In Praise of the Malcontents. They make a career of making a mockery of mockery.
A person or group in a position of power or authority may be able to please some of the people all the time; even most of the people most of the time, but there are some people that never seem pleased, any of the time. The conventional reaction to this recalcitrant group is to brand them with the derisive moniker of – “malcontent.” The stereotypical definition of a “malcontent” is that of an individual who is “chronically dissatisfied.” On the premise that the malcontent never accepts, and always questions the way things are, political, business and social majorities seek to discredit, marginalize and dismiss the malcontent as nothing more than a prickly, pesky irritant. But the truth is that the antipathy expressed for the malcontent is a self-defense mechanism used by those who have long since sold out to the stability of conformity and the comfort of the status quo.
Viewed over the wide sweep of history, politics and business, the malcontent has been a tenacious gadfly for change and a tempestuous tormentor of the existing state of affairs; especially if they see evil or duplicitous pretense. Rather than feeling intimidated by being pinned with the label of “malcontent,” it is something to be worn proudly as a badge of honor. For it is the malcontent – those dissatisfied with the way things are – who serves to question and challenge the establishment; it is the malcontent who exposes the need for change and sparks its happening. Contentment with things as they are is the chief deterrent to change, innovation and creativity. The value of the malcontent is to be dissatisfied with satisfaction and to expose the folly of seeing things only as they are and not how they should be.
Over the centuries, dramatic writers and satirists – not the least of which was Shakespeare – would place a malcontent – often as the central character – in their plays. The role of the malcontent was to “stir the plot” by forcing other characters to confront issues they would just as soon wish to ignore. The malcontent would rail against, challenge, resist, mock and lampoon the beliefs and actions of others in an effort to make them (and the audience) see what they didn’t want to see and question what they didn’t want to question.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a prototypical malcontent. Convinced that his uncle, King Claudius, had murdered his father for power, Hamlet set about to convince the other characters in the play of that truth, even though they all seemed to believe Claudius was above reproach. Possibly the most famous use of the malcontent in drama was John Marston’s (right) 1603 work, The Malcontent. In the play, the malcontent Malevole uses satire and mockery to expose and lash out at the corruption and decadence of the society in which he lives.
The use of a malcontent in drama became the standard way for the writer to expose concerns over the maladies existing in politics and society that were not being recognized or addressed. The role of the malcontent is to be a malcontent – annoyed, unsettled and displeased with the world as it is, eager to change it somehow, or at the very least, force others to defend it.
But the value of the malcontent extends well beyond drama and into the real world. When it comes to social mores, politics and business, the malcontent is the irksome but persistent voice that exposes what others do not see or have meekly accepted. Malcontents may not always be right, but they are right to question and challenge the way things are. Often using the tools of mockery, sarcasm, disdain and parody to lampoon the wrongs and hypocrisy of society or business, the malcontent makes visible those issues that others would prefer to remain invisible and in so doing can galvanize change. But for others, the malcontent becomes an unwelcome intrusion into the comfort of conformity and satisfaction with the status quo. The malcontent’s proclivity to express uncomfortable candor exposes them to the blowtorch of derision and a lonesome existence within the group.
In a True Democracy, Malcontents Can Flourish
America has been fortunate to have a societal mentality that has tolerated – if not encouraged – the malcontent. While America may, at first, castigate its malcontents, other countries would prefer to castrate their voice. America’s Founding Fathers were the epitome of malcontents. When apprised by his foreign secretary of the veritable list of gripes against the King of England listed in the American Declaration of Independence, King George III is reputed to have responded, “Methinks we are dealing with nothing but an ungracious rabble of malcontents. No sop the Crown might offer will ever allay their contrivances of complaints.”
Every momentous social change in America – be it independence, the elimination of slavery, woman’s suffrage, civil rights – all started with a small group of malcontents who were simply unwilling to accept what was for what should be. These malcontents were initially ignored, derided, disparaged and scorned by those who did not recognize the injustice or by those who benefited from and were satisfied with the way things were. But by doggedly raising the consciousness and awareness of the need for change, the malcontents eventually prevailed. America is far better for the malcontents who have lived among us.
A Growing Need
The need for malcontents today – especially in business – is greater than ever. As a company grows and succeeds, it tends to move toward orthodoxy and bureaucracy to protect and preserve its achievements. In this environment process and procedure soon suffocates challenge and change. Those in charge seek to be reassured by the comfort and conventionality of peer group comparisons and the mimicking of “best practices” that have been adopted by others. Activities are measured against what others are doing, not what could be done. “This is the way we have always done it,” becomes the defensive moat around the status quo of a company that encourages inward thinking and fends off any effort to find a better way to do it better. This suffocating environment is precisely the type in which the malcontent is most needed and is most often ostracized.
Certainly a malcontent can be an irritant and even disruptive; their often use of mockery, parody, sarcasm and the lampooning of the way things are can make those wrapped in the warmth of conformism feel disrespected and uncomfortable. However, when the malcontent is determined and not easily swayed by the need to be popular or wounded by the rebuke of others, ultimately the issues will be exposed and only then can change have a chance. And without change there is no chance.
And the Moral of the Story …
If you are in a position of power and authority, there is no doubt that a malcontent can be a troublesome irritant. That is, unless you are yourself a congenital malcontent. In a world that naturally seeks the comfort of conformity and the serenity of the status quo, the malcontent is, for most, an annoying intruder. The malcontent’s incessant questioning and challenging of the way things are creates discomfort for those who are uncomfortable with change. Innovation, creativity and change for the better never emerges from satisfaction with the way things are, but only when one becomes uncomfortable with the way things are, and seek to make them better; that is the role and true value of the malcontent.
So, if someone ever saddles you with the moniker of being a malcontent – be proud. They just paid you a compliment.