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The Outsiders’ Gift

“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.


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  1. deLaune
    deLaune September 24, 2019 4:42 am

    Well said.

  2. Pat
    Pat September 24, 2019 5:09 am

    If this doesn’t bring you coffee, nothing will.

    An essay truly worthy of the old New Yorker, Claire. And a chapter, ready-written, in that book on Civilization that ILTim mentioned.

    There is one other type of (negative) outsider that comes to mind: a person such as AOC who rejects the culture but has no notion of what the culture is. That person doesn’t recognize reality, and lives on the fringes of the Outsider world, never to belong anywhere.

  3. jolly
    jolly September 24, 2019 8:02 am

    Aaaaannnddd, this is the result of last week’s depression. Would it be too selfish to say that maybe you should get depressed more often? :p

  4. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 24, 2019 8:46 am

    A very good example of why Claire’s voice is needed; BADLY!!!

  5. Claire
    Claire September 24, 2019 9:16 am

    Pat — Oops, thanks for the reminder; I just added the “coffee” notice to the bottom of the post.

    Thank you, all, and I’ll be back in a bit to catch up on the personal thanks I owe to several of you for adding or raising Patreon subscriptions.

  6. larryarnold
    larryarnold September 24, 2019 9:40 am

    Just what I needed; optimism. (No, really)

    The article I read before this was out of the NYT: Something Special Is Happening in Rural America

    It starts well, The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability.

    And I’m thinking, “Well, not just unaffordability, dirty streets, crime, etc. have their downside as well.”

    But then it “progresses” to Good news: Progressive Democratic presidential candidates have unveiled a spate of rural policy plans more robust than any in recent political memory. They suggest actions for which rural advocates have argued — investing in rural people and economies to lead a Green New Deal, cutting out oppressive middlemen in moving food from producers to eaters and much more.

    We’ve heard it all before; the commissars and their ten-year-plans, their five-year-plans. I’ve come to the realization that we do need a wall, but not between here and Mexico.

  7. Joel
    Joel September 24, 2019 10:45 am

    “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.”

    …and this is what has increasingly caused me to back away from the news entirely and wonder what the hell ever happened to the world I thought I was growing up in. Maybe it’s only a sign of creeping age: I remember when I was young and disruptive outsiders seemed a fresh breeze compared to the hidebound “insiders” but that didn’t mean I thought batshit crazy was a good look.

    And so much of what is now held (possibly by a loud minority) as laudable activism only shows a lack of any historical sense because it’s been done, literally to death. The difference between black-shirted ‘anti-fascists’ of this morning’s headlines and the brown-shirted actual fascists of eighty years ago is purely semantic.

    When I embraced hermitude (hermitism? Hermitage?) I imagined/fantasized having some eventual influence, certainly not on the world at large but as a general example to freedom seekers that thinking and acting out of the box can work out well. “Positive deviance,” indeed. But more and more I want to bar the doors, stop reading the news, crawl more firmly into a hermit’s shell: The world out there was barely tolerable to an extreme introvert fifteen years ago but now it appears to have completely lost its freaking mind.

    This morning I read about some teenage girl who thinks the world is headed for mass human extinction before she reaches puberty – and instead of consoling, educating or possibly medicating her the so-called “adults” proclaim her the prophet-of-the-moment and lead her to NY to shout at the UN. And the delegates sit and listen respectfully – instead of consoling, educating or possibly medicating her. She’ll be forgotten in a month the way David Hogg was but in the meantime she’s a divine sign of the end times, and we’re all supposed to pretend to take that seriously.

    The Internet was supposed to be a gateway to a billion individual voices, the end of “news” centralization – and it has turned into a vast money and influence maker for censors of anything but an ever more strict party line. It’s all very dispiriting, to be honest. I’m glad I’m as far from the world as I’ve managed to be, and wish I could get farther still.

  8. kentmcmanigal
    kentmcmanigal September 24, 2019 11:09 am

    Outsiders. I am definitely one. Whether I’m a positive deviant or just a deviant, I can’t say. Strange, though, that I woke up too early this very morning with one thought in my mind– that I’m a reject. I guess that’s another name for us Outsiders.

    But, Reject, Outsider, or Positive Deviant, your words give me hope.

  9. Owl
    Owl September 24, 2019 5:59 pm

    “It may be up to us Outsiders and elders to help pull things back together later.”

    Reminds me of the Remnant in Albert Jay Nock’s “Isaiah’s Job.”

    “In the year of Uzziah’s death, the Lord commissioned the prophet to go out and warn the people of the wrath to come. “Tell them what a worthless lot they are.” He said, “Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you,” He added, “that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.”

    Isaiah had been very willing to take on the job — in fact, he had asked for it — but the prospect put a new face on the situation. It raised the obvious question: Why, if all that were so — if the enterprise were to be a failure from the start — was there any sense in starting it? “Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

  10. Myself
    Myself September 26, 2019 3:35 pm

    I have yet to see a “wise leader”, or “elder” who did not fail the very people they were supposed to serve, as for tribes, no thank you, I’ll go my own way, I’ll help out other folks as I see fit.

    If any person is waiting for some mashiach to save them, I would suggest they’ll wind up like Vladimir and Estragon did in Beckett’s play.

  11. Claire
    Claire September 27, 2019 10:37 am

    Myself — I didn’t speak of leaders at all. If I had, I’d have agreed with you; “wise leaders,” “philosopher kings,” and suchlike are worse than the standard run of corrupt politicians.

    I certainly didn’t speak of messiahs.

    What I spoke of were the sort of people who guide, not wield power. People who’ve absorbed knowledge over a lifetime and can pass it on.

  12. Those People
    Those People September 27, 2019 10:40 am

    This is one of the most hopeful pieces I have ever read. Thank you!
    My French Basque uncle smuggled Jews over the Pyrenees during WW2 as a teenager. Basques definitely self-identified as Outsiders.

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