Why Radicalism And Dissent Must Be Everybody’s Business

Eugène-Delacroix-Liberty-painting

I wouldn’t call it radical; I would call it enthusiasm for progress


John Templeton

Embracing radicalism
Radicalism gets a rather bad press. It is easily regarded as the province of crazy people. Indeed there are times when it appears to have been so corrupted that it has become all but exclusively synonymous with extremism.

Certainly if we were to use the word radical in the corridors of marketingland a great many people would look at you as if you were out of your mind, and had lost your grasp of reality and the Fundamental Drivers of Our Business , as well as all empathy for the consumer.

And who has not felt the dread pull of the forces of conservatism and risk avoidance? Who has not felt the withering, eroding effects of ‘feedback’ as the brakes on innovation are applied?

Ideas are by their very nature, disruptive agents of change, and enemies of the status quo. Whether they are ‘big’ or ‘small’, they work to reposition the past. They push the present, its assumptions, beliefs, expectations and practices, into the past. And that for me means that the business of ideas is at heart, a radical one.

Refusing to embrace radicalism means to refuse ideas. In an interview, the Pulitzer-winning author David Eggers spoke about the publishing house McSweeney’s of which he is a founder:

“We publish anything of great quality, whether that’s experimental or very traditional or somewhere in between. There is and should always be room for all approaches to writing, and whenever anyone closes the door on one – by saying, for example, that experimentation might someday “exhaust itself” (not to put you on the hotseat), it’s very saddening. And of course it ignores the entire history of all art in every form ,which is a history of constant innovation, experimentation and evolution. The person who says ‘Enough innovation, let’s stick with what we have and never change’ is pretty much the sworn enemy of all art. Not to overstate it, of course.”

Eggers need not have been nervous about overstating the case. Indeed, I believe we can expand further the battle lines that Eggers draws. To resist radicalism is to be the enemy not merely of art, but of all ideas.

It really is time to restate the obvious, take back the notion of radicalism for its true significance and jettison some of the baggage it has acquired.

The generosity of dissent
Change comes out of disagreeing with the way things are, not upholding them. Idea creation is fundamentally dependent on cultivating and tolerating the spirit of dissent. Ideas at their heart disagree – to varying degrees – with how the world is currently constituted.

Cass R. Sunstein, Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago reminds us of the pitfalls inherent in our own human condition. Namely that we are strongly influenced by the opinion of others, and that most of us desire to earn the good opinion of those around us. If we are truly to be the movers and shakers of the world then, it is imperative that we find and express our dissenting voice – or allow for and encourage the dissenting voices of others. We must find ways of pushing against the natural (and often understandable) human tendency towards conformity, and against the generally accepted and received status quo. Ideas require courage.

Dissent – along with radicalism – is often regarded as the province of trouble-makers, of the destructive and obstructive, of the awkward squad.

Yet the act of dissent is in fact frequently a generous and constructive one. When it comes to group decision-making for example, studies have demonstrated how the existence of even just one dissenting voice can dramatically reduce both conformity and error and that without the existence and voicing of dissent, we lay ourselves open to potentially limiting and sometimes downright dangerous phenomena.

Without the voice of dissent we will very often use the decisions and actions of other people around us as the best source of information and guidance on what to do. In other words, we follow the behaviours of the herd. Similarly, without the voice of dissent, so-called ‘social cascades’ can occur, in which social groups blindly pick up and mimic the behaviours of other groups without actually examining the information they themselves hold.

And finally, without the voice of dissent group polarisation can occur. In this phenomenon, our tendency towards conformity means that when it comes to collective decision making processes, group members end up exaggerating their in-going tendencies and taking an even more extreme position.

It’s clear then that ideas, progress, and innovation of all kinds by their very nature fundamentally rely on the spirit of dissent, and the refusal to accept common practice, received wisdom, and widely accepted norms. This is the spirit that chooses not to conform to the prevailing opinion, and has enough courage and internal resources not to need to seek out the good opinion of others. It that recognises the inescapable truth that if everyone is agreeing, then the chances are that bad decisions risk being made.

The act of creating new ideas is, in turn, by its very nature an act of dissent. Nothing new ever comes about through agreeing with the way things are.

Radicalism is progress
Lest those in business circles dismiss this dissenting stance as purely the whim and indulgence of mad scientists and wayward artists, it should be said that phenomenon of material and economic advancement is too, by its very nature, an act of dissent.

As Professor Sunstein has observed, the economic success of the United States is due to a culture of openness that enables and encourages the act of dissent that is innovation. Similarly, Jacob Bronowski observes in his history of Western thought, that the most creative periods of human history have tended to be those in which this spirit of intelligent dissent was welcomed.

The innovation process is and must be a process of dissent, or dissatisfaction with the status quo. The importance of ideas as agents of change is fundamental. Societies, cultures and economies that do not embrace ideas and new-ness are doomed to failure. This point is well made by the historian Fernand Braudel:

“Can it have been merely by coincidence that the future was to belong to the societies fickle enough to care about changing the colours, materials and shapes of costume, as well as the social order and the map of the world – societies, that is, which were ready to break with their traditions? There is a connection.”

It is precisely because people in Europe were prepared to break with the traditions of pre-Enlightenment thought and authority that notions such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have come to be regarded as the birthright of everyone in the Western world.

As Bronowksi has noted:

“The evidence of history is strong, that those societies are most creative and progressive which safeguard the expression of new ideas. Societies appear to remain vigorous only so long as they are organised to receive novel and unexpected – and sometimes unpleasant – thoughts.”

For Virginia Valentine – pioneer of applying the discipline of semiotics to marketing – progress in a market often ‘means moving towards its ‘notness’ paradigm.”

Watches and accessories for example, used to be opposites – one adult, lasting and expensive, the other playful and disposable. Swatch found and resolved this apparent paradox – producing playful watches and introducing the element of transient fashion into a category that hitherto had behaved like jewelry.

Capitalism then actively rewards and encourages change and discontinuity. The successive industrial revolutions of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries explored and embraced new methods of production and manufacture, new sources of raw materials, new trade routes, new means of transportation, new markets and the possibility of producing new commodities and goods. And our twenty-first century is no exception.

For the economist, political scientist, and author of the notion of ‘creative destruction’ Joseph Schumpeter, capitalism then at its core was “by nature a form of method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary.”

In its dynamism and transformations, capitalism is the very opposite of conservative.

Radicalism is everyone’s business
The school of so-called Challenger Branding, popularized by the brand consultant Adam Morgan in his book Eating The Big Fish, has advocated the notion that small brands needed to embrace radicalism and break with the past if they are to successfully compete and take on the dominant leaders in whatever category or market.

Challengers, contends Morgan, need their own models of strategy and behaviour and an entirely different set of rules of engagement, and so he gives us the likes of Ikea, Virgin and Absolut as examples of second-ranking brands that took on the dominant category leaders by radically changing the rules.

Yet for all the undoubted utility and wisdom of this approach, one can’t help but think that books such as Eating the Big Fish and approaches such as Challenger Branding, entrench the belief that in the world of business, dissent is the province of marginal players, rather than an imperative for all.

As we have already seen, the truth of the matter is that capitalism, is by its very nature a process of continuous dissent. The imperative for radicalism may be more pressing for those with less presence and resource, but radicalism absolutely is not the preserve of the marginal.

If they wish to continue to grow rather than simply defend the citadel or atrophy, individuals, corporations, brands, societies and cultures must find new avenues of dissent.

The many flavours of radicalism
At this point it is important to note that while radicalism is essential, it can come in many guises and flavours. It need not involve a violent storming of someone’s barricades or sensibilities.

As Roger Scruton has commented in his book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture:

“Originality is not an attempt to capture attention come what may, or to shock or disturb in order to shut out competition from the world. The most original works of art may be genial applications of a well-known vocabulary, like the late quartets of Hayden, or whispered meditations like the Sonnets of Rilke… what makes them original is not their defiance of the past or their rude assault on settled expectations, but the element of surprise with which they invest the forms and expectations of a tradition.”

Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a good example of a traditional form being invested with surprise. It is still recognisably a symphony. It’s written for orchestra in four movements, with the first being in sonata form and so far, it holds true to the symphonic tradition. However, the traditional scherzo movement follows the slow (third) movement, whereas in symphonies the slow movement usually preceded the scherzo. Furthermore, the fourth movement contains a symphony within a symphony – four movements played without interruption. And to cap it all, the final movement incorporates Schiller’s Ode to Joy sung by a choir – the first time example of a major composer using the human voice on the same level with instruments in a symphony.

So the radicalism of an idea need not shock, disturb, or appall. It can work as Scruton says, by investing the forms and expectations of a tradition with the element of surprise.

Radicalism then does not simply dispense with all that has gone before it. And that which might seem (and be dismissed as) radical often reveals itself to be but part of a longer tradition. As Alex Ross, the music critic of The New Yorker, reminds us in his account of twentieth century music: “Music unfolds along an unbroken continuum, however dissimilar the sounds on the surface.”

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for example, famously caused uproar and pandemonium in the audience when it was first performed in Paris in 1913. It felt shocking, unfamiliar, and deliberately antagonistic towards the sensibilities of the audience. Yet in the years to come, people came to recognise that the Rite was far from being an act of music vandalism or thuggery. Despite its dissonance, visceral violence and pulsations, within it lie deeply traditional patterns and melodies from Russian folk music.

Forever restless
There is another imperative for radicalism, and that is the nature of our own human psyches. We are wired to take notice of the new and surprising.

Wolfram Schultz, the professor of Neuroscience at Cambridge University has done much to uncover the workings of dopamine neurons in the brain. In experiments with monkeys, Schultz would sound a loud tone, wait for a few seconds and then squirt drops of apple juice into the subject’s mouth. At the outset of the experiment, dopamine neurons fired only when the juice was delivered, but the monkey soon learned, and the dopamine neurons would start firing at the mere sound of the tone. If there was no reward accompanying the tone – in other words if the brain system had made a false prediction – then the dopamine neurons would decrease their firing.

As the journalist Jonah Lehrer puts it, the dopamine system is a system that is all about expectation. It predicts (sometimes incorrectly) the possibility of reward. Because objects and events in our environment carry all manner of potential for our welfare, survival and reproduction, our brains are wired to respond to the presence of potential rewards.

Schultz’s work has demonstrated that dopamine neurons, work to detect and signal to the brain the presence of new and therefore potentially rewarding things. Consequently, they respond and get very excited by surprising stimuli and events, and are uninfluenced by predicted events, or events that are worse than predicted. In other words, we respond to the unexpected because there might be something in it for us.

We need a sense of momentum, direction, progress. Without it there is no growth. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “Our nature consists in motion; complete rest is death.”

The human desire and hunger for change and transformation runs very deep indeed, and the need for constant change and growth is all the more acute today. Ours is a world that has been set in motion. It is a world of plenitude and commotion. With no fixed points of meaning, with everything negotiable, with our positions in the world set free, with the traditional institutions of continuity and constraint enfeebled, we are compelled to keep moving, striving, creating, and exploring. Like sharks, we must keep moving forwards if we are to survive. We are restless in our quest for meaning and purpose. And of course diversion and gratification. The world puts no ceiling or limits any longer on us, on what we may be, think, dream and experience. And so we strive to fill the infinite space that lies before us in the quest for meaning and purpose.

Matthew Arnold wrote his Culture and Anarchy in the wake of the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended the voting franchise (hitherto limited to only twenty percent of males) to all male householders of England and Wales. Much preoccupied with the notion of human growth, the quest for human perfection, and the common good, Arnold believed that human perfection was to be achieved through:

“The ever-increasing efficacy and in the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling, which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature… not a having a resting, but a growing and a becoming, is the character of perfection as culture conceives it.”

If society was to perfect itself therefore, it had to commit itself to never being at rest. Progress was just that. Constant forward movement. Restlessness, not resting.

While for Arnold, the achievement of human perfection demanded constant movement, for Joseph Campbell movement and dynamism were simply humanity’s unavoidable fate and condition now that the old constraints no longer exerted their hold:

“Growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of the modern Western man, and of the world with all its promise that he has brought and is still bringing into being: which is to say, a world of change, new thoughts, new things, new magnitudes, and continuing transformation, not of petrifaction, rigidity, and some canonised found ‘truth’.”

One would have thought that it was fairly obvious that no impact is ever made by simply copying what has come before. Yet our television screens, artistic spaces and shops are filled with imitation. Meaning in art for example, does not arise from slavishly adhering to conventions and rules. Mere repetition leads to convention and convention ultimately to cliché, thus undermining the potency and meaning of any art form. Or indeed any mode of expression. The artist who does not evolve, who simply reproduces the same material time after time, is doomed to become a caricature, a pastiche and ultimately, an irrelevance.

All human endeavour and creativity must constantly seek the antidote to what the scientist Stephen Pinker has called the ‘anaesthetic of the familiar’. While familiarity might not always breed contempt, it certainly breeds indifference thus all creators and their works are compelled to challenge the familiar.

This imperative for change is arguably more urgent in our age than it has ever been before. Our technologies of reproduction and distribution mean that ideas travel faster and wider than ever before. Familiarity is more easy than ever to achieve, and it is ever faster to achieve. Surprise and freshness are constantly, challenged, threatened, and undermined. Ideas and their consumption have become accelerated. As they hasten through our infosphere their powers – with every click, share, forward, and view, every exhibiting, plug, dissection and analysis, every exposure and recommendation – are dulled and eroded. Because we’re now searchers, on a constant quest for identity, meaning and purpose, we burn through ideas. We are never prepared to stop searching and declare that we’ve arrived and our days of searching are over. Because the searching is what defines us.

We live in an age of impatience and impermanence. As the management consultant Peter Drucker reminds us, competitive advantage is hard to sustain as companies are able to copy winning formulas, products, and processes. Indeed every winning formula is ultimately doomed to be surpassed. The dark forces of indifference lie at the centre of our culture, as inescapable and inevitable as a black hole.

The non-negotiability of radicalism
Radicalism and dissent is not just for the disenfranchised, the angry, the politicised, and the iconoclasts. Radicalism is not merely for ‘challenger’ brands, ‘cool’ brands or ‘yoof’ brands that need often by their very nature to exclude, shock, or appal. Nor indeed is it simply for those who wish to obliterate all that has gone before. Radicalism is not dependent on the nature of your audience, or the nature of your category or brand. And it’s certainly not just for those who want to create shock and controversy.

Ideas are radical by their nature. Ideas depend on radicalism. If we don’t want an idea that is – in some shape or form – radical, then we really aren’t in the market for an idea at all. Or don’t really know what one is. You simply cannot have a non-disruptive, non-radical, conservative idea.

Anybody who is in the business of ideas – of whatever kind – must embrace radicalism in some shape or form because the very nature of progress and growth demands that the past be repositioned – that as Braudel notes, tradition in some way be broken with.

Sources
J. Bronowksi, The Western Intellectual Tradition: From Leonardo to Hegel
Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life 1400 – 1800
Peter Drucker, Value-Based Marketing: Marketing Strategies for Corporate Growth and Shareholder Value
Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World. How disruptive imagination creates culture
Leopold Kohr, ‘The New Radicalism’, first published in Resurgence under John Papworth’s editorship in 1967
Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince 
Adam Morgan, Eating The Big Fish
Blaise Pascal, Pensées,Vol. II
Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century
Wolfram Schultz, ‘Predictive Reward Signal of Dopamine Neurons’, The Journal of Neurophysiology Vol. 80 No. 1 July 1998, pp. 1-27
Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent
Virginia Valentine – ‘The ‘Notness’ Principle – A Semiotic Model of Meanings’

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