From a young age, I was drawn to outsiders, to those who did not seem to ‘fit’ with the rest of society. Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as a gay Catholic, I found those who were marginalized or excluded were people I could understand and relate to. The popular culture I consumed in film, TV, music and literature was that created by or focused on outsiders (such as David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Prisoner Cell Block H, David Bowie, Bjork and Nirvana). Outsiders were the people who fascinated and inspired me. I mean, who wants the strong and powerful to succeed? That’s boring.
Of course, being an outsider is a complex status, sometimes ascribed to a group or individual unwillingly whilst others embrace, or indeed revel, in their marginal status. It’s no great surprise to those who know me that my work focuses on Roma communities, one of the most marginalised and persecuted minority communities in Europe. I also research movements which reveal how those outside of the formal or traditional political system can seek to change it, as outsiders.
In 2001, I read Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey (1995) by Isobel Fonseca, which documented her life amongst Roma communities, just after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Fonseca, a journalist, provides an insight into the everyday lives and challenges facing Roma communities. I could not understand why Roma were so vilified in every state and in every society in which they resided. The book revealed their historical persecution including mass murder under the Nazis and I recognised that this book painted Roma as a mysterious group, always on the margins. I was shocked at the level of persecution which Roma continue to endure and wanted to understand why which led to my undertaking a PhD on their political representation.
I was, and continue to be, convinced by the power of political agency through activism and social movements because for many outsider groups, political participation is both a means and an end. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements (1977) demonstrates how the most vulnerable people in a society potentially have political power which can lead to social change. In a similar vein Charles Tilly’s wonderfully written From Mobilization to Revolution (1978) shows how ordinary people, by engaging in strategic protest, can challenge the state and transform society. Rather than merely documenting persecution, both of these books offered clarity in terms of how oppressed groups can change their marginal status by challenging authorities.
Being an outsider has certain benefits but when you are treated badly because of perceived difference vis-a-vis the majority society, this becomes a problem. Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects (2013) examines the abjection of various groups in neoliberal Britain including Gypsies/Travellers and the working class. Tyler eloquently captures the impact of capitalism on outsiders in terms of societal inclusion, including how these groups are denigrated to sustain economic and political structures which continue to exclude them. Tyler shows how an outsider status remains contingent upon the attitudes and actions of others.
The protagonist in Alan Hollinghurst’s novel In the Line of Beauty (2004) does not quite fit into the family home he has infiltrated. He is an outsider whose belonging remains out of reach because of his class status. Irrespective of his education, class is still an issue for upwardly mobile young go-getters in Thatcher’s Britain. This book contains one of the most audacious scenes for any outsider, a dance with Prime Minister Thatcher at a house party. While the book reveals interesting insights about human nature and belonging, it does unfortunately portray gay men as perpetual outsiders, exiled from a contented life. But who wants a conventional and ‘normal’ life? One of the strongest advocates for embracing one’s individuality and refusing to follow the crowd is American director and writer John Waters who has positively relished his monikor ‘The Pope of Trash’. I’ve always been a fan of Waters’ movies which celebrate some of Baltimore’s most disgusting people. In Role Models (2010), Waters documents the people who have influenced and inspired him. His role models are not gleaned from the mainstream and their outsider status is the one thing which unites the various individuals he describes.
There are not many more marginalised and misunderstood in society than the mentally ill. Jon Ronson is a journalist who tends to focus on eccentrics and outsiders. His book The Psychopath Test: A Journey through the Madness Industry (2011) is riotously funny and engagingly written. His central argument is that the very qualities of a psychopath, including lack of empathy and an inflated sense of self-worth, are the very same qualities that propel politicians and CEOs of major corporations up the ladder. It would seem that the difference between being in a mental institution or in a boardroom or political office is sometimes one of chance. The message is that outsiders can become powerful but really Ronson reveals the importance of promoting a better understanding of the most excluded individuals and groups in our society.
Aidan McGarry is Principal Lecturer in Politics at the University of Brighton. His latest book, co-edited with James M. Jasper, is The Identity Dilemma: Social Movements and Collective Identity (Temple University Press, 2015).
The image used at the beginning of this post is by Roel Wijnants.