On rebels and deviants and counterculturals

Malcolm was talking to me about an article he’d read in the Times; since then he’s blogged about it. And something about it made me feel uneasy. And it wasn’t what he said or thought, just something I could’t pin down.

Then today I was doing my usual trawl around the blogs of people I like reading. While I have my netvibes set up the way I want, and I love it, I still like an old-fashioned wander every now and then. RSS aggregators are great at showing “latest” and “today” and “now” and “unread” and all that jazz, but sometimes I want the apparent serendipity of walking across to someone’s blog and just wandering around. Following links almost randomly.

Today it was Steven Johnson’s turn. And through his blog, in a roundabout way, I went to Rebel Sell, with a small diversion to SquareSpace and to Nollind Whachell then back.

And reading reviews of Rebel Sell, my unease returned. I began to understand why I felt the way I did when I read the Times article referred to by Malcolm.

It’s simple.

I think we make a big mistake when we use terms like counterculture and rebel and deviant loosely. They’ve had it as terms. Defunct. Finito. Past their sell-by-date.

Because every time we do that, we paint a big red X across the backs of the people we so describe and put the firm’s immune system on full alert. And the rebels are toast.

Which is often a shame. Because they weren’t rebels. Or deviants. Or counterculture whatevers.

They were doing their job. Trying to find a better way of doing things. [In a strange way, I think that Malcolm’s feeling for consultants is related. When a “consultant” finds a better way of doing things firms roll out the green carpet, papered with spondulicks; when someone in the organisation quietly does the same thing,  he’s a deviant…]

  • When I was 15, we had a new maths teacher. He walked into class and stated first off that he would personally award the Nobel Prize to anyone in his class who managed to fail GCE O Level Mathematics-With-Additional-Mathematics. Then proceeded to ask us “What is the maximum number of electrons in the nth orbit of an atom?”. Hands went up, the answer was provided. He then gave the answerer a piece of chalk and said “Prove it”. The proof, based on permutations and combinations and induction, was provided.
  • He then looked at all of us and said “You think I’m impressed? Not one bit. You want to impress me, don’t give me the right answer. Ask the right question. From today you will be judged not by the answers you give, but by the questions you ask.”

Asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is even more important. And sometimes, asking the right questions requires some investigation, some experimentation.

And we let everyone down when we start labelling people adept at doing this as rebels and deviants. Or by labelling that class of activity as counterculture. Because the terms have been hollowed out and trashed.

Call it emergence. Call it democratised innovation. Call it something. Probably not even opensource any more, because the six-degrees-of-meaning approach has already connected opensource with pinko and lefty and rebel and deviant and counterculture.

Just don’t call it deviant.

Generation M is not innately rebellious or deviant or even countercultural. They have new tools they understand better than we do. They don’t have some of the shackles and frames and anchors and tunnel vision we have. And they are asking why? in a number of ways and in a number of places. And they need to be encouraged.

The act of downloading music off the Net is in no way rebellious or deviant. Just a better way of accessing and acquiring music. Buying books, ordering groceries, looking for cheap flights and hotels, watching homemade videos, these are not intrinsically deviant or rebellious activities. Combining things and seeing (or hearing) what happens is not fundamentally rebellious.

We have to be careful. Words have power. Let us use them wisely.

8 thoughts on “On rebels and deviants and counterculturals”

  1. Thanks Clarence. I’ve been privileged to have had many good teachers while at school and at university, and it’s always payback time… I really appreciate what you and people like you are trying to do.

  2. An insightful critique of a critical issue in professional service firms (my area of interest.) I’ve just cross-referenced your post on my blog, Adventure of Strategy. (Just in case the trackback doesn’t register automatically.) Regards, Rob Millard.

  3. Social scientists have known this for many years. Foucault, Becker, Gilroy spring to mind.

    Whenever we select words to describe a phenomenon that has no precedent, we fall back on past experience so we can contextualise. In the same way, those who would control the actions of others use specific constructs to convey meaning. This is one of the critical underpinnings for racism which was debated in the 1980s by Paul Gilroy and others but which has its roots in Becker’s ideas around labelling from the 1960s.

    Anyone who wishes to promote a specific position selects language designed to convey thought with the maximum of impact. Heck – I’m doing it right now! It is why we need labels or rather tags.

    To your point about deviance, I’ll throw it back to you. Why not use ‘deviant?’ After all, deviance is socially constructed. Kazaa only became deviant when it was ruled to operate outside accepted norms. In some societies, polygamy is seen as a norm. And that’s the point. Accepted norms, which conveys the idea of majority and a subconscious understanding of what is acceptable.

    What your proposing is the classic dilemma of the change agent. Shifting the context of deviance to normalcy (or vice versa). And as usual the most ‘dangerous deviants’ are always the ones who ask ‘Why?’

  4. Ten years ago I would have agreed with you.

    Now, with issues related to the internet, identity and authentication and permissioning, intellectual property rights and digital rights management, opensource and democratised innovation, social software just to name a few, I think different.

    Issues around anchoring and framing and labelling and typecasting were always well understood by social scientists. And a few others.

    And they were used by government and media.

    Very successfully.

    This time it’s personal, as the saying goes. And the internet has become a huge gulf separating the old from the new, exacerbated by the boom and crash at the turn of the century. More business models are under strain than ever before, and we need to equip everyone to understand the issues.

    This will not happen unless we play the term game.

    Just my thoughts.

  5. Ah but we deviants are reclaiming the word, it does not have to be perjoratove – I use it in its literal sense, i.e. differing from a norm or from the accepted standards of a society. There is no moral judgement in this, it’s a purely objective view of doing things differently.

    Incidentally, Chris Locke insisted to me recently that we met when he was on his BBC trip some years go back. I think he’s mistaken and that I was called away before you showed up.

  6. Fear and greed and the status quo. The average person in power understands the existing paradigm: unless they are Forest Gump (and there are a surprising number of those in the world, unfortunately most are much less noble or earnest than their erstwhile patron saint) they rose to their position of power and influence (and often wealth) through their ability to navigate yesterday’s organisation and environment. “Deviants” threaten that which they have worked so hard to achieve.

    Truly great leaders have the self-confidence and humility to take a chance and embrace new ideas, even if – especially if – it means repudiating past canons. They know that their skills transcend any particular organisation, industry or business model. They ‘know’ they know how to navigate a maze. The others. The majority. They sleep nervously at night wondering, fearing that they only solved the maze they’re in by accident and that they would be lost, shorn of powers if a new maze would be presented.

    As such we should not be surprised if cultural and organisational inertia slows the adoption of new ideas and paradigms. It is inevitable. Statistical. And so not worth being frustrated about. On the contrary, those who do dare to ‘look around corners’, to deviate, to take risks with the goal of finding a better way, have many many more opportunities to succeed and a less crowded playing field. Imagine if everyone was like that. It would be damn hard to make a difference! ;)

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