The Magnificence of Marginality

On 9 May, I spoke at Sherborne’s inaugural TEDx event on the subject of marginality. I focused on the life of mathematician Alan Turing, who attended Sherborne School and whose personal experiences have some connection to my own. The link to my talk, and the full transcript, is below. Please have listen!

I want to start by asking you to do a bit of imagining. Inevitably, as we’re in Britain and this is an ice-breaker, I’m going to focus on the weather. So, it’s a wet morning. Transportation has ground to a halt because of a strike. 

So far, you don’t have to imagine too hard. But into this predictable scenario, I want you to place yourself in the mindset of a thirteen-year-old who is starting who is due to start at first day at a new school, sixty miles away today. And I want to ask, what do you do: Do you set out for school or do you not? I should add – and this will probably make your decision-making a whole lot easier – your parents are not with you; so no cajoling, no guilt (at least initially).

In 1926, when, when thirteen-year-old Alan Turing faced this exact dilemma on his first day at Sherborne School, he chose to cycle the 60 miles from Southampton to here. And this was after he had travelled for at least eleven hours from St Malo. I wonder how this feat compares to what action you decided upon?

As a teacher, I believe that defining character traits become evident in people at a young age, even if they later need honing and nurturing. For me, then, this episode does much to demonstrate Turing’s determination and focus. And I really don’t think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that this vignette enables us to glimpse those qualities and skills that would lead to the two great professional achievements of his life.

First, his code-breaking work during World War Two at Bletchley Park, which cracked Germany’s Enigma machine and, according to some estimates, brought the conflict to a swifter conclusion, saving the lives of thousands. Second, his pioneering work in computer science that today enables us to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time. For this feat, Turing is hailed as the ‘father of modern computing’ and artificial intelligence. 

Alan Turing

However, we should also acknowledge what was probably our first reaction to Turing’s trek; namely, that it’s really, really odd. The snap decision of a boy on the precipice of the ‘terrible teens’ to cycle sixty miles through a largely unfamiliar region, alone; for him to possess the foresight to organise for his luggage to be sent on in advance to school – to do any one of these things, let alone all, would surely be every parents’ dream, but it is also, frankly, unusual. And, I’m guessing it’s not what the majority of us would have done. 

And so, Turing’s cycling ride reveals another defining trait of his character. It reveals his uniqueness, or what many of his Sherborne contemporaries, even close family, would regard, less favourably, as his marginality. 

Marginality and its consequences are at the core of what I want to ponder over the next few minutes. By marginality, I am not primarily thinking about people’s beliefs, ethnicity, gender or sexuality, although, of course, these are all reasons that can lead to people to be ostracised and forced to live at the periphery of their communities. Here, I’m concerned with the marginality precipitated by an individual’s personality and character; the things they think, say and do that are innate, but often misunderstood, criticised and rejected by those around them.

Turing – our solo cyclist – was certainly marginal: he was intellectually confident, even precocious; socially awkward, sometimes to the point of brusqueness, and, as his cycling feat demonstrates, he was single-minded. He was also homosexual at a time when it was illegal to be so. Now, although I’ve said I won’t dwell on this, but I think Turing’s sexuality really was an inherent part of who we was. It helps to explain why, throughout much of his life, he was misunderstood and why even his older brother could described his as ‘an eccentric of outsize proportion’. 

A key moment that reveals Turing’s uniqueness and the cause of his marginality occurred in 1952. He was living in Manchester, a respected academic working in the university’s mathematics department on what would become the earliest computers. At least, that was until he was arrested for ‘Gross Indecency’, for having sex within another man in the privacy of his home. Found guilty, Turing was presented with two outcomes – I cannot bring myself to call them choices – to prison, or to be chemically castrated.

Had I been alive in 1952, it is conceivable that I, as a gay man, would have faced the same decision. I’ve thought – a lot– about what I would have done. Probably, I think, I would have chosen prison, believing this to be the safer, easier option. Turing did not. He chose chemical castration. The repeated injection of female hormones would ostensibly ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality. What it certainly did do was to destabilise his physical health and destroy his psychological well-being. Two years after his sentencing, two weeks before his forty-second birthday, Turing killed himself by biting into a poison-laced apple.

But times change. In 2009, the British governmentissued a posthumous apology for the appalling treatment Turing had endured because of his homosexuality. In February of this year, Turing he was named the BBC’s ‘Icon of the Twentieth Century’, chiefly because of his work in computer science. We have long benefitted from what Turing did, but only now, over fifty years after he took his life, are we finally we seem able to acknowledge Turing him for who he was. I think it has taken this long – too long– for us to acknowledge Turing because he was marginalised. Contemporaries saw the oddities before the opportunities; the unusual over the unique; and, perhaps more tragically, recoiled from him rather than reassuring him; hesitated instead of offering to help.

Turing’s teenage cycle ride, if we go back to that, demonstrates that the wizard and the weird are not separable aspects of his character. The very cause of his marginality was also the source of his magnificence. The more I thought about the tragedy, even cynicism, of his posthumous appreciation, the more I became aware of just how many marginalised people have ended up making a social impact that is positively disproportionate to their status among their contemporaries. The pernicious paradox whereby the cause of a person’s marginality is simultaneously the source of their magnificence is all too easy to evidence. Let me share another example.

Diane Arbus

Let’s think about the first photographer to have their work included in the Venice Biennale, a photographer whose 1972 retrospective at MOMA, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is stillone of their highest attended exhibitions, nearly five decades later: a short, wild-eyed woman called Diane Arbus. Arbus’ pioneering photography was rooted in her own sense of displacement and marginality. Throughout her life she suffered depression and appears to have used portraiture, which challenged preconceived notions of what photography was, to make sense of her world. Arbus famously worked to normalise the marginalised; the ‘freaks’, as she called them – the amputees, dwarves, transgender – who would not, conventionally, be deemed beautiful. To Arbus they were. The experience of engaging with these unusual subjects was what she was looking for. But even this was not enough. Aged forty-eight, Arbus committed suicide, taking barbiturates and slashing her wrists in the bath. Her tale is a tough one to hear, but it should make us realise that the woman and her work are not separable; her trauma, which ended up being too much to bear, made her triumph possible. 

In their respective fields, Turing and Arbus are heavyweights. They are responsible for conceiving of, and creating, transformational shifts in the way that we feel and think; in the way that we live. They are also two people who, for a time – sadly, too short a time – showed resilience in the face of their marginalisation to achieve magnificence.

Unfortunately, as a teacher I have encountered too many pupils and students whose brilliance was blunted, if not entirely blocked, by their marginality. A lack of empathy, sympathy, support did not galvanise them. It weakened them. It made it too hard for them to be themselves, to see that they had something to offer. The disproportionately positive impact that marginalised people are often able to make on society only heightens the tragedy.

Marginality is a subject of personal interest because it’s part of my experience. According to a personality profile devised by Myers and Briggs, based on the work of psychoanalyst Carl Jung, there are sixteen -character types. Alan Turing’s personality type is shared by just 13% of the world’s population; Arbus’ by 8%. It was with a sense of equal concern and confirmation when I learned that my profile is the rarest. Shared by fewer than 1% of the world’s population, it is characterised by a parity between sense and sensibility. Almost certainly, this explains why I am standing here talking to you about marginality. 

Unlike Turing and Arbus, I am still awaiting my magnificence, but like them, my marginality and the character traits that have shaped my life were already evident when I was younger. At thirteen – the same age as Turing when he cycled to Sherborne – I moved to a new school in the south of England because of my father’s work. I remember – painfully – how long it took me to develop friendships, which was not helped by the fact that my form teacher had me stand before my classmates and make a Dragon’s Den style pitch for their interest. You don’t need to imagine how badly that went!

A sense of not belonging exacerbated my inclination to analyse and to dwell on my feelings. And so I did what came naturally, and studied. In turn, this developed my sense of empathy and acute sensitivity to the feelings of people around me. Naturally, these traits made me stand out at school, and so my marginalisation started at a young age, as a result of just being me.

However, I now recognise that these characteristics are at the core of what I do as a teacher and cultural historian. My marginality, as I perceive it, and any potential I have for magnificence share the same source. 

So, what do we do to ensure the margin and middle are not irreparably separated?

Well, we need to acknowledge that it’s simply too easy to dismiss people as oddities and thereby absolve ourselves of any responsibility for trying to understand and to support them. Whilst we may regret the early deaths of Turing and Arbus, we need to acknowledge that the marginalised who continue to live among us, unsupported and unheralded and with their enormous potential unrealised, constitute a wicked waste of life. 

We need to re-engage with each other as personalities individuals, and not rely on the distorting oculus of social media, through which everyone seems an infallible icon. We know of the very important work done by charities – including Mind and The Samaritans – and the socially-minded lessons that take place in schools that that can help here, too. But I’m thinking about us, and I want usto talk. 

I guarantee that we all know somebody in our lives right now whom we tend to avoid; whom we have marginalised to some degree. Maybe we have a reason for this, probably we only think we do. Within the next twenty-four hours, I’d like you to challenge yourself to speak to that person. To understand them and try to appreciate their value, and to embrace their ’otherness’. And who knows, they might one day make as big a difference to the world as Turing and Arbus did, and you’ll have played your own small part in their story. 

Whilst the thirteen-year-old you may have responded to torrential rain and transport delays by staying in bed, praise the pluck and seek to understand the audacity of those thirteen-year olds who choose to cycle. 

And if you are one of those people who would – like 13-year-old Turing – have cycled alongside the thirteen-year-old Turing, never let that difference make you feel unworthy; for you, like him, are navigating your own path, however challenging, and it’s here that marginality can truly become magnificent. Thank you.

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