Engineers don't write essays at university, we do endless lab sessions instead. Not for the first time I was rather thankful for this last week when a friend of mine who is a trainee social worker was knuckling down to her end-of-term essay on social exclusion.
The essay gave rise to a very interesting conversation. "Social exclusion" evokes images in the public mind of feral youth on sink estates. You know, poor people. That quaint phrase The lower orders. Not people like us, whoever we may be.
Nice, innit. Real Daily Express stuff, you might say.
Yet I guess I'd bought into it just as much as anyone else. All the media love a story about feral yobs, it's a universal chance for their readers to feel like they are someone's betters. Guardian and Independent readers will wring their hands in mock horror that the Lower Orders are so disadvantaged while Mail and Express readers will fume and complain that the Lower Orders aren't being flogged enough. Like they were in the Good Old Days, no doubt.
My friend's illuminating point was that social exclusion does not limit itself by class, location or income bracket. Anyone can feel passed by or left out by a society that has moved on from their viewpoint, and simply because they aren't necessarily poor, in a minority, or don't vandalise bus shelters like the feral youth does not mean that they are any less socially excluded.
A few weeks ago I tried to put into words my frustration at the way people dismiss rather than engage with those of opposing view. The point about social exclusion from my friend made a lot of sense in that context, for it is a fine line between outrage or resentment, and social exclusion.
Feral youth react to their social exclusion by antisocial behaviour, because they are powerless. When people with a voice become socially excluded their reaction can have far more effect on wider society because that voice does not go away, it simply becomes ever more bitter and divisive. When such people have some influence on their respective political movements we see a negative effect for all of us. The influence of embittered radical feminists on the mainstream Left view of the rights of transgender people for example, or the influence of anti-gay Christians on the mainstream Right. Transgender people having difficulty accessing rape counselling in so-called "women only" spaces for example, and the equal marriage wrangling in Westminster at the moment that speaks for itself. I can even see it in a cause I despise: the fox hunting lobby is a socially excluded group in a countryside that has moved on from their 19th century world.
It may grate with some readers, the idea that followers of causes they find abhorrent might be socially excluded and should be engaged with rather than marginalised. Hey, I'm as guilty of it as the next person. But it's important to make the point nevertheless.