The Challenge of the 20%

“One fifth of people are against everything all the time.”

-Robert Kennedy

I was reading somewhere that communities evolve away from reason to affirmation. In the initial stages of community formation, there are many elements that serve as a kernel that the community can form around. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a person. Sometimes it is an activity or process. In the beginning, there is a choice. You want to be part of the community for some reason.

But, at some point, the community itself becomes the draw. If you think of the lifecycle of churches, for instance, it may initially serve as a gathering place of a town, drawn together by the ideas of the religion. But, at some point, the ideas of the religion becomes less important than the community that has formed around those ideas. Then, this serves as the focal point for joining the group. It’s no longer a means of serving some other reason beyond the group itself. The community becomes the reason, and when that transition happens, what is important is affirmation. You pledge allegiance to the community in exchange for the benefits of the community. There may still be a kernel. Key people that run or support the church and enable its continuation. But, they are no longer central to why people join.

Communities can continue long after they are viable. Or, they can transform further, into something that bears little resemblance to their original shape. Eventually, it will reach a point that it needs to be revitalized, to either return to its roots or find new development pathways. You see this in major movements like the Reformation in response to the decadence of the Catholic Church during feudal times, and it’s inability to adapt to the changes of the world around it.

Some don’t have meaningful pathways for renewal. Their purpose has been served and members of the community fade away, to drift off to join other communities and lend their vitality to them.

When I think about this process, I think about the value that the 20% play, the people that are against everything, particularly the community itself. In A Rebel Without a Cause, it’s interesting to think about this dynamic. On one level, a motorcycle club or gang is another type of community, one that undermines existing social structures. But, in another way of looking at it, they are calls for revitalization, the first signs that a community has entered on the pathway toward stagnation.

I think it is this dissatisfied 20% that plays an important role as first mover, that highlights the problems in the communities they are absorbing members from and create reactions that lead to revitalization. Or, they can affirm the health of the existing system, who can marginalize and maintain community cohesion in the face of the chaotic forces this group can bring to bear.

But, in some ways, the 20%, even when they have their own communities, will always be outside them. They are against everything, even on some level the communities they are part of. They play a valuable function for the other 80%. However, it’s a more difficult way of being in the world.