Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sun, 9 Sep 2018, 12:48 PM


The Outsider

Author:   |    Publish date:   |  >> Read article in Blog website

It is fitting that the pre-publicity for Afua Hirsch's book Brit(ish) should have coincided with the death of Mark E Smith. What they have in common are stories of exclusion and isolation.

Ms Hirsch writes:

This country of mine had never allowed me to feel that it is where I belong. If I were to single out the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging, it would be The Question: "Where are you from?"

Not belonging, though, is also the experience of many clever working class people. Obituaries of Mark E Smith call him an outsider: The Fall were named after a novel by Albert Camus who also wrote The Outsider. As Mark Brown has written in a wonderful essay, "cleverness meant loneliness."

And this has been my experience too. My grammar school was on the other side of town and it played rugby, the function of which was not so much to produce rugby players as to signal to people like me that we didn't belong. And then I went to Oxford which was chocka with charmless dullards from "nice" middle-class backgrounds*. All along there were cues that I didn't fit in.

Of course, the ruling class rarely gave overt outright messages of class hatred, just as Ms Hirsch rarely encountered crude racism. It likes to think of itself as open and tolerant. But this is self-regarding bullshit which rests upon a denial of the real lived experience of the tens of thousands of black, mixed-race or working-class people: Michael Henderson's "review" in the Times is a wonderful example of this.

But the undertow is there. And it has real, material consequences. Black people earn less than whites with similar qualifications and are under-represented in influential jobs. Likewise, people who "rise" from working class backgrounds earn less for the same credentials, are more likely to live alone, and are even more likely to die early than those from posh families.

Even if we try to fit in, we never wholly do.

What I'm trying to do here is to lean against a regrettable tendency in identity politics. It is the case that everybody's particular experience of isolation or oppression is different: Ms Hirsch's experience is not mine, and mine is not that of a woman or a gay man. But these are different facets of a similar thing: the barriers we face from the beneficiaries of the existing order. Sure, capitalism, patriarchy or heteronormativity are different things. But they have something in common.

Yes, we should rail against the injustices here. But we should also - for the good of our health - remember our comforts.

One of these is the potential for a greater understanding of each other. It's difficult (though not impossible) for insiders to understand outsiders because fish don't know they are wet.; this of course was the message of that song. Many of us with experience of both sides, however, might be capable - should we choose to be so - of more empathy. One recent study has found that people from lower social classes are better able to think well about inter-personal conflicts. The divisions in the Tory party - drowning men fighting for a brick - are perhaps consistent with this.

Secondly, when you realize that there's no point trying to impress some people you lose ambition and the need to work hard. That can be liberating.

And then, there's art. There's lots that we outsiders can feel more strongly about than the privileged - from Dostoyevsky** and Camus through to Bowie and Holland. We might have a material disadvantage, but not, necessarily, a cultural one.

* It's insufficiently appreciated that the more typical product of Oxford is Theresa May rather than Boris Johnson.

** Fyodor Karamazov was just like my dad.

Another thing: there's a link between this post and my last one. Both are about the need to hear the voices of the excluded.

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