I hope you have been fortunate enough to meet a few of these. They live amongst us, but they are really an archetypal category: The Outsider. Our settled views on the great issues of the day, our rules and norms, our codes of conduct, all these things annoy them. They mock us. They dispense rudeness with great liberality. They are stubborn, self-willed and ferociously argumentative. They dress as they please. They behave as they please. They dance to the rhythms of drums that the rest of us cannot hear. They annoy, even madden us; yet, every healthy community needs them; every truly diverse and vigorous public sphere needs them, as well.
Cranks are eccentrics. They are capricious in behavior or appearance. And they are almost always contrarians: whatever the majority opinion is, they are against it. Loudly. Vehemently. Yet there is one fundamental reason why we should not only tolerate but celebrate the cranks and contrarians in our midst: every major shift in public opinion started as a view propagated by a few bloody minded contrarians, boldly, even recklessly, taking on the received or conventional wisdom of the day. We often credit huge social movements for a lot of the progress we have made as human beings, but before the social movements formed crucial path-clearing work was done by tough, rock-ribbed eccentrics and contrarians.
Let’s take a couple of examples: the movement to end slavery and, later, the civil rights movement. Think about the roles of those in slave-owning societies who dared to argue for the equality of all the races, and lived it, took steps. Think about couples in open inter-racial relationships who dared their societies and took on all comers. Think about what they went through, what they had to endure. In our day, think about gay rights advocates in tough environments. Think about champions of religious tolerance in closed theocratic societies even as we speak. Or think about lonely legislators in autocracies who vote against the dubious bills of dictators, even if they are the only ones doing so.
Interestingly, I had written a first draft of this piece yesterday when I walked into a lunchtime book launch. To my amazement, one of the professors of governance who was a discussant at the event made the following point. He pointed out that in corrupt, poorly governed political communities, some of them fragile states, we still find pockets of effectiveness. What we don’t realize, he pointed out, is that the leaders responsible for these pockets of effectiveness, transparency and good governance are deviants. They refuse to yield to the dominant norms in their environment. Deviant cases, deviant leadership. An impressive insight.
Change always starts with hardy souls. As a professor of mine once said: an anthem is really one man’s song that has struck a responsive chord in millions of other souls. But that process takes time.
Cranks and contrarians are incredibly strong people. They possess impressive psychological strength. They have to for one simple reason: societies do not readily reward eccentrics. They are more likely to be isolated, shunned, attacked, jailed, and even killed. Human communities can be wonderful, but they can also be vicious. In our times, some of the contrarians in our midst deploy an intelligent strategy: they become stand-up comedians. They make us laugh… and that gives them the license to say things that in other contexts would make us hurl bottles at them. Ponder these comics. All the great ones are outsiders. They mock our beliefs and practices so well only because they are not fully part of their communities. They are outside, watching it, marveling at it, and then they ridicule it…bitingly.
Other eccentrics and contrarians are poets, troubadours, artists and musicians. One of the biggest influences on my own youth was the great Afro-beat master, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He was singular… and paid the price.
You can learn a lot about the health of a political community by observing how it treats its cranks, eccentrics and contrarians. But the same applies to other collectivities: clubs, work places, families. How they all treat the oddballs who spout unpermitted views with unrestrained vigor and eloquence says a lot about these collectivities.
Finally, this is a challenge at the level of the individual as well. The truth is we all have our theories of life, our fundamental beliefs and values. When someone challenges these pointedly and rudely our perturbation is profound. Our instinct is to lash out. Running into a crank and contrarian is not usually an enjoyable experience.
I end with this quote from John Stuart Mill’s great essay, On Liberty:
Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained.
And that is the point.
Photograph of Fela Kuti and Band Performance in Lekki - Lagos, early 90's by Toludpilgrim via Wikimedia Commons