What does it mean to be an “outsider” in the current North American culture?
Rebels, not so long ago, were depicted and “with” or “without” a cause! They challenged authority of the kind that was represented by parents, teachers, bosses, and the institutions of the church and state. They “coloured outside the lines” of what was considered “normal” accepted behaviour. We all knew the rebels in our high school classrooms; they often wore black leather, peeled their hair back with brylcream, and stuck a pack of cigarettes in the sleeve of their tee-shirt. They swore more than the average, or at least they were less inhibited than their “clean-cut” classmates. They expressed a kind of insouciance in their casual attention to passing exams and tests; they detested the “teacher’s pet” “goody-two-shoes” found in every classroom. And they were the “most likely” to be found in the school detention room for some minor deviance, like smoking on school property, or snubbing a teacher, or pulling the pony-tail of the co-ed who sat in front of them.
These “guys” (and it was then an exclusively male club) often dropped out of school, if not immediately after grade twelve, often even before to take some manual labour job, buy a car, grow their wardrobe, and start frequenting the local bars. Occasionally, one of their number would enlist in the Canadian military. A few would gravitate into the local car repair shops; an occasional one would find employment selling some product like insurance. Few, if any, would even consider additional formal education, there being only university or workplace apprenticeships without community colleges as an option.
Adolescent girls were, for the most part, disdaining of these “rebels” with the exception of those who at sixteen saw themselves as wanting to “run with the wolves” of their time. And to the adolescent culture, such pairings were often the seedings of new births “out of wedlock” as the rest of society branded the young girls. The culture seemed to take “for granted” the participation of the young men, without as much as a passing glance of disgust in their direction. Teen pregnancies very often resulted in the removal of the prospective mother to some “home for unwed mothers” in another town to enable the glare of public scorn to be evaded for a time.
Of course, the flower children of the late sixties and early seventies were a band of “outsiders” attempting both to escape from and to satirize the tight-assed formality of their seniors, their parents, their teachers, and their authority figures. Drugs and free-love were the monikers by which they were then, and are still today, proudly known. And then Viet Nam generated draft-dodgers, at first, and war protesters later in a public thumbing of their political and ethical nose at the political establishment in Washington. In Canada, Pierre Trudeau himself, was seen as something of a “novelty” if not a defined “rebel” although his entry into the labour dispute against the intransigent Premier Duplessis, and his vagabond world tour, his celibacy, and his apparent “shrug” commanded much public attention and even adulation. Canadians seemed to be projecting their “rebel” onto his public persona, as a somewhat ghostly imitation of the American flower children, and elected him in 1968 in what has come to be known as “Trudeaumania” similar to the Beatlemania of the four young men from Liverpool.
The intersection of pop culture, political culture, a kind of ribald individualism and decades of stuffy political discourse among old white men in suits generated a kind of cultural gestalt that swung the pendulum of culture in what seemed then like a fresh wind blowing through the corridors of power. “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation!” was one of the defining inflection points of the Trudeau starring role in Canadian history. His later, Charter of Rights and Freedoms and patriation of the Canadian Constitution from Great Britain, remain among his most honoured and revered accomplishments.
Today, there is a different breed of “outsider” perhaps as a sign that democracy has been virtually and digitally “extended” into the public space so far, and providing such a degree of “anonymity” and the concomitant immunity from retaliation that renders every a potential, if not actual, bully, character assassin, and/or victim of such spurious attacks. Teen suicide, at least in part resulting from such inhumanity and gross indecency, is rising as are childhood anxiety and depression. Helicopter parents, gradations of language (red, blue and other colours for various emotional states), cell phone cameras, and a stampede of wannabe cops of all ages, paralleled with uniformed law enforcement abuse of power especially regarding racial profiling render the new cultural landscape more dangerous than the wild west was in the early part of the twentieth century and before. Guns, as back-up for the contemptible attitudes, perceptions and outbursts proliferate in too many urban arenas, and even cities like Toronto, a formerly relatively peaceful multi-cultural urban city, now strives to contend with a spike in gun murders.
Who is the outsider in such a culture?
Is it the religious fanatic, the wannabe terrorist who sees himself in some apocalyptic struggle to save civilization from the hordes of heretics?
Is it the teenage “nerd” buried among cables and both soft and hardware in an intense pursuit of another universally appealing and richly rewarding “app” to facilitate some human enterprise formerly conducted by humans?
Is it the discharged veteran sleeping under the bridge of the closest overpass near his adopted “home” wondering if or whether legitimate care and help will ever come from the same country for which s/he fought and risked his/her life?
Is it the refugee fleeing Syria, Ethiopia, Mali, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen or the Central Caribbean or even South America from the threats and ravages of political corruption, gang war, starvation, life-threatening disease, or civil war?
Is it the national intelligence whistleblower like Edward Snowden who risks both freedom and personal security by exposing state secrets that demonstrate culpability of his own country in violence and military conflict for spurious and contemptible ends?
Is it the humanitarian “warrior” like Samantha Nutt who heads a philanthropic such as “War Child” established to published the plight of children caught up in war?
Is it still the courageous, determined and stubborn Swedish school girl, Greta Thunberg, who has first defied her parents, teachers, and community, by “skipping” school on Friday’s to bring attention to the global planetary crisis? Or has she flipped from “outcast” to heroine, leading a global movement, speaking at the United Nations, and challenging world leaders to take the cries of young people seriously and take action through changes in policies, practices and attitudes to save the planet for future generations?
Is her example, first outcast and later prophet, the pattern that can be dug from the history of all prophetic voices? Is public disdain and contempt, like public fame and hero-worship, so ephemeral, so fickle, so unstable and so untrustworthy that whatever the public “opinion” of anyone at a given moment in time depends on the size, the speed, the heat of the gossip-tide against him or her as well as the maturity, responsibility, patience, and the willingness and ability to trust others of the public?
In public school, I recall one classmate who was an outcast simply because of his awkward, gangly seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable body. I recall feeling like an “outsider” when I first entered a U.S. small, provincial, angry and alienated town on the west side of the Continental Divide. I felt like an outsider when a supervisor in evaluation commented, “You are too intense for me!” after which she communicated to her superiors her “failing” recommendation. I was definitely an outsider when a prominent long-standing donor and member of a parish dubbed homilies I had delivered “heretical” and then demanded my removal. I was considered an outsider when another supervisor reported on me, “He can see right through me in three minutes!” to a supervisor of mine. I was an outsider when another long-standing member of a small parish retaliated when I refused to appoint her to a position of pastoral leadership. Another “outsider” incident came from narrow and closed judgement that my reading works by Scott Peck and Matthew Fox was considered heretical, as were those works. After having conversation with a female colleague over breakfast at a professional convention, I learned through group gossip that I was “in a relationship” with that woman, a complete and utter lie and alienation, stemming again from the kind of false superiority of the moralist religious community.
In fact, a case can and has often been made, that the most fervent religious fanatics are, themselves, the most vehement agents of alienation, ostracism, and gate-keeping of whomever they consider “an outsider”. Name-calling, character assassination, bullying and deliberate poisoning of the reputation of those they consider “heretical” (whether to a political, religious, or ideological cause). Social terrorism, of the kind currently on display from the Oval Office, from which there are no provable “bullets” being fired, manages to escape the purview of the legal system, especially if and when a compliant, complicit and obsequious Attorney General dances to the beat of the national and international bully.
Pokohontas, “Sleepy Joe, “Alfred Neuman Buttigieg,” are among the current “outsider” appellations from the White House directed at Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg respectively. Attempting to paint an opponent as an outsider, among a cult of sycophants, has risen to a level of hate previously untried and unworthy of the political process. Contempt cannot and will not be contained in economic sanctions, illicit trawling for “opponent dirt” from international leaders, encaged children, pitching paper towels to destitute Puerto Ricans after hurricane Maria. It spills out of the larynx, and even the body language of the current occupant of the Oval Office, seemingly to the delight, or at least the silence acceptance/resignation of the Republican “outsiders” from the perspective of this scribe.
As in our attitude and perceptions of any single thing, person, action, an “outsider” is our way of disposing of, distancing from, trashing and demeaning the other.
Commonly applied to persons, it would seem that for the current administration in Washington, and sadly also from political leaders like Sheer in Canada, the dangers and the science of global warming and climate change in “outside” the purview, the embrace, and even the responsibility of such leaders. For decades, the scientists who were studying the impact of carbon and methane emissions were considered “outsiders” by the establishment. Their evidence, and the implications of that evidence for the very people who elected the political class was consider inconsequential, even deceiving, and certainly not worthy of consideration by public policy makers. Similar to the lies told by the tobacco companies, about their cigarettes not being carcinogens, and the pharmaceutical companies that they opioids were not lethal, and the Volkswagen executives that their cars met emission standards of the EPA, and the litany of lies from the current U.S. president, it is long past time for these “outliers” to be considered part of the establishment.
They have become the most recent iteration of the “outsider” in the minds, eyes and attitudes of the millions of climate protesters who took to the streets on Friday last week and to the millions who will participate in “Extinction Rebellion” on October 7.
Dubbing the other as “outsider” is too often merely a sloppy, lazy and seemingly innocent way of expressing contempt, and thereby of promoting the tidal wave of hatred, white supremacy, religious terrorism (in evidence among all world faith communities), and threats to personal safety and security that threaten our urban streets, our synagogues, mosques and cathedrals, and our schools, theatres as well as our planetary survival. Let’s not be afraid to connect those looming “dots”!