The Rise of Outrage Culture – Misunderstanding a Cultural Dynamic

Recent reports in the press about campus activities questioning the right of some speakers to present their ideas on campus or in class rooms (for example, the attempts to gag Germaine Greer at various UK universities) has led some leader writers and social commentators to brand the phenomenon as a resurgence of Political Correctness, the return of the Outrage Culture.

Many writers – both media reporters and teachers - liken it to the student movements of the 1960s and all the attendant chaos that ensued as authorities attempted to repress actions that supported the outrage contained in students’, and their supporters’, voices.

While the 60s are only remembered by the older members of society, the history of the time is well documented and open for all to read or see. If time is taken to review these resources it becomes apparent quite quickly that today’s call for the silencing of a person’s point of view because it conflicts with another’s point of view is almost diametrically opposite to the demands of 60s student radicals to hear "alternative voices" in the more circumscribed circumstances present on college campuses and in mainstream organizations at that time.

The Second World War had morphed into the Cold War – a cultural war that was in full stride and which the vast body of people in Europe and the US accepted as a given. Organizations and thoughts were banned from public expression and some people’s and organizations’ motives for action were of judged on a cultural basis only relevant decades before. This occurred within countries on both sides of the cultural war, and on both sides of the Iron Curtain that was used as a symbol of the differences between countries and ideologies.

Repression and conformity was valued more than autonomy of action; conformity valued over rebellion; and the freedom to express thoughts and use words deemed unacceptable by a range of community and national standards were banned with people often being punished for using them.

This was the world of the Settlers – of people striving to ‘fit in’ after the destruction of dreams that had defined their lifetimes with its continuing wars, and the financial upheavals that occurred between the 1914 and 1939 wars in Europe. The basic human needs for safety, security and belonging were unable to be met for extended, often generational, periods of time.

Migration was a way of escaping for some Europeans, but most people stayed in their mainly agrarian communities, or in the cities and emerging suburban households being created at this time. In the US, waves of dispossessed Europeans continued the immigration begun over a century before. All were seeking to satisfy basic human needs and base-level social values.

Then came the children born after the war.

Upon reaching adulthood in the 60s some of them began questioning the values of their predecessors – their parents – and the culture that was accepted as ‘normal’. These young adults brought a new set of values to the cultural table. These changed values were not Settler.

Their experience of living in a relatively stable culture and expanding economy showed a way to a future where overt war and financial depressions were not inevitable - and for many of these younger people a new set of values and motivations began to emerge.

This was the first mass manifestation of the Prospector and Pioneer values sets that have come to dominate in the 21st Century.

The Prospectors formed the basis of the consumer society that drove the war-ravaged economies in the West from mass poverty and uncertain, and unequal, economic growth to a new phase where basic needs were met for the majority of the population and expectations of a ‘better future’ were endemic within many cultures.

This transition from Settler to Prospector was severely restricted in the more Eastern versions of the culture wars but, eventually, even these cultures outgrew their Settlerhood and became more Prospector in their values sets. Today’s world is defined by Prospectors and not Settlers.

However, it is the rise of the Pioneer values set that broke up the consensus of the 60s and has consistently challenged all social systems based on conformity – rejecting it in favour of autonomy and the opportunity to experience new forms of reality as expressed by other people elucidating different forms of values and approaches to life. Pioneers were a small minority of young adults, and some older adults, in the 60s – but now are over a third of the population in most European countries and more than that in liberal Western democracies in Australia, the US, Germany, and likely in Canada as well.

The dominant narrative – the way ‘we do things around here’ – prior to WW2 was Settler and this was maintained until the late 60s in the West, where a fractured narrative emerged from the three groups competing for ‘the way we do things around here’ that continues to this day.

In more Eastern countries the dominance of Prospector values continues to drive their narratives – but it can be expected that more Pioneer values will come to the fore in the future and fracture social consensus in a similar manner as occurred in the West. How long this will take and where it will occur faster or more slowly is conjecture best left to another report.

In the West the 60s questioning of the status quo of previous generations and their values manifested itself in social movements often first observed on college campuses but gaining broader support among others with similar values. These values are the Pioneer values, and the attributes of this values set led to actions rooted in their beliefs about openness, justice, nature, caring about others different than themselves. Life was an adventure to be experienced full spectrum, not something that created uncertainty, pessimism and alienation. Having found unsatisfactory many of the answers provided to them when they questioned the status quo, they often came to the conclusion that it was a ‘better question’ that led to a more satisfactory life, not another unsatisfactory answer.

This approach to learning and life put them at odds with the ‘establishment’ of their day and provoked demonstrations of discontent and, subsequently, repressive actions by authorities. The American Civil Rights movement harnessed much of this early questioning. The various anti-war movements in many Western countries also tapped into this questioning of motives.

Among the various movements there was a mixture of Prospector and Pioneer participants and this defined the perceptions of both the participants and the observers. The more hedonistic Prospectors often dressed the part better than the more laid back Pioneers – though both challenged the Settler view of conformity leading to safety. The Prospectors had more socially driven motives for being seen to be in the right place (a meeting, a demonstration, etc.) at the right time - “Be there or be square”. The more strategic thinking, and often the organizing force for the meeting or demonstration, Pioneer might miss the more ‘mainstream alternatives’ in preference for more fringe activities. They weren’t concerned as much about their public image as they were about the longer term implications of today’s actions.

In the middle of all this questioning and counter-cultural activity was the Free Speech Movement (FSM). This was a pioneer challenge to the constrictions that had prevailed in the ‘Clash of Cultures’ narrative promulgated by both Western and Eastern political orientations based on Settler values. These values maintained that some words and thoughts were so powerful that they shouldn’t be spoken or thought. Whole departments in various governments were created to monitor and supress the proscribed words and thoughts. In Eastern cultures, often under some form of authoritarian state socialism or Communism, this took the form of police states and state sponsored surveillance of citizen activities. In the West the actions of states and institutions was more subtle and nuanced but still had the same desired end state – the suppression of open expression that ran counter to Settler values of conformity and the safety that was believed to occur if all thought the same. (The reader should feel free to draw any possible parallels to the present day).

Advocates of the FSM believed that open expression of genuine questions, thought or spoken, was a more sane way of understanding the emerging competing narratives of the different values sets. They saw the chaos produced by the cultural dynamic of the moment was no longer based on the shared values of a more traditional Settler culture. They understood it was no longer sufficient to conform to what other more dominant members of society preferred. Such conformity led to a suppression of the expression of alternative points of view and was at its most basic a denial of democratic expression – in schools, workplaces, legal organizations and political institutions.

The Pioneers agitated, and were often sanctioned legally and socially, for their perceived “right” to think and say what they thought, regardless of community or national cultural precepts. In the West this was supported or led to the creation of organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union in the US and similar organizations in the UK and Europe – often having links based on the Human Rights Act signed by many nations after the end of WW2. For the Pioneers these rights enshrined in law were inviolate as they were meant to protect the freedom and liberty of societies from proscription by more authoritarian movements – the cause of the catastrophic years between 1915 and 1945.

This Pioneer-led movement didn’t achieve all it wanted – though it was mostly accepted by Prospectors and continues to this day to be opposed by Settler Values. But in the process of becoming generally preferable to repression, the nature of the acceptance of others’ views became something different. This is a common cultural dynamic in all cultures, i.e. when Pioneer ideas, concepts and behaviours are adopted by Prospectors the motivation for the change becomes a Prospector motivation not a Pioneer motivation.

What this means in real life is that a desire to express what has been proscribed – a Pioneer motivation – becomes a desire to express ‘high profile’ ideas or concepts; to get others to notice the speaker or performer and to give them esteem. So, a Pioneer could stand up in public and demand their right to use a proscribed word or concept as a “basic right” and a Prospector do exactly the same thing, but do it to gain approval of others like themselves – a Prospector motivation.

This is often measured in CDSM’s British Values Survey (BVS) data when a Pioneer concept or behaviour is adopted by the Prospectors but is motivated by Prospector values, and eventually adopted by the Settlers but for Settler reasons. One of the dynamics that is often discovered in the data is the Pioneer “freedom to” becomes a Settler “freedom from” as an idea is adopted by a culture.

This is an area where CDSM helps partners and clients to understand that “same behaviours have different reasons” – a mantra all social commentators should have written on their walls.

Today this lack of understanding has lumped the reactive, authoritarian based thoughts, language and behaviour of some present day students and their organizations as being a similar challenge to their teachers and professors as 60s Pioneer motivations. In the 60s when Germaine Greer challenged the status quo she was heralded as a guiding light of alternative thought. Today her iconoclasm is a focal point for a repression of the expression of alternative views.

Online social media and the printed media are coming out regularly with articles about the fear and sense of intimidation some college students are creating in their classes. Other non-campus movements are questioning the “right” to query issues of socially constructed identities. Some of these identities were formerly supported by Pioneers, but some supporters have become more authoritarian in the prescription of how the identities “should” be defined – imposing their values on others – which has led to questioning by Pioneers.

This is a classic Values War culture clash.

The path from freedom of expression and opinion has led to demands to repress alternative views within institutions that have traditionally been bastions of intellectual inquiry. This is certainly not Pioneer-motivated.

So what is driving this culture clash?

Very simply put, this is a Settler driven phenomenon, primarily motivated by Brave New World values – in which people espousing these values attempt to represent themselves as “speaking for others” and especially those they refer to as “those who have no voice” or who are unrepresented by others. This is a values set that often attaches itself to a limited range of issues, or a single issue, which they feel they have the moral obligation to expound, represent and be responsible for.

As a Settler mind-set it is extremely hard to change once it is adopted and, until it is satisfied, these people will have a strong morality-driven energy and drive for continued engagement with the issue(s).

This is a world that can be characterized as a world of possibility – but driven by a sense of frustration. This is the “coulda, shoulda, oughta” world of the Brave New World espouser – a Settler with a mission to change the world, to re-create a Shangri-la that probably never existed, but is overwhelmingly attractive as a desirable future.

Measurement of the attributes of the Brave New World Values Mode show that they don’t feel secure in themselves or in the world around them and their desire to deny or punish subversive thoughts often exceeds their openness to other unlike themselves.

They feel threatened by a wider world and adopt the strategy of opposing that which is unlike their peers’ or reference groups. They have a “small world” but will fight to the death to maintain decorum within this reference point. They believe themselves to be derided by others for their beliefs – and as such are usually empowered by their sense of being the “righteous outsider”.

For them to back off from their beliefs is to admit to a moral defeat. The Pioneers will gladly lose an argument if they are convinced by a better solution – their openness to others often leads them to a new direction in thinking. For the Brave New World espouser a failure to win an argument is often perceived as a moral failure in themselves – and will be resisted even if they suspect their stance is less moral than they once thought.

This is the basis for much authoritarian thought – the strong propensity to adopt a position on an issue and then defend it with a sense of morality, rather than have a strongly moral position and then defend an issue related to it.

This strong sense of morality is driven by the sense that Shangri-la is being denied them and that only they have the answers to ensure others’, and their own, happiness. Their obligation (much stronger than anyone else’s rights) is to protect others from the uncertain world they perceive around them. It is this unsettling uncertainty that drives their need to force others to conform to their view of what is right and wrong – to create a new certainty. In certainty lies safety.

Denying the right of a professor to teach an “unacceptable” thought or concept – to try to prevent words being spoken – can become a moral issue for a Brave New World espouser. The “freedom” to repress is an example of a Pioneer idea that has become adopted by Settlers, i.e. from a freedom from repression in the name of openness to a freedom to repress others in the name of conformity and safety.

The language of the Brave New World espouser today often contains words about safety, i.e. creating safe places, feeling unsafe when they are exposed to certain thoughts and behaviours and so forth. This form of language should help others recognize the basis of the Brave New World espouser’s argumentation from a values perspective.

Pioneers faced with an argument that is based on the premise that words or concepts should be banned because they make others feel unsafe, or that they should not be said as it can “hurt others” should back away from direct confrontation with this stance. Instead they should reject normal Pioneer methods of respectful confrontation and refutation based on facts - to methods more amenable to moral development and empathetic understanding of opinions.

Maintaining a genuine inquiry into the perspective of the Brave New World espouser can present a real challenge to the Pioneer values set. That is all the more reason for Pioneers to do it – they can learn something new by understanding the world of Brave New World and help those troubled individuals develop ways of gaining the safety and certainty so important to them. It isn’t about the issues – it is about their values.

In summary, the 21st Century is not like the 1960s – anywhere! Trying to equate the emergence of Pioneers and their approach to life with current calls to repress freedoms is missing the point of protest completely. Having the ability to perceive clearly values-based motivations is a prime requisite in developing new approaches to conflict management and the satisfaction of basic needs in all people and all societies.