Troublemakers, subversives, screwballs and other strangers outside-the-mainstream often make the best innovators.
But the rest of us remain wary of them.
As much as we need all the positive innovation we can get, we have a natural aversion to outsiders. Outsiders usually live or operate beyond the accepted bounds of “normal.” They believe and behave in ways that are out of synch with a society’s authorized truths.
Depending on your point of view, Professor Tim McGettigan may fit this definition. His employer - Colorado State University - seemed to think so when the administration abruptly deactivated his e-mail account on January 17, 2014. McGettigan had written a public missive denouncing the school’s plan to terminate 50 employees at its Pueblo, CO campus. To hammer home his viewpoint, McGettigan painted a vivid comparison between the school’s administrators and the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards who attacked striking coal miners and their families in 1914 – killing 19 men, women and children. CSU claims McGettigan’s email was written to “intimidate, threaten, harass other individuals, or to interfere with the activity of others to conduct university business.”
Had McGettigan committed a thoughtcrime?
Had he fomented violence? Or was he simply using vivid language – referring to a shocking historical fact - to provoke a shift in the thinking of his opponents? An "unfair censorship" lawsuit filed in Janary 2015 by McGettigan against Colorado State University President Lesley DiMare and the Colorado State University System’s Board of Governors may provide the final answers.
It is often the provocations posed by outsiders that force us to reconsider what is real, what is true and, thus, what is possible.
Fresh opinions on what's true and what's possible often drive innovation. But must such provocations always result in hostility, confrontation and retaliation? McGettigan may have the answer for us on this topic, too.
The Newer Truth
As his lawsuit with the Colorado State administration slogs on, McGettigan remains employed at the school as a Professor of Sociology. He studies questions of truth and reality, including the role that outsider innovators play in answering such questions in the field of science. His book, Good Science: The Pursuit of Truth and the Evolution of Reality, examines the impact of scientists like Galileo and Einstein who championed anti-establishment views despite potential personal and professional jeopardy.
I first stumbled upon Professor McGettigan through a presentation he posted online called, Paradigm Paralysis - Fearing, Loathing and Loving Outsider-Innovators. “The outsider is often the most direct route to finding and producing truth. They have clarity of viewpoint. It is easier for them to see the actual truth rather than the authorized one,” McGettigan tells me.
"All life is problem-solving." - Karl Popper
The 20th Century philosopher, Karl Popper, is one of McGettigan’s favorites. All Life Is Problem-Solving is a posthumous compilation of Popper’s key writings. “That book title – that phrase - sums Popper up pretty well…and I agree,” McGettigan notes. “Change is endemic to the universe. We are constantly confronted with new challenges and are driven to change our circumstances when we find them dissatisfactory,” he adds. As a species, we’re darned good at reordering our reality – in fact, we’re in a class by ourselves.
“Lions don’t put up sunshades on hot summer afternoons. They deal with the cards they’ve been dealt,” says Professor McGettigan.
The human impulse to redesign unpleasant realities is a good example of the “fight” portion of our “fight or flight” response. When unpleasant circumstances become risks to survival – like finding ourselves alone on the outside of a threatening group – we may feel compelled to reshuffle the deck through whatever innovative means we can concoct.
“Even though evolution is about change, most species are highly resistant. Their first preference is to survive in the conditions for which they’re already adapted. Most mutations are destructive so change isn’t necessarily something helpful,” McGettigan says. “For most of human history the best way to survive was by being conservative. Our predecessors used the same stone tool technology for hundreds of thousands of years because that innovation helped them achieve a certain type of success.” Maintaining the status quo – ritualizing it, even – was and remains a protective mechanism.
Thoughtcrimes and Punishment
McGettigan is now writing a book about Thoughtcrime which is defined as the villainy of merely considering thoughts that conflict with society’s presiding principles.
You know, of course, that George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four portrayed a “Big Brother” society where “Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime is death…the essential crime that contains all others in itself.” You also know that, in the actual year 1984, Apple Computer famously launched the Macintosh computer with a Super Bowl ad that literally smashed Big Brother’s face.
You might not know, however, that in 1984 BCE the Amorite dynasty was established in Babylonia. The Ancient History Encyclopedia quotes Columbia University Professor and Ancient Near East specialist, Marc Van de Mieroop:
The Amorites were semi-nomadic groups from northern Syria, whom Babylonian literature described in extremely negative terms:
The Amorite, he is dressed in sheep’s skins;
He lives in tents in wind and rain;
He doesn’t offer sacrifices.
Armed vagabond in the steppe,
He digs up truffles and is restless.
He eats raw meat,
Lives his life without a home,
And, when he dies, he is not buried according to proper rituals
So bad were the truffle-digging Amorites, their name became synonymous with any group considered a seditious blight on right thinking and sensible behavior. Joshua Mark, Editor of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, says the term, “Amorite may not have originally referred to a specific ethnic group but to any nomadic people who threatened the stability of established communities.”
Amorites, it seems, were the original 1984 thoughtcriminals.
Fortunately, as modern dwellers in the land of the free, U.S. citizens are guaranteed their right to free thinking by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. “The First Amendment is license to be a heretic which is a wonderful thing,” says Professor McGettigan. Or is it?
The United States’ position as a heretic haven seems to be waning. To be a heretic, is to have a profound disagreement with established ideas and to promote one’s disruptive views using whatever tools you have to do so. That sounds a bit too much like terrorist thinking for some folks. Enter the Patriot Act.
In McGettigan’s opinion, “Since 9/11, the U.S. has been promoting innovation while at the same time saying that citizens have to tow the line in terms of federal policies or else they may end up in Guantanamo Bay. Was Edward Snowden a hero or a criminal? At the moment, we officially have a case of schizophrenia about these issues. We believe in two opposing ideas: the first is that anything goes and the First Amendment gives freedom of thought and speech while the second is that only some things are OK to say or do. The line between what is acceptable and what isn’t is getting thinner. That is a problem. The compromise seems obvious. We could encourage thoughtcrimes that benefit people and restrict those that may be harmful? But, how do we set that boundary? We should err on the side of allowing people individual freedoms even if they are provocative or threatening to the status quo – that’s what human innovators have done since time immemorial and for our species they’ve done good work.”
Are You In Or Are You Out?
It seems safe inside with others.
Adhering without question to the accepted doctrine allows one to relax into a realm where no decisions need be made. There is the illusion of security in scripture. Just follow the code. Such comfort is so precious that we surround it with nearly impermeable barriers. Any disregard for our established pattern or for the facts as we believe them may meet with vicious contention.
This is the clenched fist of certainty.
Outside, the “other” feels great uncertainty.
In "not knowing", there is curiosity. A level of heightened attention is necessary for survival when you're on the outside. Without rigidity, there is a sense of possibility, too.
This is the open belly of vulnerability.
Neither inside nor outside is necessarily a bad place to be. In some place and time, each of us will be an insider. In some other, each will be an outsider. But it is the unobstructed ability to wonder that empowers innovation. Fear of the Thoughtpolice is not usually helpful. Also not helpful for innovation: self-righteous fury. Fringe-groups proclaiming themselves rebels-with-a-cause (like some of those described in Alissa Quart’s superb book “Republic of Outsiders”) may make change happen but tribalism brings with it the risk of calcification around a single line of thinking.
Perhaps beyond insider or outsider is a more helpful place: not stuck in either container. One way to achieve this state is to become a “beyonder” using an approach that McGettigan calls Problematics. A problematic is a provocation or a call to action to resolve a particular scientific challenge, like putting a man on the Moon. These impossible puzzles are sparks for the voracious problem-solving brain.
“Humans are such aggressive agents of change that innovation has become essential to our species. We’ve gotten so good at redefining the struggle for survival that mother natures’ challenges aren’t enough anymore. So, we invent our own challenges and then we super-adapt,” says McGettigan. “In the process of super-adapting, humans routinely invent new facts and modify the parameters of reality. Where once, there were simply too many environmental barriers to seriously contemplate space flight, over the past half-century super-adaptable humans have gradually made extra-terrestrial travel commonplace.”
Problematics force us past insider-outsider constraints.
Problematics inspire us to explode the limits of existing facts and paradigms; obliterating group thinkers and thought criminals alike. Because the most powerful Problematics channel energy towards positive, inspirational goals that benefit humanity, they are more likely to circumvent conflict and retaliation.
Who will pose the next far-fetched challenge and inspire us to achieve impossible goals – to keep the hyper-innovation flywheel spinning? Maybe it is time to start reading more science fiction or hanging around with more subversive professors?
A Sampling of Professor McGettigan’s Books
Outsider Books Worth A Look
Articles About Outsiders and Innovation