What Does “Marginalized Group” Mean?
In the zeitgeist, “marginalized” seems to mean any group that a mainstram speaker must love. A loved group is typically a set of individuals who deserve some privileges required by “social justice” as understood in the chattering classes, who complain of “micro-aggressions,” and who are not sufficiently empowered to boss others around. By a strange reversal of their root meaning (“at the margin”), “marginal” and “marginalized” now often refer to those who are the current bien-pensants.
For example, I read an apparently innocuous explanation in a Wall Street Journal report (“Tucker Carlson’s Vulgar, Offensive Messages About Colleagues Helped Seal His Fate at Fox News,” April 26, 2023—my):
On air, Mr. Carlson had turned up the volume on commentary that had expanded beyond a conservative viewpoint on politics into more of an attack on marginalized groups.
From what I know about him, I don’t share Mr. Carlson’s contempt of truth nor most of his intuitions. Nor would I want to be associated with leftwing or rightwing bigotry, ignorance, and authoritarianism. But although I grant that many nuances are involved, I suggest that we should stick with the standard definition of “marginal.” In that perspective, marginal is neither necessarily bad nor necessarily good. And the most “marginalized” group is certainly the set of individuals who are not part of any politically influential faction and who have a strong preference to be left alone when they want to, who are happy to live and let live.
Moreover, “marginalized,” from the verb “marginalize,” implies some actor and some action against the marginalized. Despite John Stuart Mill’s idea that “society” can be oppressive, collective action through the state is the most effective marginalizer. Government dictats are to social pressure what aggressions are to micro-aggressions.
In an interesting conversation with Hartmut Kliemt, Anthony de Jasay said, “What economics does for you is it teaches you to think.” He had a point, even if we should admit that other disciplines, if well taught, also help learning how to think, although not necessarily about social matters. A necessary, but obviously not sufficient, condition of rational thinking requires to use words that have a clear meaning.
Apr 30 2023 at 9:05pm
To what degree of risk should we design and build our infrastructure? Should we design buildings to withstand a once-in-50-year flood, or once-in-100-years? Should we design electric systems to have outages no more than once every 10 years, or no more than once every 20 years? I know of no hard and fast rule to answer these questions. But we cannot design systems to withstand every conceivable risk. And whatever threshold you choose, beyond that threshold lies the margin.
People design cars to fit humans. But humans come in varying sizes. What sizes should you consider when designing your car? I know of no hard and fast rule to answer that question. But you cannot design the car to fit every conceivable human. And whatever threshold you choose, beyond that threshold lies the margin.
I hypothesize that reality’s complexity exceeds the capacity of the human mind to grasp. To cope, human minds develop models of reality. Different minds will focus on different variables (although most focus on opportunity and threats) and will develop models of different degrees of complexity. But no one’s model will encompass all of reality in all its complexity. And whatever your model leaves out, beyond that lies the margin.
When people speak of “marginalized” things, I understand them to speak about things that fall outside of popular consideration.
I share Lemieux’s view that these exhortations become impossible. First, once we acknowledge that we cannot pursue some objective to encompass all reality, then by definition we must reach an end to our pursuits and, by definition, something must lie beyond. Second, simply by calling attention to a given thing, you arguably pull it within the margin of people’s attention. Nevertheless, I can understand the concept of a thing just outside my attention, even if I cannot focus on such a thing. (See Steve Martin’s essay “The Last Thing on My Mind.”)
All that said, I understand exhortations to focus on marginalized things as exhortations to cause people to expand their models and the scope of their concerns—even if, inevitably, something will fall beyond that scope. If referring to marginalized things bothers you, perhaps we could refer to “raising people’s consciousness” about those things—things that, presumably, you did not consciously bear in mind previously.
Richard W Fulmer
May 1 2023 at 10:36am
There is a difference between being asked to respect the rights of people who belong to marginalized groups and being forced to affirm, celebrate, and subsidize their choices.
May 1 2023 at 10:53am
These questions are much easier to answer if you eliminate the “we”.
May 1 2023 at 2:40pm
I’ve often had the same thought, but so far I’ve managed to suppress the urge to commit mass murder.
May 1 2023 at 2:58pm
Nobody: Karl Popper thought scientific knowledge to be temporary. This is the best that can be done at the moment. Knowledge changes with next new piece of evidence. If knowledge is impounded continuously/continually, it seems we are always at the margin.
May 1 2023 at 3:39pm
Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964), Volume I, 8 2
May 1 2023 at 5:11pm
Reminds of a cartoon I saw posted in the philosophy dept at Loyola of Chicago.
Two people shouting from their respective apartment window’s facing each other, each across the street from one another.
The caption: “Arguing from two different premises.”
Apr 30 2023 at 9:42pm
Read one Y! article that suggested Murdoch’s now former fiancee opined to him that Tucker was a messenger from God. Of course one thing about the Murdoch’s of the world is that they tend to think they are the ones who walk on water, so naturally that was a dealbreaker for him.
May 1 2023 at 1:58am
The libertarian theory has tendency to eliminate the subject of its enquiry. For instance, it says that there is no collective We.
But great many people worldwide do believe themselves to be part of some collective We.
Are they victims of some false consciousness a la Marx?
May 1 2023 at 6:39am
Given how often collective behavior is studied by libertarians and liberals (for example, in this very blog post or in the field of Public Choice), it’s incorrect to say that “there is no collective We.”
Liberals treat the unit of analysis as the individual. The collective does not exist as a distinct actor separate from the individuals that make it up. The collective does not make a decision; it’s behavior is the result of actions taken by individuals.
May 1 2023 at 10:59am
Jon: Here is my proposed amendment: The fact that the concept of a collective exists does not imply that the collective “we” exists. The concept of, say, a heap exists, but this does not imply that the “heap we” has any meaning.
May 1 2023 at 3:16pm
I often try to practice the discipline of avoiding reliance on the verb “to be,” so I don’t mean to show disrespect for linguistic discipline in general. That said, your particular discipline strikes me as especially challenging.
Can you translate the sentence “The Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews” into group-free references? If you were writing a history book, what language would you use to describe this aspect of WWII? Indeed, could you even acknowledge WWII–or does a war simply consist of many individuals committing lethal acts against many other individuals?
May 1 2023 at 5:52pm
Yes. Fairly easily, in fact. They did it at the Nuremberg Trials.
As long as one understands that “Nazis” here refers to individuals, then there is no problem here. The problem arises when one refers to the actions of “Nazis” without any sort of individual culpability. Without understanding a group as individuals, then one cannot distinguish the behavior of, say, Kurt Gerstein, from his organization.
May 1 2023 at 11:14pm
Nobody: Yes, sure. “The Nazi government exterminated six million Jews.” The families of the victims will understand that they were individuals. Or “the US government killed at least 199,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagazaki.” And go back to what Jon said.
May 2 2023 at 1:34am
Curious you would say this. The list of defendants at the Nuremberg trials included organizations–such as the leadership corps of the Nazi party, the Government (Cabinet) of the German Reich, the General Staff and High Command of the German Wehrmacht and the SS, and the Sicherheitsdienst intelligence agency (SD). The court convicted only four of these organizations (the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party, the Gestapo, the SD and the SS) of crimes.
True, organizations of individuals–distinguishing these organizations from all those organizations of continuous substances (e.g., the International Brotherhood of Toothpaste.)
May 2 2023 at 7:36am
In legal cases, one lists organizations when it is easier than listing individuals. But it is still individuals put on trial and punished for actions taken by individuals. It is logically and physically impossible to separate the behavior of an organization from that of the individuals.
May 2 2023 at 9:10am
“It is logically and physically impossible to separate the behavior of an organization from that of the individuals.”
You are correct, Professor, and as an aside I think one of the problems people have is that they will often hear the phrase ‘corporate personhood’ and/or ‘corporations are people’ which on some visceral level really bothers people. Its unfortunate because the the phrase ‘corporate personhood’ is really a legal shorthand for the more awkwardly uttered phrase — the legal fiction of separate corporate personhood. (Emphasis on the fiction). It seems to me that the legal shorthand seems to be guiding people’s opinions!
May 1 2023 at 11:26am
I think there are marginalized groups that arent especially loved and arent seeking social justice. (I will stop with the buzz words there.) I work frequently with a group of mental challenged people. Some live in large institutions, some in small institutions and some with family. They truly are not capable of working or supporting themselves. AFAICT neither these people nor their families are especially interested in bossing people around, or at least not anymore than anyone else. They do want to be safe, have shelter, medical care, etc.
May 1 2023 at 12:13pm
Steve: You are right that such marginal groups as the one you mention exist. I was speaking of the typical (“typically”) marginalized group. Yet, I have one doubt: I am not sure that mentally ill individuals can be said to be marginalized except in the general sense of marginal: they are sadly at the margin of society. Note also that their advocates wanting free medical care for them certainly endear them to the marginal-loving crowd who wants the state to take care of everybody; but I admit that this is a real problem. A truly marginalized group in the strong sense of the term–they are marginalized by government in the sense that the blacks were marginalized by Jim Crow laws–are the 8% of American adults who are “convicted felons” who have done their time in jail, especially those who had been convicted of non-violent “crimes.”
May 1 2023 at 8:57pm
The group I am describing doesnt really have the capacity to ask for their care to be paid for in any particular manner. They arent the ones asking to have tax money used for their care. That is the choice of other people and even when tax money is used the quality of care is highly variable. Watch how most of the general public treat them and they are clearly marginalized.
Its not just former felons, its really anyone with an arrest record. Medicare/Medicaid rules keep us from hiring people with convictions but its hard to hire people with an arrest record even without a conviction and that is not a Medicare rule.
May 1 2023 at 2:48pm
How would that safety, shelter, medical care, etc., get financed? If you would have it financed by taxation, that may qualify as “bossing people around.”
May 1 2023 at 11:09pm
Nobody: Taxation of other people is certainly bossing people around. The liberal idea is to constrain taxes to be, in a sense, non-discriminatory. Buchanan (criterion: presumptive unanimity) and Hayek (strict rule of law) have much to say about this.
May 1 2023 at 7:58pm
Et la logique de l’action collective de Mancur Olson?
May 1 2023 at 11:05pm
Pierre: Your are right. We have learned from Olson that marginal groups are easier to organize in order to lobby the government. One paradigmatic case are the farmers, who represent less than 1% of the population. Corporations who can’t compete against imports are another paradigmatic case. Of course, not all marginal groups are equal, but their organizers have their own interest in representing them. For example, “non-profits” are subsidized to lobby the politicians and the bureaucrats on behalf of ideologically influent and fashionable groups.
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