusive responses.  Allow me to provide one obvious example.  In a recent response to Doug Harink, he writes “we at RATM are not claiming to be marginalized” but then he also writes that:

many of us (though not all of us) aren’t as close to conservative Christian communities as we used to be, but again, we’re not whining about that. As the educated so-called “elite,” we recognize that we have privilege and power that others don’t. And that’s why we’re trying to exercise it by calling attention to the way that the power at the center (of various institutions and traditions) is often abused and/or misplaced.

Note how the word “elite” is placed in scare-quotes.  Essentially, Thom wants to claim to be marginalized and not-marginalized as the same time depending on how each claim serves his interests.  Thus, keeping Thom’s remark to Doug in mind, and remembering that Thom recently published a book that a good many Conservative Christians would describe at heretical, we are equipped to read the following:

While I obviously agree with Dan that socio-political marginalization is extremely important, I also think that other forms of marginalization deserve to be highlighted and deserve to be identified precisely as marginal. For instance, heretics are marginalized, and I want to call attention to the way that power from the theological center pushes them to the margins in various ways.

Rounding out our triumvirate, we have the following statement:

While some of us at RATM may be willing to call our own perspectives “marginal,” that does not imply we think we are marginalized people.

Therefore, we arrive at our threefold kettle analogy: (1) I didn’t borrow a kettle from you (we are not claiming to be marginalized); (2) I returned the kettle to you unbroken (we are marginalized in a significant way); and (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you (our views are marginal, even if we are not).  Unfortunately, this form of mutually exclusive argumentation carries through on Thom’s other points.  When he denies exhibiting a persecution-complex he asserts that I assume that he and others are “merely reacting to conservative Christianity” but then immediately follows that by asking, “Even if we were, so what?” In the end, I’ll side with Freud on this one.  I think that Thom’s response “confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny” and makes apparent both a persecution-complex and the bourgeois appropriation of which I spoke (the couple of hundred of readers who read the email exchange between Thom and I, before I removed it from my blog, should easily understand that point by now).

Be that as it may, the original intention of my post was not to provoke a discussion about how awesome (or not awesome) Thom and RATM are.  I simply used that blog as a convenient example of the rhetorical power-play I was discussing.  While Thom does not address a number of the significant points I raise about this issue in my original post (he appears to be more interested in defending himself from what he perceives to be a personal assault), his response further illustrates the rhetorical power-play I criticize in two important ways, and also pushes back on what may be the central issue in this discussion.  I now want to turn to those things, before making one concluding remark.

Beginning with the ongoing power-play related, I want to highlight how Thom stresses that the word “margins is an appropriate term to describe the kinds of perspectives we want to explore and people we want to support, and it functions, due to its broad application in the English language, as a nice catch-all title”.  With this in mind, he emphasizes that “”there really are bourgeois Christians who are marginalized in important ways.”  Again, Thom is making two possibly exclusive arguments here.  On the one hand, he is saying that it is okay for the bourgeois to employ the language of marginality because that fits the dictionary definition of the word, while on the other hand he wants to associate the language of marginality with a significant experience of suffering and trauma — hence, he refers to the “scars” of those Christians (this goes beyond the dictionary definition in some ways, but fits well with a discursive power-play).  However, what really interests me is this appeal to a definition or to the notion that Thom et al. are simply being objectively descriptive, thereby avoiding the deployment of making any kind of power-play (this emphasis also came through quite strongly when I spoke with Thom on the phone).

In response, I want to remind us all of the ways in which definitions or objective descriptions are routinely employed as masks for the exercise of power.  Such things are often examples of ideology operating at its finest.  The argument that the use of a word is technically appropriate according to the rules of the English language in no way refutes the accusations that power is being wielded when that word is employed.  Far from it, such efforts tend to be made to both hide and strengthen the power that is being exercised.

The second way in which Thom’s response illustrates my point is by the way in which he refers to those who experience serious degrees of social, political, and economic marginalization throughout his response.  Thom wants to grant the point that their marginality is important, but he wants to grant that point so that we can not mention them in relation to what he is writing about!  Essentially, he is saying, of course people like sex workers and missing women are important, now can we stop talking about them?  This perfectly illustrates the concern I expressed in my original post: when the bourgeoisie appropriate the language of marginality, those whose very lives are in jeopardy end up being further marginalized and forgotten.  Therefore, when Thom writes that some bourgeois Christians “deserve to be identified as marginalized, even while it’s (very obviously) understood that they’re not in the same plight as disappeared Salvadorian women”  and then asks: “Do we really have to point that out?”  The answer is, yes we do.

This,  then, leads us into what I see as the crux of the matter.  Specifically, we arrive at the question of how we approach the various expressions of “marginality” that we encounter in our society.  Again, I quote from Thom:

I’m not interested in weighing the degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. Yes, some forms are banal, like being at the margins of the fast food industry. But a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention, nor should it have to.

Here’s the thing: I am interested in trying to assess degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization.  Yes, this is a tricky area, a complex matter (that’s why I brought it up!), but it is one that I feel we are morally obligated to engage, unless we want to simply capitulate to the culture of victimization I described in my original post.  Indeed, the refusal to assess “the degrees of profundity of the various forms of marginalization” is but another expression of the bourgeois appropriation of marginality, for it minimizes and ignores the significance of the death-dealing forms of marginalization that I have mentioned.  This is the case because it refuses to determine what kinds of marginalization are banal, what kinds of marginalization are extremely significant, and what kinds of marginalization fall at different places between those points.

However, having said that, I think I agree with Thom’s point that “a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention”.  That is true to a certain extent, but we do need to be very aware of how much of our attention different forms of marginality command.  Now, in certain Christian circles the discourse of being “at the margins” of Christian “orthodoxy” or “at the margins” of more Conservative expressions of Christianity plays such a prominent role that all other forms of marginality are ignored (or appear as flashy blips on the radar every now and again when somebody wants to establish “street-cred” and advance that person’s “radical” brand-status).  There is so much talk of this, especially amongst “post-Evangelicals” (or others whom circumstance has driven into the circle of Evangelical influence) that I can’t help but wonder if any who wish to add to this conversation are simply contributing to a great wave that drowns out the voices of those who are marginalized unto death.  Certainly, if one wishes to add to that discourse, one should be highly conscious of this possibility and, in my opinion, needs to openly confront it and address it.

However, even with this in mind, I do want to return to my assertion that in most (but not all) cases the death-dealing forms of marginalization experienced by those who are homeless or street-involved, enslaved or sexually exploited, murdered or disappeared, is actually more important than the forms of marginalization experienced by members of the middle-class.  I understand that this might be a provocative statement but, if we are being honest, I fail to see how we can conclude otherwise.  I choose to emphasize it because I feel that us bourgeois Christians spend so much time focusing upon our own petty problems (i.e. at the end of the day, they almost never kill us and we still live a pretty damn good life), when really we should be throwing ourselves into solidarity with those who are far more genuinely crucified today while also throwing ourselves against all the structural, corporate, social and legal powers of Death that are encoded in our societies.  Therefore, until people actually start doing something, I will keep pressing this point (no matter how much they say, “I get it, can we move on?”).

Finally, here is my concluding comment (this thought was only half-formed in my mind until I received an email that nailed it).  Within the academy, people are constantly striving to make their mark within their respective fields, and so they attempt to do something creative, to exhibit some originality, and so on.  By doing so, academics are able to heighten their prestige, status, pay, and job security.  Today, embracing or exploring some form of “marginality” appears to be a particularly convenient way of accomplishing this (a part of what one might call the broader bourgeois appropriation of texts arising from the marginalized).  Thus, a good many academics like to speak about the margins, and claim to be in some sort of solidarity with those on the margins (or, perhaps they might claim to be an advocate or a voice or a saviour for those people), but the benefit of doing this is that one is moved even further away from the margins and ever more increasingly rooted in a central position of wealth and power.  I consider this to be an insidious and destructive process.  Therefore, I believe that any academic who wishes to speak to these things must attempt to move ever deeper into the lived experiences of poverty, shame, and weakness.  To do otherwise is, in my mind, almost always a betrayal.

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Responses

  1. I’ve been reading this whole discussion but have, until now, refrained from chiming in. I think the personal back-and-forth distracted from the hidden gems in this series. I would be particularly interested in the future to hear more of your thoughts about these words (from the final paragraph):

    “Thus, a good many academics like to speak about the margins, and claim to be in some sort of solidarity with those on the margins…but the benefit of doing this is that one is moved even further away from the margins and ever more increasingly rooted in a central position of wealth and power. I consider this to be an insidious and destructive process. Therefore, I believe that any academic who wishes to speak to these things must attempt to move ever deeper into the lived experiences of poverty, shame, and weakness. To do otherwise is, in my mind, almost always a betrayal.”

    One could write volumes on the implications of such a statement. Part of my own journey has been away from the Academy so that I could practice hospitality, mutuality, and explore the practical contours of resistance. In all honesty (and I realize this sounds hokey), I feel like I got my ass kicked by reality…and am still getting my ass kicked. It isn’t easy to live into what you suggest. I have less-intellectually-inclined friends who are much more at ease simply living into this stuff. And I have Academic friends who feel trapped by the Academy–unable to go deeper into a way of life that they feel drawn to–but, at the same time, fairly content to shake things up and have a relatively comfortable life. I keep waiting for things to get easier, but they only get harder. I’m not exactly complaining–I feel like the Spirit has shaped me into guy who reflects an awful lot about the praxis I’m feebly trying to live into. But things would be a bit more fruitful (and enjoyable, I think) if this stuff were talked about more.

  2. […] discussion about academics, persecution complexes, and life on the margins. Check it out here. -31.937918 115.844105 Published […]

  3. I think this post is unfortunate because it is essentially based on a number of misreadings of my language, language I think is very clear and plain, but language I’m happy to clarify if that’s not the case. Dan’s latest post also makes serious accusations and insinuations that are based on those misinterpretations of my language, and that’s why I think it’s so unfortunate. I really think this is a colossal waste of time, and a real distraction from more important issues. But I respect Dan and feel I owe him a response; I also want to clear up these misunderstandings so that these accusations and insinuations can be dealt with.

    Dan compares my comments to what Zizek rightly identifies as the U.S.’s justifications for invading Iraq. This is unfortunate, because none of the quotes Dan provides as evidence in support of this claim is inconsistent with any of the others. I do not make three mutually exclusive justifications for our use of the term marginality. I make one consistent explanation for its use, and other relevant and consistent defenses against false charges that we are misusing it.

    I told Doug Harink that no one at RATM is claiming to be marginalized. I said the same thing in my comment which became my guest post. Dan then quotes me putting “scare quotes” around the word “elite,” and thinks this is evidence that I am challenging the assumption that we at RATM are the elite. To the contrary, the broader context of the quote displayed my awareness that we are the elite, but the scare quotes were meant to call into question the term “elite.” All I meant by the quotes is that I don’t think the elite are really elite; yes, we/they have privileges others don’t, and if that’s all “elite” means, then fine. But the scare quotes just meant that I don’t buy into it as if it were an ontological reality—I just meant that the elite aren’t really better than the non-elite. I didn’t mean that we at RATM aren’t privileged; and I certainly didn’t mean that we are marginalized. But Dan read into the scare quotes that I was claiming marginal status for me and others at RATM, and used that as evidence that I was contradicting my statement to Doug that we are not marginalized. So, it should be clear, I do not consider us to be marginalized, and although I am very conscious that we have many privileges others don’t and are therefore “elite,” I don’t believe that means we’re actually better than those who haven’t been afforded our level of education. (This is important, because I know some academicians who actually do believe that they are the elite and that they are better than those with lesser educations.) That’s all the scare quotes meant, and so the first pillar of Dan’s claim that I made mutually exclusive justifications falls.

    In sum, Dan says, “Essentially, Thom wants to claim to be marginalized and not-marginalized as the same time depending on how each claim serves his interests.” This is a very uncharitable accusation that disparages my character, that is based on Dan’s misinterpretation of my use of scare quotes.

    Dan then continues to argue this point: “Thus, keeping Thom’s remark to Doug in mind, and remembering that Thom recently published a book that a good many Conservative Christians would describe at heretical, we are equipped to read the following:

    While I obviously agree with Dan that socio-political marginalization is extremely important, I also think that other forms of marginalization deserve to be highlighted and deserve to be identified precisely as marginal. For instance, heretics are marginalized, and I want to call attention to the way that power from the theological center pushes them to the margins in various ways.”

    Dan quotes me here saying that “heretics are marginalized,” and points out that I am a heretic in the eyes of conservatives. Therefore, according to Dan, here is further evidence that I am claiming to be marginalized. If I say that heretics are marginalized, and acknowledge that in the eyes of some I am a heretic, then obviously I am claiming to be marginalized. This is again an uncharitable reading of my language. It is an unnecessary conclusion to come to, and I am startled that Dan made that tenuous jump. But jump he did, and I am obligated to further clarify myself (because none of us have anything better to do).

    First, not all heretics are marginalized in all possible ways. Some heretics remain in the center of power; sometimes, orthodoxy itself is marginalized. It just depends on how we’re using “marginalized” at the time. My point was not that all heretics are marginalized and therefore I am marginalized because I am a heretic. If Dan will read my statement which he just quoted directly before this one, he will recognize that I acknowledge our privileged status. I have consistently made a clear distinction between having a marginal perspective or belief, and being a marginalized person. One can hold to marginal positions without being marginalized for them. Conversely, one can hold marginal positions and be marginalized for them. We at RATM may hold some marginal perspectives, but none of us to my knowledge consider ourselves to be marginalized because of them. Despite our marginal perspectives, we continue to enjoy (unfairly) a place at the center of the conservation, because of social status, level of education, or a number of reasons in collusion. Others, however, who may hold similar positions to us, are being marginalized for their beliefs. While I may have left a certain church by choice, others may have been or felt forced out of their church. Historically, some heretics continued to exercise political power, while other heretics were excommunicated, exiled, or executed. Just for their beliefs. The same continues to be true today in some corners of the earth.

    So there is no inconsistency in my saying that heretics are marginalized, and that we at RATM aren’t marginalized, despite our “heretical” status, in the eyes of some or many. We’re fortunate for that reason, but others are less fortunate, and they are some of the people I have in mind when I write. They are some of the people I have in mind when I attempt to take marginal perspectives and try to bring them to the center of the conversation. I don’t think what I do is super-important, or the only important thing to do. It’s just what I do, and some people appreciate it, while others could care less. Fine by me.

    But just to reiterate, just because we may be heretics in the eyes of some doesn’t mean we are marginalized socio-politically. I am not fracturing the individual into a bifurcated mind/body dichotomy when I say that some thoughts are marginalized while some people are marginalized. Yes, our thoughts are marginalized, but the reality is that we at RATM aren’t marginalized in any significant way socially or politically because of our thoughts. Some people, on the other hand, who share our thoughts, are marginalized for those selfsame thoughts, socially and/or politically. Some of them live in Uganda; others live down the street from me. Every case is different. But when someone is forced out of or to the margins of a community they cherish because they are following their conscience or because of their heritage or who they are, they deserve to be called marginalized. So far, no contributor at RATM deserves to be called marginalized in that way.

    Nothing I have said is inconsistent. Dan says that I make three mutually exclusive arguments: “(1) I didn’t borrow a kettle from you (we are not claiming to be marginalized); (2) I returned the kettle to you unbroken (we are marginalized in a significant way); and (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you (our views are marginal, even if we are not).”

    Since I never said anything like #2, the whole basis of Dan’s continued critique falls flat. #1 and #3 are not at all inconsistent.

    Dan then continues to insinuate that I have a persecution complex. He says, “When he denies exhibiting a persecution-complex he asserts that I assume that he and others are ‘merely reacting to conservative Christianity’ but then immediately follows that by asking, ‘Even if we were, so what?’ In the end, I’ll side with Freud on this one. I think that Thom’s response ‘confirms per negationem what it endeavors to deny’ and makes apparent both a persecution-complex and the bourgeois appropriation of which I spoke.”

    Nothing of the sort is the case. We are not merely reacting to conservative Christianity. If we were, that doesn’t mean we have a persecution complex. He didn’t quote the rest of my parenthetical when I said, “Even if we were [reacting], so what?” The rest of the parenthetical says that being on the margins of conservative Christianity is a scary place to be for many Christians, therefore reacting to criticisms from conservative quarters may be justified, without implying we have a persecution complex. This is a baseless accusation, and I will give Dan some credit here, because he had been given (privately) some spurious information about the way I react to criticism that was informing his accusation here. Over the phone, Dan conceded that the persecution complex thing was a misstep.

    Dan says, “Be that as it may, the original intention of my post was not to provoke a discussion about how awesome (or not awesome) Thom and RATM are.”

    This is an unfair statement. I never claimed that was the intention of your post, nor did I try to make the conversation become one about my or our “awesomeness.” If anything, I went to pains to explain that I don’t think what we do is the be-all-end-all of anything; it’s important to some, not to others, and that’s all there is to it. Read over my guest post and that attitude will come through loud and clear.

    Dan says, “I simply used that blog as a convenient example of the rhetorical power-play I was discussing.”

    But Dan failed to show that we were making such a rhetorical power-play. He made the accusation, but his accusation was based on the fallacious assumption that we were claiming to be marginalized ourselves. As I pointed out, that is not the case, and thus the whole case for Dan’s claim that we use “marginality” as a rhetorical power-play falls. If he wants to make another case, I’m open to it. But so far, he is yet to prove that’s what we’re doing. Dan in fact attempts to do so:

    “While Thom does not address a number of the significant points I raise about this issue in my original post (he appears to be more interested in defending himself from what he perceives to be a personal assault), his response further illustrates the rhetorical power-play I criticize in two important ways, and also pushes back on what may be the central issue in this discussion.”

    First, Dan does not identify which issues I didn’t address. Second, saying I have a persecution complex and that I am employing the language of marginality abusively in order to support myself, and now that I am employing contradictory justifications for my abusive use of the language of marginality as it is convenient for me—these are all personal assaults, whether Dan intended them as such or not. But whether or not they are personal is irrelevant to the fact that they aren’t true. That they were personal no doubt gave me the impetus to point out that they aren’t true. No surprise there. Anyway, here is Dan’s case for how we are abusing the language of marginality:

    “Beginning with the ongoing power-play related, I want to highlight how Thom stresses that the word ‘margins is an appropriate term to describe the kinds of perspectives we want to explore and people we want to support, and it functions, due to its broad application in the English language, as a nice catch-all title.’ With this in mind, he emphasizes that ‘there really are bourgeois Christians who are marginalized in important ways.’ Again, Thom is making two possibly exclusive arguments here. On the one hand, he is saying that it is okay for the bourgeois to employ the language of marginality because that fits the dictionary definition of the word, while on the other hand he wants to associate the language of marginality with a significant experience of suffering and trauma — hence, he refers to the ‘scars’ of those Christians (this goes beyond the dictionary definition in some ways, but fits well with a discursive power-play).”

    This is really nonsense I think. The reality is, bourgeois people can have scars, psychological, emotional, that are very real and very important. Sure, not as immediately important as physical wounds or malnourishment, but important nonetheless. Second, I am not making two exclusive arguments here. That marginality can apply to someone who happens to be bourgeois, and that that marginality can be significant, are not mutually exclusive claims. I am baffled as to how Dan thinks those are mutually exclusive claims. A bourgeois person can be exiled from a cherished community, or verbally abused by a powerful authority figure to the point of emotional crisis, or kicked out of their family, cut off from support mechanisms and suddenly faced with poverty, or any number of situations. Not all forms of marginality are relevant to class distinctions, though some are. I’ve already said this. Emotional or psychological scars are real, whether someone is poor or rich or in between. There is no “discursive power-play” at work when I point that out. It’s just the reality. I’m not playing with words. For many people, some of whom happen to be bourgeois, losing access to a certain community can be completely devastating, leading to suicidal urges, clinical depression, or any number of things. I personally know several people who have been seriously scarred by trusted friends and authority figures because of a doctrinal position they held. I get emails from people who have been pushed out of churches and families because of actions done that are considered sinful by that community, or because of doctrines held or not held. These people are significantly marginalized, because of marginal intellectual positions or marginal behavior. They have real pain and suffering as a result.

    Dan thinks that there is something wrong with my appeal to the dictionary definition of marginality. He thinks it is a cover for a power-play. But again, he hasn’t shown this to be the case. He just makes the accusation and provides no real basis for it:

    “What really interests me is this appeal to a definition or to the notion that Thom et al. are simply being objectively descriptive, thereby avoiding the deployment of making any kind of power-play (this emphasis also came through quite strongly when I spoke with Thom on the phone).

    In response, I want to remind us all of the ways in which definitions or objective descriptions are routinely employed as masks for the exercise of power. Such things are often examples of ideology operating at its finest. The argument that the use of a word is technically appropriate according to the rules of the English language in no way refutes the accusations that power is being wielded when that word is employed. Far from it, such efforts tend to be made to both hide and strengthen the power that is being exercised.”

    I am not appealing to the dictionary definition to hide the fact that I am using marginality to describe ideas or people that reside on the margins of standard conceptions of the mainstream. I appealed to the dictionary only in response to those who claim that the language of marginality is only appropriate to use for those on the socio-political margins. Dan has now shown how it is an abuse of the language of marginality to describe the plight of someone who has been forced out of a community for holding a position, and he cannot object to the reality that marginality is appropriate to describe certain positions. Are we implying the positions are correct just by virtue of the fact that they are marginal? Um, no. That would be what we were doing if we were employing marginality as a power play. The only thing we are doing is saying that we want to focus on perspectives and on people that are marginal or marginalized. Why? By sheer virtue of the fact that they are marginal or marginalized. Does being marginal or marginalized mean that they are automatically right? We never claimed it did, nor did we imply it.

    Dan then makes a more serious accusation: “The second way in which Thom’s response illustrates my point is by the way in which he refers to those who experience serious degrees of social, political, and economic marginalization throughout his response. Thom wants to grant the point that their marginality is important, but he wants to grant that point so that we can not mention them in relation to what he is writing about! Essentially, he is saying, of course people like sex workers and missing women are important, now can we stop talking about them? This perfectly illustrates the concern I expressed in my original post: when the bourgeoisie appropriate the language of marginality, those whose very lives are in jeopardy end up being further marginalized and forgotten.”

    This is another uncharitable reading from Dan. First, he know I talk about the socio-politically marginalized. Second, he’s putting words in my mouth. I never said I wanted to stop talking about the socio-politically marginalized! I simply objected to the way that Dan brought them up—he did so by falsely implying that our talk about people who aren’t socially-politically marginalized was a distraction from those that are. That is nonsense! When I talk about my car with a mechanic, that’s not a distraction from the socio-politically marginalized, not really. Of course, I may be on my way to a soup kitchen or something, so then it would be a distraction. But to imply that by talking about other kinds of marginalization than socio-political marginalization is a distraction from socio-political marginalization is in effect to say that any subject other than socio-political marginalization is a distraction from socio-political marginalization. When I refer to the white spaces at the edge of my essay, and their need to be one-inch on all sides, by calling them “the margins,” I am distracting from the socio-political margins. When I say that Trinitarian thought is at the center of mainstream Christianity, but Unitarians are marginalized and Jehovah’s Witnesses are marginalized, I am not distracting from the socio-political margins. I am using the English language to speak, and I am doing so clearly and appropriately.

    If I were to say, “The plight of the Jehovah’s Witness is unjustly overshadowed by the plight of the poor,” then I would be calling for the socio-politically marginalized to be neglected at the expense of the doctrinally marginalized. But when I say that it hardly needs to be pointed out that a disappeared Salvadorian woman is worse-off than a bourgeois woman with psychological scarring and clinical depression, I am not saying, as Dan uncharitably claimed, that I wish we would shut up about the Salvadorian woman! I’m saying that it’s obvious their respective plights aren’t of equal import, but other than the appropriate use of marginality to refer (contextually) to two very different situations, what does one have to do with the other? I want to talk about both, and yes, I think we should talk more, and do more, about the plight Salvadorian women than those with less pressing problems. But I was merely responding to Dan’s claim that I was distracting from Salvadorian women by describing an excommunicated Christian, who happens to be middle-class, as marginalized. No, I’m just speaking English. And if Dan thinks that by appealing to the fact that “marginality” is appropriately applied in both situations I am “masking a power-play,” I don’t know what to say in response. No it isn’t.

    Am I talking about the unfortunate plight of the wealthy white Western male? No. Glenn Beck thinks the wealthy white Western male is marginalized. I do not. But I do think that some wealthy white Western males can be marginalized in certain situations and contexts, and marginalized in ways that matter and that merit our attention. Of course, we can say, “Now, when I say ‘marginalized,’ I don’t mean this particular individual is in as bad a situation as the black man in the 1950s.” But I don’t see the need to say that unless somebody misunderstood us and thought that’s what we were claiming, or if the wealthy white Western male needed to hear that because he had an overblown sense of the profundity of his own situation. If that’s the case, then it’s appropriate to say, “Wake up, man! You’re not as bad off as some. Focus less on yourself, more on others.” But in some cases, some people already feel guilty about their social location, and I see no need to qualify their situation by rubbing their nose in their guilt.

    So, did Dan misunderstand our use of “marginality”? I think it’s clear that he did. We weren’t claiming it for ourselves as persons with reference to our social locations, and we weren’t claiming that all marginalities are created equal.

    Dan writes, “Therefore, when Thom writes that some bourgeois Christians ‘deserve to be identified as marginalized, even while it’s (very obviously) understood that they’re not in the same plight as disappeared Salvadorian women’ and then asks: ‘Do we really have to point that out?’ The answer is, yes we do.”

    I say, the answer is: Well, maybe yes, maybe not, but not as a blanket statement. Let’s look at the individual case, and then determine if it is helpful to weigh “marginalities” against one another. Dan wants to make an abstract blanket statement; I want more nuance than that.

    Dan quotes me, saying: “I’m not interested in weighing the degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. Yes, some forms are banal, like being at the margins of the fast food industry. But a form of marginality doesn’t have to be the most morally profound form of marginality in order to command our attention, nor should it have to.”

    He then says, “I am interested in trying to assess degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization. . . . Indeed, the refusal to assess ‘the degrees of profundity of the various forms of marginalization’ is but another expression of the bourgeois appropriation of marginality, for it minimizes and ignores the significance of the death-dealing forms of marginalization that I have mentioned. This is the case because it refuses to determine what kinds of marginalization are banal, what kinds of marginalization are extremely significant, and what kinds of marginalization fall at different places between those points.”

    This is utter nonsense! Dan conveniently ignores that I made all of the distinctions he claims I refuse to make in service of my “bourgeois” interests. I think those who have read along will recall that I am the one who made those distinctions to begin with. Dan made a distinction between the socio-political margins and banal margins such as the margins of the fast-food industry. I responded that there are margins in between that are significant, and pointed many of them out. I have been making the distinctions Dan claims I refuse to make from the very beginning of my interaction with him. When I said that “I’m not interested in weighing the degrees of profundity of various forms of marginalization,” I didn’t mean that I’m not interested in doing that in general. Clearly, the record shows that that’s what I’ve been doing all along. Read in context, my statement just means that I am not interested in discriminating against all lesser forms of marginalization than serious socio-political marginalization. As I said following Dan’s convenient quote, yes, some forms are banal, such as the obvious ones (like the margins of fast food) that Dan mentioned. But what I’m not interested in is saying that just because someone isn’t poor or racially excluded or what have you, their lesser form of marginalization doesn’t deserve my time. That’s all I meant. I didn’t mean some weren’t more important than others. Obviously not, because I immediately said that there are degrees! All I meant is that I try to have a fairly broad agenda, but not so broad as to be banal. Thus, even if an “elite” academic like myself is marginalized in some ways, just because that fits the dictionary definition doesn’t mean I’m going to claim to be marginalized. My appeal to the dictionary isn’t in service of banality. It’s just in service of the broader application of a term that is appropriate in more than one kind of context.

    From the very beginning I have stated that, yes, it is possible to abuse the language of marginality, and yes, some Christians have a persecution complex. So if Dan’s only objective here is to get me to admit that, I already have. I’ve even stated, in my guest post, the value of his reminder. But I have objected to Dan’s claim that we at RATM are an example of these phenomena. If we are, we need better evidence than Dan has provided.

    Dan says: “However, even with this in mind, I do want to return to my assertion that in most (but not all) cases the death-dealing forms of marginalization experienced by those who are homeless or street-involved, enslaved or sexually exploited, murdered or disappeared, is actually more important than the forms of marginalization experienced by members of the middle-class. I understand that this might be a provocative statement but, if we are being honest, I fail to see how we can conclude otherwise.”

    I don’t, and never have, disagreed with this statement.

    Dan says, “Therefore, until people actually start doing something, I will keep pressing this point (no matter how much they say, ‘I get it, can we move on?’).”

    Dan can claim that this is not a direct reference to me, but given the context, I think it clearly is an implied reference to me. First, what does Dan know about what I am “doing” and not doing? I am not saying, “I get it, can we move on.” I’m saying, I get it, but you’re saying I don’t, and you’re wrong.

    I don’t want to “move on” from discourse about the socio-political margins. I want to move on from this silly discussion which is about whether we’re talking about the socio-political margins or not. Rather than accusing us of distracting from the socio-political margins, just talk with us. Dan, come post on RATM about your experiences with those in exile. We want more contributors, as we state on the website, and we value your unique perspective and contributions. It’s up to you of course. But the last thing we want is to distract from the plight of the poor and abused. Of course, now that you’ve accused us of being such a distraction, anything we write on the subject will be interpreted as a face-saving reaction to your critique, rather than just the organic contributions they would have been, and in reality will be, as they come.

    I think your underlying point is great and I agree with it, always have. It’s just a pity you took us on this detour through these tenuous connections between the object of your critique and RATM.

  4. Typo correction: “Dan has NOW shown how it is an abuse of the language of marginality to describe the plight of someone . . .”

    should read:

    “Dan has NOT shown how it is an abuse of the language of marginality to describe the plight of someone . . .”

  5. Now I will conclude by reiterating that I respect Dan a great deal, and I know that he and I both want a constructive relationship with one another, so neither of us want to attack one another or anything of the sort. But precisely because I respect Dan so much, I take his accusations against me seriously, and have responded accordingly. I think that Dan makes some great general points; I simply contest that his attempt to use RATM as an example of those points is valid, and I have shown why his attempts to do so are based on misreadings and misunderstandings. I’ll take part of the responsibility for not being as clear as Dan needed me to be, but I hope I’ve been clear enough now that we can put an end to this.

    We are not marginalized and we never claimed to be. If anything we said sounds to you like we’re saying we’re marginalized, you are misunderstanding us. We apologize for the lack of clarity. I hope this is clear enough that we shouldn’t have to perpetuate this silly conversation any longer.

    Here’s to more fruitful discussions in the future.

  6. Actually, I began reading Thom´s response, but quit. Too many words in self-defense always turns me off.

    I´ve read most of this conversation up to this point, and I agree with Dan on this one. If you Thom had said: yes, we do apply the language of marginality to ourselves, and I have come to see that this is an inappropriate thing to do, so we will begin the process of turning away from this, and deepening our solidarity with the truly marginalized, you would have caugt my interest. I might even have read a book of yours… This way of responding simply don´t catch my interest.

  7. Methinks thou doth protest too much.

  8. But Jonas, we don’t apply it to ourselves. Dan made that up.

    Darren, Dan asked me to clearly spell out why the three statements he pulled weren’t contradictory and mutually exclusive. That’s what I did. It’s pretty clear.

    But what this is is one of those situations where, whether I’m guilty or not, just being accused makes me guilty in everyone’s eyes no matter what the evidence really says. I spelled out the evidence clearly and extensively because Dan kept telling me (over the phone) that I wasn’t being clear enough.

    If you think that’s evidence that I’m guilty as charged, fine. I just hope you never pull jury duty.

  9. All right. I discussed this with a mutual friend of Dan’s and mine to get some neutral perspective. The friend agrees that I never claimed to be marginalized or persecuted, but thinks (rightly) that we should try to refocus this on to the greater substance of Dan’s point. And the reality is, apart from his characterizations of some of my statements, Dan and I don’t really disagree, not much anyway.

    We both agree that there are more important forms of marginalization, and we both agree that those forms are socio-political, involving things like homelessness, exile, physical abuse, prostitution, etc.

    We also both agree that there are completely banal forms of marginalization, like being on the margins of the fast food industry, or being in a position of power yet being marginalized by your buddies at the club or church.

    Thirdly, we agree that there are degrees of marginalization in between socio-political and banal that are important, worth talking about, but not as important as those who are marginalized economically or racially, etc. We agree on this.

    Where we seem to disagree is on the question of whether it distracts from the socio-political margins to use the word “marginal” to speak of degrees of marginalization less significant but still significant. We agree they can still be significant. We also agree that there can be bourgeois in-fighting that just amounts to whining. We agree on that. And I recall saying in my guest post that Dan gave us an important reminder.

    Now, if Dan thinks that RATM is wholly devoted to the degrees of marginalization in between socio-political and banal, he’s mistaken. I did say, “if,” because I don’t know. We also want to discuss and explore the socio-political margins, even if that’s not what we do with every post. We have in the past and will in the future, because many of us are committed to those conversations. If Dan thinks we’re having conversations about socio-political margins just to be hip or to advance our careers (he hasn’t directly accused us of this, but he’s mentioned “those people” in proximity to his comments about RATM), then he’s mistaken. I was committed to being with the dispossessed long before I knew it was trendy. And it has little to do with my non-existent career.

    But his original claim, that we employ the language of marginality to buttress our own positions vis-a-vis conservatives, is just plain wrong. It’s true that there is some power-play involved in the language of marginality, but there is a power-play involved in just about everything we say and every title we employ to describe anybody or any project. But the claim that the power-play we are employing is to buttress our theological positions over against conservatives is just wrong. We’re interested in marginal positions, whether we agree with them or not.

    However, Dan has given me every indication that he intends to hold that line, so more power to him. I’ll go back to doing what we’re doing, and Dan can complain about it all he likes.

  10. So let’s talk about bourgeois power-plays:

    Dan has now spent almost a month (presumably in his warm house on his laptop/desktop/ipad, trying to argue that a semantic use of the word “margins” proves that we, the bourgeoisie at Religion at the Margins are trying to steal the word in order to–well, I’m not sure what– keep marginalized people from being heard, or something. (Which seems odd, since the point of Religion at the Margins is precisely to help those who are marginalized become heard: Everyone who is marginalized.)

    It doesn’t seem to matter how much Thom or anybody else explains that Religion at the Margins is a broad title that hopes to incorporate many facets of the margins. And that no one at RATM has claimed to be marginalized. That many of our writings (whether for RATM or in other venues) have been in defense of those on the social or socio-economic margins, seems not to matter one bit.

    The whole thing is laughably ironic. Dan claims that we’re misusing the word “margin” and that settles it. Apparently Dan cannot see through his own bombastic bourgeois rhetoric to notice that he is claiming the word “margin” for his own academic posturing. Presumably, Dan simply needed a subject in order to keep his blog updated. Of course his appropriation of it is much more noble than that which he accuses RATM of. Because he is obviously on the side of the really oppressed, and RATM is only interested in sticking it to the conservatives, or whining about being liberal in this cold cruel world or something. Not too mention how much Dan’s painstaking exegesis of Thom’s response and Dan’s bizarre fixation on trying to prove that Thom is contradicting himself has helped to make the voices of the female survivors of sexual violence heard.

    The reason Thom has spent so much time responding to these idiotic accusations is precisely because we at RATM care so much about those who are marginalized and it is therefore offensive to be accused of trying to steal the spotlight for our own selfish purposes. Perhaps the majority of posts so far have been on doctrinal issues, but many of those issues have a direct impact on how the Church treats those on the socio-economic margins.

    Dan cares for the marginalized, as do I, Thom, and the other authors at RATM. None of us would disagree with Dan’s final statement that “any academic who wishes to speak to these things must attempt to move ever deeper into the lived experiences of poverty, shame, and weakness. To do otherwise is, in my mind, almost always a betrayal.”

    But to try to silence voices that are seeking to speak with and on behalf of the marginalized, because Dan thinks our motives are more banal than his, seems extremely unhelpful.

  11. Thom, your victim-posturing is ridiculous.

    By writing the volume you did in the tone and posture you did, you not only proved Dan’s suspicions (apt criticisms) that you are (albeit covertly) appropriating the status of “marginalized”, but you also enacted the very tendency that Dan so deftly predicted, whereby your bourgeois victim-card playing is overshadowing real and profound forms of genocidal marginalization (your sense of idealogical/religious intelectual marginalization is not worth making the big deal you did about it). You’re drawing all attention to yourself.

    If you really care about marginalization it cannot be all about You or RaTM.

    maybe i’m wrong but i don’t see anything here to signify that you really do care about an honest and humble recognition of your own privelege. you seem to only have reluctantly recognized it and only in self-justification and almost celebratory way. this is the language employed by people of privilege with a guilt complex (“hey i’m not claiming to be marginalized I’ll admit that i’m “ELITE” i’m just trying to use my privelege for [that disembodied abstract intelectual category of people called] “the marginalized”) who don’t really have any intention of giving up their privilege. It also seems as though you don’t actually care about those on the margins, because if you did you would be open to critique about how the language of marginalization is systematically employed from places of power to ultimately serve to advance marginalization.

    If really do want to be an ally to marginalized people you need to TALK A LOT LESS, and when you do, it should be heavy on the humble self-criticism.

    Those who truly are invested in destroying the systems of domination and marginalization understand that it is not adequate for those with privilege to “advocate for” or “speak on behalf of” those who are marginalized. We need to actively move away from our places of privilege. Marginalized people have all the agency and strength needed to stand up for themselves and tell their own stories, they are only squelched because those in privelege within systems of domination exercise that privilege and reinforce domination.

  12. Thom and Matt,

    I don’t have much else to say to you guys. I think Thom and I are at an impasse and I don’t want to bother with Matt’s comment as any capable reader should be able to see what is accurate or inaccurate about what he writes.

    I will, however, provide another quotation from the “About” section of your website and let you think about the contrast between the commitment you make there and the way you have spoken in this conversation:

    We also seek to create a space free of hostility and judgment, a space dedicated to the free expression of ideas—a non-combative environment…

    We encourage submissions from any and all, from or for the margins… We do… value your feedback. You can respond by asking a question in our Q&A section, or by sharing a post on Facebook and hosting a discussion there, or by posting a response on your blog or website and linking back to us… help us bring those at the margins to the center of the conversation.

    I have been pretty disappointed with this discussion (as I’ve told Thom, I chose RATM because I thought the people who posted there wrote some interesting things and could end up producing an engaging and fruitful exchange on the issue I raised. Unfortunately, it was a lot more difficult to produce that kind of exchange than I imagined. However, I have decided to post this series — warts and all — because I think it shows how deeply rooted this appropriation of marginality is and it shows what happens when people try to even explore the possibility of confronting it.

    And that, I think, is about all I have left to say about that (the very fact that this post received four times as many hits as my most recent post — which deals with one of the most death-dealing forms of marginalization that is occurring in my city — kind of illustrates what I’m saying about the ways in which claims made about bourgeois experiences of marginality end up distracting us from more serious things.

    Peace out, brothers.

  13. Thom. I haven´t done a great amount of research on this, but I have read this conversation. I visitied your homepage, though, and saw an ad for something on Facebook called “Religions at the margins” or something, and I also visited this site. http://religionatthemargins.com/about/. To claim, in light of this, that you never claimed to be marginalized seems, to me, absurd.

  14. Jonas, a distinction between having a perspective that is marginal compared to the mainstream, and being marginalized because of that perspective, was assumed in our statement, but is now made explicit in our statement so that what we’ve always meant is clear to you and any others for whom the distinction was not immediately obvious.

    All the best.

  15. Maybe a good step, but I´m not quite sure. I think those distinctions can´t help the fact that the reader´s impression is still that you claim some kind of marginality for yourself. Neither can I quite understand how there can be a “perspective” or conviction that is marginalised but held by someone not marginalised. This seems to me to presuppose some kind of onthological division between one´s convictions/perspective (theory?) and socio-economic position/sitz im leben (practice?) that I have a hard time accepting on philosophical/theological grounds.

  16. That’s not what I’m claiming, Jonas. I already addressed that in a previous comment, but I’ll restate it so it’s clear. One can have a marginal perspective but still because of privilege enjoy a seat at the center of the conversation, still have power, etc. On the other hand, someone else may have that same perspective and be in a different social location and as a result of that perspective be marginalized in significant ways. It shouldn’t be that difficult to grasp.

    I am not marginalized because I am a privileged, educated, white, Western male who is highly educated and has been trained in the ways to communicate and manipulate mainstream channels. I still have a seat at the table, despite the fact that I hold positions that those who own the table don’t necessarily want at their table.

    On the other hand, there are others who, quite unfairly, do not have my privilege, who may share a marginal perspective with me. Because they are underprivileged or because they are in a different social location, they are forced from the center to the margins, socially, politically, or economically, because they have a perspective that isn’t orthodox or mainstream.

    So that’s what we mean and wherein the distinction lies. One can have a marginal perspective without being marginalized, while another person in another situation can have that same perspective and be marginalized for it.

    It has nothing to do with an ontological division between theory and practice or mind and body or any such thing.

    I hope that’s clear.

    So, when we acknowledged the obvious fact that some of are perspectives are on the margins of the mainstream (relative to our social locations), we did not imply that we were marginalized because of that. We aren’t. We’re privileged. But others aren’t, and we write in large part for those who aren’t, without presuming that our writing is some great salvific feat.

    We’re not making much of what we do. We think it’s important, but not all-important, and it’s not the only thing we do. We have offline lives as well.

    So I’m sorry for the confusion, but I’m not talking an ontological dichotomy. I share your rejection of such dichotomies. I have for some time. That’s not what I’m talking about.

  17. Ok. I can understand your disctinctions. But I am sorry to say that I still think that Dan´s criticism of your approriation of the language of marginality is valid. I also do think that the actual use/social effect of your language is more important than your intention. I have not reason to question or dig deep into your intetions and/or motivations.

    And I am not sure what kind of examples you are thinking of within western society that would push someone with unorthodox religious views to the (real/important) margins. Can you give some examples of this? The only examples I could think of that might come a bit close to marginalization because of religious perspetives would be something like Jehovas Witnesses or radical islamism. In at least some instances I think that their convictions leads them to punishment by the state or troubles in getting a job/financial security. But without having studied your project, my guess would be that the views of JW or radical islamism is not something you want to support or promote?

    (Speaking about religion in this way, I of course, speaking about dichotomies, accept the dichotomy between religion and politics, but this is just for the sake of the argument.)

  18. I actually do promote JW christologies over orthodox ones, and we have more than one post on radical Islam on Religion at the Margins, including one I posted yesterday which is the subject of my thesis.

    Other marginal issues we’ve explored are homosexuality, unbelief, anarchism, heresy in general, and others. We have plans for more as well. Not all are created equal. We also explore the socio-economic margins. Not all are of equal importance but all are of importance, as far as we’re concerned. That doesn’t mean we’ll never post something trivial or just for the fun of it. But every website does that.

    We don'[t disagree with Dan that the language of marginality can be exploited in such a way as to distract from those who are really marginalized. We disagree that’s what we’re doing. We’re not claiming to be white males who are marginalized by the minorities in the U.S. That’s what Glenn Beck claims and that’s a great example of exploiting the language of marginality in such a way that it distracts from those who are truly marginalized. We agree with Dan that that’s atrocious. We disagree we are an example of an abusive appropriation of the language of marginality, and think Dan’s original accusation was based on a simple misunderstanding: he thought we were claiming to be marginalized; we weren’t.

    I hope that’s enough said.

  19. Ok, I see. I disagree (at least in a way), but I might change my mind. I will try to follow your project for a while.

    I also think that the question of what constitutes “religion” and what constitutes “politics” might be more central to this conversation than either of you seems to acknowledge. Exploring this topic more closely might open up for more understanding.

  20. You’re free to disagree of course; I just wanted to make sure you’re disagreeing with something we’re actually saying, rather than something we’re not saying.

    All the best.

  21. I thought this was funny and timely. I just came across an article from the Guardian:

    “Our secular society cannot afford to marginalise religious education”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jan/23/education-religion-baccalaureate-schools

    Note the appropriate use of the word “marginalize.”

    :) Peace out

  22. Thom. It still seems to me that you look too much to the intention of what you are saying, and not to the wider place and effect of the concept of marginalization. I think it´s possible to have a good and well-meaning intention with the words we use, but still end up serving an oppressive discourse.

  23. I second that. Both Thom and Matt are hung-up on this talk of intentions, when I never once intended to question their intentions.

    This whole thing reminds me of the section from MLK’s letter from a Birmingham prison (which I was rereading last week). In that letter, MLK starts talking about how THE big obstacle he may be facing isn’t so much the Klan but might actually be the well-intentioned moderate whites. So, while Thom wants to point the finger at Glenn Beck and accuse him of being the real problem (and nobody here is suggesting that Beck is or was ever a good thing), it’s worth remembering the a lot of people do a lot things that aren’t all that great, despite their intentions. In fact, I almost always assume that people are operating with good intentions (unless they explicitly state otherwise… which they usually don’t!), but intentions aren’t what matter at the end of the day. As the old saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

  24. Jonas, I’m agreeing to disagree with you, as are numerous people I’ve spoken with fully committed to working with the radically dehumanized.

    As for Dan, I respect his work alongside the dehumanized. May it continue to be fruitful.

  25. The author of this blog seems to have taken a very childish stance towards his protagonist. He seems to be essentially saying something like, “the people you talk about in your blog are not as marginalized as the people I talk about in my blog.” Now I work at a large homeless shelter in a major Canadian city and sometimes I hear the residents bragging about how much “time” they’ve spent in jail. One guy will say he’s spent 3 years locked up, and the other will come back and say “oh yeah…I spent 8 years in Penatang!!”. All this to apparently show how much more bad ass and screwed up their life is compared to the other guy (or how much more marginalized they are). This is what the author is doing. In actual fact it could be argued that all of his examples in the original post (i.e. Aboriginal Canadian youth inhaling substances, female and male sex workers and street involved individuals in Vancouver, etc…) are not all that marginalized after all. Theirs is a shitty lot in life, no doubt, but when one compares their plight to child soldiers in Uganda, street kids in South America, Native tribes in Brazil that are the targets of genocide by cattle ranchers and loggers, people groups like the Hmong of Laos who are being systemically destroyed by the Laotian army, the author’s little group of people have it pretty good. After all they all live in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth where opportunities abound, where they have access to a multitude of social services. Not too many homeless people in Canada are going to bed hungry or cold tonight. I know of individuals in Toronto who choose to camp out in the winter but there are places for them to go. Even the aboriginal youth of Canada have it pretty good compared to aboriginal youth in other countries like Columbia or Bolivia. All I’m saying is that it seems pretty hypocritical and silly to compare levels of marginalization, which is exactly what the author is doing to the people at RATM.

  26. Hi John,

    I came across an interesting report the other day. It stated that Canadian indigenous youth (under the age of 25) are the population most at risk (in the world) of committing suicide. The report was from the early 1990s so it might be outdated now. Still… food for thought.

    Nice to hear from somebody who works alongside of street-involved people (even if you do misunderstand what I’m saying). I do agree that it is important to remember the experiences of peoples in the two-thirds world when we reflect upon our own context.


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