People have found themselves outraged since the days of Adam & Eve 6,000 years ago. Or when we walked out of the plains of Africa 60,000 to 125,000 years ago. Or sometime in between. The point being, humans have always had something to fuss over, and as our species has developed the capacity become more efficient with our time, allowing us the freedom to not spend every waking moment trying to survive, we have been able to invest more of our lives leveraging our outrage in an attempt to redirect society so that it adopts our particular worldview.
Outrage, at its core, is a strong negative reaction to a condition or potential condition that one finds intolerable. Outrage reveals a heavy dose of emotion, sometimes mixed with a touch of logic, and most often with a liberal dose of arrogance or intolerance. Such outrage can be well-founded and principled, or it can be nonsense that is blindly accepted and parroted by the naive; with both sides of the position ascribing to themselves the principled position and ascribing to the other the naive (or evil) position. Such reactions are significant because the stakes are high, or at least perceived so, as both sides fear the negative consequences that will obviously come from their position not being accepted by or forced upon society. Further, the more heated the arguments become, and the more that the sides assign moral or ethical validity to their arguments, the more likely that the sides will seek a violent resolution to the argument, whether through simple criminal acts by their gang, or through organized criminal acts by way of government coercion. Obviously, “solutions” that require violence are a big problem for peaceful people who want to be left alone or who believe that the merit of one’s argument should be sufficient to compel people to change.
Being able to redirect society so that it adopts one’s preferred position is a monumental task that humans have faced since time immemorial. In a day and age when the only violence that is accepted as legitimate comes at the hands of government agents, people who wish to shape society have two options: (1) appeal to the emotions and logic of others to win them over, or (2) use the state to force people to accept one’s preferred position. As one example, the Peaceful Streets Project, a grassroots organization focused on driving culture change so that people stand up to and resist the police state and its criminal police, attempts to use the former approach. As an alternate example, organizations that want to promote or undermine particular religious beliefs often take the latter approach. And one of the most effective ways to manipulate the populace on a grand scale is through the institution of schooling.
The California textbook wars highlight how eagerly competing sides will leverage the state in an attempt to direct society toward their preferred narrative. With a captive audience of over 50 million children in public, K-12 schooling, those who can control what is taught to those children have an inside track on shaping the future of our society. California, being the largest state population wise, has an incredible amount of influence over publishers and the content they provide (second only in influence to Texas, perhaps).
Textbook wars have been fought over the Founding Fathers (enlightened liberty lovers or immoral slave owners), the Native Americans (savages, eager partners of the Europeans or victims of genocide) and African-Americans (helpless slaves, proud survivors or simply ignored). However, perhaps the most passionate textbook wars have revolved around the only institution that can rival the violent history of the state: religion. In the mid-2000s, one fight revolved around the Hindu religion and the people of South Asia. Because of their small and relatively non-vocal constituency in the United States, Hindus were not historically afforded the same level of respect that Christians, Jews and Muslims received by textbook publishers. However, vocal Hindu fundamentalists eventually began to organize and lobby in a manner that gave them a seat at the table alongside monotheistic lobbies.
When the perceived stakes are high, and one’s preferred narrative is the only acceptable option, any sort of compromise is unacceptable. With the ability to manipulate tens of millions of minds, it would not be unreasonable to believe that most people who are outraged by the status quo, or the threat of the status quo shifting, will therefore attempt to harness the power of the state to dictate the range of beliefs or opinions that children may be exposed to. Leaning on the violence of the state to push such a narrative, however, is not necessarily the most effective way to shape society. The collective bodies of elitist individuals known as the state, to include the most tyrannical examples (e.g., Communist Russia), despite their best efforts, time and time have failed to maintain control of the conscience of the people.
Those who dictate the narrative often manufacture outrage to serve their ends, such as the anti-Semitic outrage that helped fuel Hitler’s rise in Germany. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, so long as the ruling elite “… strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum …”, people will remain obedient all the while believing they are free. But social entrepreneurs who wish to push back against such manipulation can leverage outrage as a tool to undermine the seat of power. By expanding the acceptable range of opinion, often times by attacking the legitimacy of those who want to limit debate, the populace can evolve their collective opinion in a manner that makes the previously embraced position to be seen as utterly reprehensible.
Those social entrepreneurs are often those who operate outside of the system, as opposed to within it. In the case of the textbook wars, they can take the form of private religious schools that have no interest in staying within the bounds dictated by lobbyist and large publishing companies. They can take the form of atheists or religious fundamentalists who choose to organize families to homeschool unencumbered by the dictates of any “Ad Hoc Committee of the Curriculum Commission.” And they can take the form of secular private schools who want to steer clear of the conversation altogether, so that they can focus on other issues that they choose to be outraged over.
While most entrepreneurs choose to focus on fighting over shares of established markets (beliefs, norms, social conventions), the entrepreneurs that often have the most profound impact on society are the ones that go after the niche markets that have the potential to grow into status quo. Here’s to hoping that alternative education undermines the indoctrination of the youth and ultimately brings down the violence of the state.