Why does society have outcasts?

Thanks for the question Deiter. Please prepare yourself for a self-indulgent rant on my part.

A lot of folks who allude to Surowiecki’s “wisdom of the crowds” do not realize this refers to a disorganized, non-self-aware, diffused, uncoordinated and essentially arbitrary intersection of public intuitions and insights. Anything more organized and self-aware, on the other hand, rapidly develops one or more weaknesses related to conformative groupthink. We hear regular complaints about bureaucracy, inefficiency, turf wars and serfdoms, quid pro quo dealings, corruption, the lemming effect, gridlock, complacency, and a host of other issues that plague organizations larger than a few individuals. Essentially, humans suck at “big,” as it too often tends towards unskillful, inept, or just plain stupid.

Now I won’t go into why this seems to be a recurring problem — it could be something as simple as the combination of the Dunbar limit, the inherent paralyzing effect of rigid hierarchies, a genetically programmed propensity toward tribalism, and an institutional version of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Again…not the focus of this answer. What I do want to elaborate on is the necessity of outliers in any such institutional ecosystems. Without outliers, the quicksand of organizational inertia will always destroy that organization from the inside out. Not in any exciting sort of implosion, but through a slow, insidious rot. Outliers provide the necessary injection of challenging the hierarchy, outsider insights, and “creative destruction” that allows revisions and evolutions to occur in an otherwise frozen soup of conformance.

A lot of folks have intuited aspects of this principle and its importance in society. Colin Wilson, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Gebser and many others have explored the significance of outsider experience, thought, art and contributions to society. And this is not a new idea…perhaps you will recall Jesus saying “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” So the idea that the outlier, outsider, or outcast in this same sense must bear the burden of isolation and rejection in order to rejuvenate society — and indeed human civilization — from the outside has persisted throughout millennia.

As another take, in-groups like to scapegoat outcasts, so outcasts perform an important function there as well — diffusing tension, exciting group unity, voicing taboo sentiments, diluting hierarchical control and power, etc. Consider the “class clown” or the King’s Fool. There is, I believe, something inherently necessary about the outcast — something essential to the thriving of society itself. Certainly to the arts. Reframing common experiences and the status quo as absurd parodies of themselves is perhaps what comedians, social critics and theatre have provided since the beginning of history.

So society has outcasts to preserve itself. Without them, it would disintegrate.

My 2 cents.


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