SEP Blog Battle: Positive Deviance

March 27, 2013

Deviant – that’s a bad thing, right?  I mean, that’s the common connotation.  A deviant is someone who swerves off the beaten path and is usually frowned upon for it.  Criminal behavior is considered to be deviant.  Deviants have a stigma.  They are different.  They are frowned upon… UNTIL the context changes.  Social context strongly defines what is considered deviant. This is key.  For instance, in some cultures women can’t walk around with uncovered hair.  In others, it is considered perfectly acceptable.  And when the social context changes and evolves, deviant actions can be reinterpreted, and yesterday’s deviant can become today’s hero.

Don’t buy it?  Time for examples!  Consider Rosa Parks and her deviant behavior – she didn’t do what she was told to do and was arrested as a criminal.  Now, our society sees her as a brave woman who did the right thing standing up for her rights.  She is a ‘Positive Deviant’.  The context has changed.  Laws changed, attitudes evolved.  Some, like Henry David Thoreau, would even argue that ‘Civil Disobedience’ is our moral obligation and responsibility.  (Of course, he was arrested for not paying his taxes.)

We are, without a doubt, living in a world of changing context.  How people live and work has been reshaped more in my lifetime than it was in the Industrial Revolution.  People will look back on this time in history with fascination because the world has gotten so much smaller, so much more diverse.  The Internet has changed the world forever.  We have the whole of human knowledge essentially at our fingertips.  We can solve more complex problems, we can create more conveniences, we can look at more pictures of cats, and this is so exciting to me.  I work in an industry that is enabling huge advances in medicine and agriculture and aerospace – and affecting social changes as well.

The internet has empowered the ‘Positive Deviants’ of this age to influence how our society works.  My favorite example of this is George Takei.  Maybe this is a silly example, but I think he is awesome.  He’s an openly gay man, and that was once considered a deviant behavior.  Now his particular brand of humor and satire is reaching a global audience, and it is redefining the way society views the LGBT community.  Gay marriage is recognized in several states.  Internet campaigns against bullying have exploded in popularity.  Support has poured out for Gay Rights, and even the President has come around.  Whether or not you agree with the politics of it, you’ve got to admit, our context is definitely changing.

So, is being a deviant such a bad thing?  I guess that depends on your context.  While I don’t advise pulling a Thoreau and not paying your taxes, I think there is room for more ‘Positive Deviants’ in this industry.  Like Thoreau, I believe I have a moral obligation and responsibility to constantly question my context, and as a Software Engineer, I have the tools to change it.