For too long, the term insubordination has evoked negative feelings and mental images. But for ideas to evolve and societies to progress, it’s vital to cultivate rebels who are committed to challenging conventional wisdom and improving on it. Change never comes easily. And most would-be rebels lack the skills to overcome hostile audiences who cling desperately to the way things are.
Based on cutting-edge research, The Art of Insubordination is the essential guide for anyone seeking to be heard, make change, and rebel against an unhealthy status quo. Learn how to
Filled with engaging stories about dissenters in the trenches as well as science that will transform your thinking. The Art of Insubordination is for anyone who seeks more justice, courage, and creativity in the world.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)
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Despite what you learned in high school, Charles Darwin didn't invent the theory of evolution.
Okay, maybe he did, but he didn't do it alone.
In the preface to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the awkwardly titled book that would change the world, Darwin listed thirty men who previously mustered the courage to question intellectual and religious orthodoxies about nature.
These characters paid a steep price for their boldness. Have you heard of Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri (nicknamed Al-Jahiz)? Good luck finding a refrigerator magnet of him. Muslim scholars refer to Al-Jahiz as "the father of the theory of evolution," and for good reason: he arrived at the notion of "survival of the fittest" a thousand years before Darwin, in the year 860. Al-Jahiz wondered why certain animals imported from Africa and Asia to what is now Iraq easily adapted to their new environment whereas others caught illnesses and perished. His reward for this biological discovery was arrest and banishment from his native land. And he was lucky. The chief Muslim ruler of Baghdad got downright medieval on the wealthy patron funding Al-Jahiz's research. Military officials imprisoned Al-Jahiz's patron and executed him inside an iron maiden (a spike-laden metal coffin that impaled victims when the doors closed).
You'd think scientists would take a hint and keep their strange and dangerous theories to themselves. About seven hundred years later, in the 1500s, a French scientist named Bernard Palissy dared question the Catholic Church's proclamation that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Noting that tides and winds required long periods of time to visibly alter the landscape, Palissy argued that our planet was much older than a few thousand years (how much older he refused to say). Palissy also proposed that an elephant thousands of years ago would not be the same as an elephant today. This concept of species transformation across generations was heresy. His reward: several arrests, a spate of flogging, and destruction of his books. Oh, and they burned him at the stake.
Others on Darwin's list received better treatment-the authorities spared them death or ostracism-but nobody would characterize their lives as rainbows and gumdrops. They were denounced as infidels. Monitored by the police. Disowned by their families. Censored. Physically assaulted. Threatened with death. All for doubting Biblical claims that animals and humans were really created in six days, that God was really the only force responsible for their evolution, and that humans were really the zenith of God's achievements (a rung lower than angels). Questioning orthodox beliefs made you an outsider, a threat, a heretic deserving of torture and death.
I use Darwin's predecessors as an example here to highlight the price that many, if not most, dissenters, deviants, revolutionaries, rebels, and outliers pay for the sake of progress. Sometimes progress happens by happy accident, but more often a courageous person defies social norms. Somebody noticed that the existing orthodoxy in some small or large way was unhealthy, stagnant, or even dangerous, and championed a countervailing idea. And some member of the majority decided to give new ideas a fair reception instead of the middle finger. More often than not, dissent yields progress. Outlaw dissent, and you slow the speed of cultural evolution.
Darwin's predecessors matter because they inspire a question: why did he succeed while they failed? Yes, Darwin received hate mail and anonymous nineteenth-century trolls called him a heathen, but his ideas found a big audience. The greatest European scientists of the nineteenth century elected him a Fellow of The Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in existence; and awarded him the prestigious Royal Medal for his research explaining the formation of coral reefs. Popular readers loved his book of travel adventures, snazzily entitled Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the Years 1826 and 1836. In a world without the Travel Channel and National Geographic, Darwin's book sparked imagination and enlivened many a dinner table conversation. If highway billboard signs existed, which they didn't, his face would have adorned them selling sneakers and chocolate milk. So why was his insubordination so much more effective than those of other, like-minded thinkers around the world and across the centuries?
A full answer to this question would fill many books, requiring an extensive historical analysis of both Darwin and his predecessors. But we can raise some interesting possibilities by turning to social psychology. In recent decades, researchers studying a number of topics-emotion, self-regulation, creativity, persuasion, minority influence, intergroup conflict, political psychology, group dynamics-revealed how we might differ and disagree successfully. Science has also helped us understand how members of the majority can become receptive to dissenters, increasing the odds that the valuable but subversive ideas of insubordinates will take root.
Darwin lacked the benefit of this knowledge, but he intuitively followed a number of successful insubordination strategies. We know, for instance, that dissenters boost the odds of convincing others if they take a careful measure of society's prejudices and calibrate their speech and actions accordingly. Darwin understood how provocative it was to suggest life stemmed from something other than the divine spark of God. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, saw the Vatican ban his books for articulating a theory of evolution. In order to preserve his mental health, the younger Darwin sketched out his theory of evolution and then waited not two, not five, not ten, but fifteen years before publishing it. Only at that point, after another controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, became an international sensation, did he believe society was finally ready-or as ready as it would ever be-to digest ideas as controversial as his. "In my opinion," he wrote, Vestiges "has done excellent service, in removing prejudice . . . preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views."
Psychologists emphasize how important it is for principled rebels to communicate in ways that help overcome listeners' emotional resistance. Darwin contemplated how to strengthen his argument. He wrote in an accessible, jargon-free style comprehensible to everyday readers, not just scientists. He relied on analogies as illustrations. Victorian readers delighted in Darwin's vivid descriptions of "hairless dogs" and "pigeons with feathered feet." They learned about the mingling of ant slaves with masters, what happened when young chickens lost their fear of dogs and cats (it wasn't pretty), and the engineering feats of bees. Besides entertaining his readers, Darwin engaged them as participants by using phrases such as "we can see," "we can understand," and "we ought to find." He asked for reader commitment by posing questions such as, "What now are we to say to these several facts?" An interactive video game it was not, but by the standards of the time, it was compelling.
Researchers studying successful dissent have found that allies play a critical role in the promotion of unconventional ideas. Here Darwin truly shined. A year before he published Origin of Species, he received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a competing theory of evolution. Having delayed publication of his book, Darwin feared that Wallace alone would receive credit for discovering evolution. To stake his own claim, Darwin allowed friends to take charge and set up a presentation at an upcoming public meeting. The meeting featured Wallace's manuscript and a time-stamped letter showing that Darwin arrived at his conclusions first. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were present, but Darwin's four-man infantry of fellow scientists-Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Asa Gray, and Thomas Henry Huxley (the latter known as "Darwin's bulldog")-fought valiantly on his behalf, lending their own credibility to his theory. Darwin was an unimpressive orator. His friends, though, were skilled enough to debate critics and win over experts and laypeople.
Darwin deployed specific strategies for successfully selling his theory to the mainstream and radically changing how people today think about the origins of human behavior. These strategies, coupled with later research, can help non-conformists in our midst become more resilient, persuasive, and effective at mobilizing others. I know because over the past decade I've conducted, collaborated on, and synthesized studies that explore how people with fresh ideas can become courageous. I've designed practical strategies for championing ideas others regard as outlandish, threatening, or just plain weird. I've taught these strategies to corporate executives, government intelligence officers, global financial leaders, and other prominent people around the world. These interventions work, and published studies provide the scientific evidence explaining why. With a bit of extra effort, we can all succeed more in our efforts to help members of the disbelieving majority overcome their internal resistance and give change a chance, whether our ideas are minor refinements of conventional wisdom or revolutionary departures, like Darwin's were.