No Piss Heads: Occupy St. Paul’s and the Exclusion of the Marginal

Point Two of Initial Statement of Occupy London:

2. We are of all ethnicities, backgrounds, genders, generations, sexualities dis/abilities and faiths. We stand together with occupations all over the world.

My first impression of Occupy St. Paul’s was how loud it was. I’m not good with loud crowds and it felt overwhelming to begin with. One homogenous roar after another that moved from one side of the steps of the church to the other with little discernible characteristics. After a couple of minutes the initial sense of disorientation died down and I began to be able to make out different groups within the roar. Though that initial disorientation returned again and again.

There were the main speakers who spoke passionately on their chosen subjects. I could barely hear them though other people nodded in agreement. There were groups of people engaged in often heated conversations. There were also general conversations being held at a loud volume because of the background level of noise in the square. I also began to notice that there were groups and individuals on the outskirts of the square. They were often incredibly noisy, but they seemed to have nothing to do with Occupy. The subjects that they were shouting about, the way that they were acting, suggested that they might have had mental health or substance abuse issues. At first, I thought that they might have been attracted to the noise in the square. Most of the people in the square seemed to be viewing them with barely concealed disdain.

It’s then I noticed the signs. “No Piss Heads.” They were everywhere. Whatever you think about organised religion, churches and the spaces around them often operate as sites of sanctuary for the most marginal members of our society. The mentally ill, those with substance abuse issues, etc. It began to occur to me that maybe those people that I was observing on the outskirts of the square weren’t being noisy, and angry, because they were joining in the general din of the events. Maybe they were angry, and noisy, because they had been excluded from a space in which they usually felt safe.

When I tried to speak about this with someone who was standing beside me, she started shouting at me; more noise, more anger. What would I, “an educated middle-class white man,” know about exclusion and being marginal? Actually, I’m Irish, working-class, bipolar with a history of substance abuse as well, but her level of noise made it clear I had only two choices. To join the other mad people on the outskirts and start screaming, and be ignored, or leave which is what I did.

What frightens me most about this is that after the noise comes silence. I broadly agree with the aims of the Occupy movement, but when you seek to discuss with people the further marginalisation of deeply vulnerable groups – many people seem to simply go quiet. It not that they haven’t heard, didn’t see the signs; they simply often don’t want to acknowledge, to listen. Noise and silence are powerful weapons, particularly against the weakest, if we fail to reflect on our use of them. Equally as importantly there are lessons for all to learn from the chaotic edges. From those who are not screaming, but asking to be let back in.

Probation over…

Well – that’s the mini-viva and probation upgrade to PhD status over. Lots of constructive comments; mostly about the need to focus my literature review (I threw in everything but the kitchen sink). Lots of comments about my choice of language which they both love but at the same time worry about in the context of social science audiences. Having moved to the social sciences from a background in English and Critical Theory I think it’s always going to be a tension. The kind of interdisciplinary reading across the grain that I was trained in originally sits uneasily with disciplines that strive for ‘balance’.

I think I shocked one of my examiners (a very brilliant anthropologist who I respect enormously) when I suggested that Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” could be read a seminal lesbian text.

Overall, I think one of the things that really struck me was how little knowledge even related academics in the social sciences have of sex and gender movements. I had made too many assumptions about the level of knowledge of my examiners in my literature review. I should have chunked the material down far more than I did. I think I was worried about appearing to talk down to two leaders in their fields. As they were happy to point out to me – my field of research is relatively new. I need to offer more of a map to readers to follow it…