Don’t get anxious, get thinking.

When you read the title of this little piece what were your first thoughts. Were they positive or negative? Did you want to read on or not? Did it make you feel anxious?

Provocation has always had a mixed press but it seems to me that there is more negativity and perhaps more difficulty in delivering it now than ever before. It seems to me that people increasingly take provocation as a criticism or personal challenge. Perhaps they simply don’t know how to respond to it. Did they miss something or make a mistake?

For someone who has a reputation for being provocative, challenging, difficult – take your pick, it worries me because the world needs provocation more than ever.

We live in a world where ‘best practice’ has become common practice, where business as usual is usually adopted. We need to challenge our perceptions; to think differently, to question the norm, to find new perspectives if we are going to improve and develop.

However in a world of wider social awareness and increased sensitivities’ particularly amongst some of the younger generation, provocation is often seen as unwelcome, unduly argumentative or simply disruptive. The challenges aren’t always considered but simply ignored or rejected.

Provocation also brings with it the danger of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or at least of being accused of saying the wrong thing. This can be intentional or unintentional but in a time of increased scrutiny  the danger of offence being taken seems to be growing.  As writer Christopher Hitchens said in his trademark provocative tone of voice “Those who are determined to be ‘offended’ will discover a provocation somewhere. We cannot possibly adjust enough to please the fanatics, and it is degrading to make the attempt.”

Perhaps the term itself is partly to blame as while it has a number of definitions, the most common is “an action or statement that is intended to make someone angry”, which perfectly fits the negativity around the concept. It is interesting to me that the expected intention is to provoke anger. (Not that anger can’t be a force for good in some instances – a provocative thought which could be explored in separate piece.)

For me provocation has always had a wider meaning – “an action or statement intended to stimulate a response.”

However  I’m happy to say that if you dig a bit deeper into definitions and discussions on provocation you will find that a number of writers suggest three types of provocation:

Unintentional or incidental provocation.

Intentional, but well-meaning provocation.

Malevolently-intentioned provocation.

It is this second level of provocation that I’m drawn to as I would advocate something that provokes, arouses, or stimulates. Something that is thought-provoking not anger generating.

This category includes the positive aspects of challenging people to look beyond their existing (and potentially limiting) worldviews and biases (their own echo chambers) and playing devil’s advocate (even if just to push the thinking).

To summarise, and indeed paraphrase Frank Zappa “Without deviation from the norm, progress isn’t possible…and without provocation, inertia can be endemic.”

By: Giles Lury

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