“Every culture should have a couple of outsiders bringing a message from outside of the dominant culture. I’d like to think there’s something I too can add to the way we view the world.” — Philip Connors, fire lookout and author
Last week you guys in the blog Commentariat and I wrote about the value (or lack of value) of “tribal elders” — wise men and women who stand as guardians of principles, traditions, and hard-won wisdom.
In a sense, those elders are the ultimate insiders of a society. They teach, they preserve, they protect. But they also usually represent whatever the traditional wisdom of their culture might be.
There’s another figure — sometimes revered, more often reviled — whose function is at least as valuable in maintaining a healthy society, but who does the opposite of that tradition-maintaining elder. I’m talking about the Outsider.
The Outsider — who may be a monk, an artist, a foreigner, a hermit, a rebel, an eccentric, a pariah, or anyone else who doesn’t fit the standard social mold and can’t be forced to fit it (though many learn to don the standard social garb as a kind of camouflage) — stands apart from comfortable norms and rattles the hell out of conventional cages.
The elder guards core values, knowledge, and skills. The Outsider attacks or subverts accepted values, knowledge, and skills. Both are needed.
The Outsider may be an outwardly more-or-less conventional person who steps aside from the norm (like the firewatchers profiled in this article) and who comes to see the world differently as a consequence.
Or she may be “born different,” kicking at convention from the get-go and focing others, against their will, to confront the previously unthinkable.
He may be someone raised outside the dominant culture who never accepted the norms because they were never his norms in the first place.
She may be an intensely principled person living in unprincipled times, who removes herself from the cultural mainstream — and her very act becomes a criticism and a critique of things as they are.
He may be crazy — the sort of person who, in our world, would be herded off to a shrink and medicated into numbness, but who in some older cultures might have been regarded as a prophet, a messenger of the gods.
The Outsider has many forms, and sometimes has no effect at all except to make people in his immediate vicinity damned uncomfortable. Sometimes he’s a mere curiosity. Other times, the Outsider forces a society to re-evaluate itself — and to make the changes that keep it alive and vital.
Yet as different as the elder and the Outsider are, both help keep their cultures healthy.
A few Outsiders are obvious. Some live in caves or hermit huts. Some once upon a time went around in all black and howled poetry to the beat of bongo drums. A few have touted strange scientific discoveries that the rest of the world laughed at — until the discoveries turned out to be true. One sliced off his ear and drifted in and out of insane asylums while changing the face of art.
Other Outsiders don’t seem like Outsiders at all — until insight and conscience drive them to act in the cause of good, even when everyone else around them. Those may be the most pervasively effective Outsiders of all.
Something called “social change theory” has a rather weird name for people who take effective action even when they’re outwardly as disadvantaged as their neighbors: positive deviants. Positive deviants in poor communities manage (for example) to feed their children better even when they’re as poverty stricken and uneducated as their neighbors — and they may teach or inspire others to do the same. The women who stand up in their staunchly traditional rural Muslim or Hindu villages and campaign against child marriage (or help child brides escape bondage) are positive deviants.
Those are typical social sciences examples. I’d go farther and say they’re anybody who steps outside the norm to accomplish positive, principled things.
“Positive deviants” hid Jews in the basements, attics, and hidden crannies of their houses while the Nazis rampaged. The members of the White Rose were positive deviants. In our world, the lone warriors who fought (and continue to fight) drug-war barbarity to restore psychedelic drugs to their powerful therapeutic status have been positive deviants.
Austrian economists might be called positive deviants, along with those who fought for concealed and constitutional carry from state-to-state against what seemed impossible odds. Pioneers of homeschooling and unschooling were positive deviants. (Yes, it does depend on your view of what’s positive; something that’s usually decided only in the very long term, by the victors.)
Neighbors who gently encourage other neighbors to be more prepared or more self-sufficient could be considered positive deviants.
Sometimes, the first few to stand out from the crowd risk everything from ridicule (in relatively civilized cultures) to being imprisoned, stoned to death, beheaded, or burned at the stake. Only because of their courage or persistence does change finally become accepted.
What’s that saying? “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Depending on what you’re up to, you just have to hope you live to see your “victory.”
Somebody long ago researched traits of people who hid Jews from the Nazis. I can’t cite the study because I lost track of it and wasn’t able to find it when I looked again. But the researchers defined a very small number of shared characteristics among those particular “deviants.” One (no surprise) is that a parent, usually a father, had instilled a strong sense of ethics in them from an early age. But another of the small set of shared values was that they were all, or perceived themselves to be, Outsiders.
They might have functioned perfectly normally in business or society. They might have gone to school and church, made friends in their neighborhoods, brought food to sick relatives, kept their houses tidy, joined fraternal organizations, and done all the other expected things. But they had always, inside, perceived themselves as different from the average run of folk.
Maybe the daily differences were small. Perhaps they weren’t quite as prone as their schoolmates to take up the latest fad. Perhaps they didn’t root quite as enthusiastically as their pals for local sports teams. Probably they considered ideas, new and old, a little more deeply than their fellows. Very likely, they were a little more judgmental (and judicious) when it came to choosing friends and evaluating the behavior of others.
Mr. Whatever-the-Boss-Says and Miss Do-Whatever-the-Other-Girls-Do, and Mrs. Go-Along-to-Get-Along might be perfectly nice companions for everyday, but in a moral crisis, don’t count on them to stand up and do the right thing when the right thing is even a little bit unpopular (let alone potentially fatal).
We now live in a society that claims to value disruption. But what do the famous disrupters (the Zuckerbergs, Musks, Jobses, et al.) really disrupt? Technology, sure. How we communicate, absolutely. Everything from how medical care is delivered to how we order pizzas. But often the so-called disruption, while big, is actually a relatively minor aspect of our lives. Take a taxi or an Uber? Buy at a brick-and-mortar store or online? Sure, the economy changes. How (or whether) people work changes. Lives are made easier or harder. But that’s been true at least since the Industrial Revolution.
In short, the kind of “disruption” it’s so popular to praise, while impactful and accelerating, is hardly an invention of the twenty-first century. It’s speeding up, but it’s nothing new under the multi-billion year-old sun.
Other, even bigger, disruptions — wars, earthquakes, floods, political coups, meteor strikes, financial panics, vocanic eruptions — have been with us forever.
We endure, and occasionally we embrace, change. It’s what humans do to survive, like it or not.
The one type of disruption we humans are almost never likely to embrace is a challenge to our values — especially when we share those values, whatever they may be, with a tight, self-reinforcing peer group.
It doesn’t matter whether those values have hundreds of years of tradition behind them (“America is the freest contry on earth”) or whether they were invented day before yesterday (“Biology has nothing to do with
sex gender.”) What matters is how they’re held — and who else around the holder also holds them.
I think this is why, in part, the people who fancy themselves the most “progressive” are also the most resistant to any form of disagreement, any difference of opinion, any intellectual challenge to their views-of-the-moment.
Paradoxically, they believe themselves to be both in the vanguard of change — proud progressives, Outsiders — and upholders of an orthodoxy, even if any particular aspect of that orthodoxy might have been invented only months ago and could turn on its head next week.
It makes no sense. But since when has making sense been a requirement of the human brain? The Red Queen routinely believed six impossible things before breakfast. Many a tyrant rose to power by preaching freedom. Many a sermonizer says one thing from the pulpit while practicing another in private. Many a man believes wholeheartedly in honesty while committing graft. People justify cruelty as kindness and claim they’re “helping” while ruining others’ lives. Cognitive dissonance — trying to believe two contradictory things at once — is real and common. We are all, to some degree or another (hopefully minor), a collection of contradictions.
But the current crazy embrace of social and technological “disruption” (disruption as defined only in the most carefully conventionally popular way) and newly born moral traditions defended with the hostility of a Dominican conducting the Inquisition creates another paradox — a paradox thrust uncomfortably upon the unwilling.
Those who today uphold values of Western culture (whether free speech and free thought, Christianity, the right to keep and bear arms, the scientific method, the philosophy of Aristotle, the primacy of the individual as a building block of civilization, or the general decency and usefulness of white males (dead or alive)) are not only the traditionalists, the would-be wise folk and tribal elders … but in this climate of intolerance, they are also the Outsiders, and therefore the “positive deviants,” the real disrupters.
Inside is outside and outside is inside and everything is inside out.
The phrase that keeps coming to mind is, “The center cannot hold.”
But then, that was already obvious, wasn’t it? It may be up to us Outsiders and elders to help pull things back together later.
Since Amazon abruptly closed my Associates account, I’m hoping to put a new, broad base of support under the blog.
If you liked this post, how about buying me a coffee?