Today, I’ll be discussing tolerance, civility, and publicness. Let me begin, though, by telling a story.

One day, in 2012, a new pub opened near my house. It was soon a great success, both commercially and in terms of its local reputation (and I rather liked it the three times I went). However, following a dispute with the property owner, it was unexpectedly boarded up a couple of months ago. Soon afterwards, all its interior fittings were removed, and the Bohemia, it seemed, was no more – and most of the people I spoke to about it seemed a little shocked. Far more shocked, in fact, than I would have expected; pubs and restaurants do come and go, after all, and this one had no historical pedigree. Anyway, in protest, a group of local activists broke into and ‘occupied’ the premises. A programme of events in the pub has since been implemented, including ‘project organising meetings’ and various musical and leisure activities. ‘All’ are apparently welcome. The occupation has attracted a degree of media attention, and documentary makers have apparently been following its progress.

Now, not everybody endorses this sort of thing. The announcement on the blackboard outside the building therefore presents a justification for the occupation. Since pubs, it asserts, are “community hubs”, it would seem to be ‘wrong’ that a majority of them are owned by corporate entities (rather, presumably, than by individual pub landlords). There is a fairly straightforward sense, then, in which the occupiers position their action as a challenge to a particular (dominant) definition of this space; they are seeking to privilege its social dimensions over a legalistic conceptualisation which appears to serve the interests of capital.

It may be self-evident that ‘occupying’ relates directly to questions of space. Still, I was intrigued, if unsurprised, to see that the list of behavioural ‘rules’ posted in the window has a strong spatial framing: in the title of the document (‘Safer Spaces Policy’); in the use of the word ‘place’ in the fourth rule (to position this as a space of ‘the people’); and the final regulation which threatens expulsion from the space:

bohemia safer space rules

But the poster also interests me because a norm of ‘civility’ is clearly constructed here. I recently read a definition of civility as something which allows us to “negotiate encounters with difference”; it can be thought of “as ‘the codes’ of conduct that allow peaceful co-existence in space” (Bannister and Kearns, 2013:2706). Civility, Bannister and Kearns argue, is the way that ‘tolerance’ is realised. But tolerance is a surprisingly odd idea when you start looking into it. In common speech, the meaning of ‘tolerant’ is close to that of ‘easy going’ – it suggests a sort of passive open-mindedness or relaxed acceptance of difference, a ‘flat’ sense of diversity characterised by an absence of power relations. Indeed, an examination of the new noticeboard outside the pub might tempt us to interpret the occupied Bohemia as somehow a ‘space of tolerance’ in this sense, characterised by untypical inclusivity: it has attracted a series of advertisements for various non-mainstream activities (eg ‘Shamanic Drumming’, ‘Hatha Yoga’, and a social group for ‘older LGBT people’) and causes (eg anti-fracking, permaculture, and protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport).


However, more rigorously defined, tolerance describes a rather less ‘easy going’ state of mind than might at first be apparent; it relates to the “deliberate choice not to interfere with conduct or beliefs with which one disapproves” (Hancock & Matthews, 2001:99). In other words, it describes an act of suppression. And if there is no disapproval, then no act of toleration can take place. Thus, while it has been argued that “to tolerate someone else is an act of power” (Waltzer, 1997:52), the tolerance underlying the enactment of civility in fact indicates an unwilling acceptance of “relative powerlessness” (Bannister and Kearns, 2013:2708).

The ‘limits’ to our tolerance, furthermore, are not fixed; they may change over time – and appear to be very context-dependent. The moments when these limits are exceeded are marked by the retraction of civility, leading to different types of social disharmony. The act of occupying the Bohemia (breaking into the premises) itself marks a breakdown of civility; an intervention occurring when the limits of tolerance had been overstepped. But what, then, are we to make of the way this incivility sits alongside the civility promoted by the rules displayed outside? For me, this is not so much a contradiction which undermines the logic of the occupation as a creatively ambivalent tension.  I would like to suggest that this ambivalence seems closely related to the question of the ‘publicness’ of this ‘public house’.

To make the suggestion, though, I should first point out that others have directly associated the demarcation of the public and private ‘spheres’ of life with the concept of tolerance (and, therefore, civility). Frank Furedi (2012), for example, values tolerance as “one of the most precious contributions of the Enlightenment movement to modern life” (30); it “affirms the freedom of conscience and individual autonomy” (31), and stands in contrast to pre-liberal societies, where “the toleration of different religions, opinions and beliefs” is/was “interpreted as a form of moral cowardice if not a symptom of heresy” (30). For him, the common and growing elision of tolerance with the rather different values of “acceptance, empathy and respect” (32) constitutes a threat to the health of both the public sphere and the sanctity of private life – both of which are important for the successful functioning of modern liberal democracy. If, then, there is some kind of link between tolerance/civility and the qualities of our ‘public’ and ‘private’ lives, and if the ‘civility’ of the occupation here is ambivalent, I have been wondering how we might interpret the publicness of the space of the Bohemia.

First of all, this space cannot be described as ‘public’ if it is evaluated using criteria of legal ownership or access; the very act of squatting highlights its non-publicness in this respect.  Might its publicness instead be displayed in the diversity or inclusivity of its membership – as flagged up by the emphasis on ‘community’? I think that’s problematic too. Community is generally understood to be a relational and exclusive construct – as illustrated by the existence of the ‘rules’ above, whose authority rests only upon consensual agreement by an in-group, and which determine the grounds on which people do not qualify for entry into this ‘community hub’. Community has been described as more of an extended type of intimacy, related to homogeneous in-groups of neighbours, friends and other associates. The rhetoric of ‘community’ has been criticised as fundamentally anti-urban, more closely associated with suburban gated communities than imagined ‘real’ urban public space, in that it “promises to provide the pleasures of sociability without the discomforts of the unfamiliar” (Kohn, 2004:193). All this is not to say that there is anything fundamentally right or wrong with the valorisation of community; rather, that there is no necessary alignment between the idea of ‘community’ and that of the ‘public’.

Perhaps, then, we could turn to Furedi’s argument for inspiration? But I’m not sure about that either; his polemic, in its defence of liberal modernity, might be interpreted as primarily oriented not so much towards the strengthening of some form of public life as to the defence of privacy against the encroachments of institutional power. Elsewhere, at least, Furedi’s concern with protecting the private is more clearly apparent (see here, for example, where he expresses concern that the value of privacy is being slowly usurped by that of ‘transparency’). In any case, what really matters for me is that, by consciously locating the public:private binary within the modern, western liberal tradition, he highlights its contingency. Furthermore, his concern over the erosion of privacy points to the shifting nature of this divide over time. Boundaries between the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ are not, then, inevitable, and appear to be negotiable rather than fixed – whatever normative interpretation we place on the outcomes of such negotiation in any particular context.

Instead, I am thinking about the possibility that ‘publicness’ does not refer to a ‘sphere’ of life at all, so much as to the negotiation itself: perhaps it is better understood as a mode of constructive semi-transgression, which is marked specifically by the blurring of boundaries rather than demarcated by them. In this I’m inspired in part by Noortje Marres’ recent book (2012), which explores the idea of the public as a problematic form of entanglement with materiality. Perhaps publicness is most usefully thought of as a form of engagement which emerges unpredictably when friction occurs, and is essentially experimental, exploring the possibility of the redefinition of norms of different kinds, without necessarily having a particular coherently expressed goal in mind. Thus, it would not describe a ‘sphere’ (idealised as a state of liberty), nor a process defined by an end-state of liberation, so much as an open-ended expression of frustration with various phenomena, when these are revealed as in some way constraining individual freedom.

My notion of ‘publicness’ then, does not lie in an orientation towards, or achievement of, a sphere of discursive autonomy, marked by a suspension of hierarchies; nor does it describe an anarchic space where entirely ‘unscripted’ behaviour occurs and unlimited differences somehow coexist, peacefully or otherwise. Rather, I see publicness as describing a peculiar quality of open-ended negotiation, borne out of, and itself serving to highlight, the contingency of particular structurally determined limits, including those which ‘spatialise’ society in different ways. This publicness, then, grates against tolerance; rather than floating on the calm waters of civility, it emerges in the form of disruptive intervention.

Finally, while the question of whether the occupation of the Bohemia is somehow ultimately ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is not relevant to my argument, I’m still interested to think about whether and how its success as a public intervention might be judged. My thinking here rescues the old idea of publicness necessarily being in some way ‘visible’. When a transgressive activity veers too far beyond the limits of state or societal tolerance, that state or society may use force to regain the appearance of civility; in other words, the activity will be rendered invisible (even if the sense of frustration leading to it may remain). Conversely, an act which entirely conforms to the norms of accepted behaviour, and does not therefore display publicness in my disruptive sense, is also invisible in its normality or ‘normalisedness’ (even though, of course, any individual agency might be seen as subversive to the structures within which it is enacted). So, a rough formulation might go something like this:

The most successfully, or definitively, public acts are those which take the form of a gentle, even playful, testing and blurring of boundaries which would otherwise go unquestioned, and are also widely seen to do so.

Anyway, just saying.  I’m still working on it.

10 October 2013, London


Bannister, J. and Kearns, A. (2013). The Function and Foundations of Urban Tolerance: Encountering and Engaging with Difference in the City. Urban Studies. 50(13):2700-2717.

Furedi, F. (2012). On Tolerance. Policy. 28(2):30-37.

Hancock, L. and Matthews, R. (2001). Crime, community, safety and toleration. In: Matthews, R. and Pitts, J. (eds). Crime, Disorder and Community Safety. London: Routledge, 99-119

Kohn, M. (2004). Brave New Neighbourhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. New York: Routledge.

Marres, N. (2012). Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Waltzer, M. (1997). On Toleration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.