Traditionally speaking, iconoclasts were not held in high regard. Instead, they were seen as problematic and as a threat to social order. In fact, the term “iconoclast”, usually appears alongside words such as “heretic,”or “radical”—two terms that tend to be used in an accusatory rather than a celebratory manner, even in the 21st century.
So why have we invited a bunch of heretics to speak at our conference this week? Well, for starters, we would like to think that as a society, we have moved beyond negative notions of what it means to think outside the box and to challenge tradition. Ours is a culture that embraces new ideas as pathways into a better world—at least we hope.
The role of the iconoclast is essential for progress. They are the ones who not only recognize the ways in which the world needs to change, but who take it upon themselves to share these realizations. This is, in essence, why TED talks are so important: they plant influential ideas in our minds to grow and lead to positive change.
The ideas are the easy part. The change itself? Not so much. What’s interesting to me is that although social order has essentially been constructed through an evolution of different ideas about the world, the ability to go back and reevaluate how things are done as opposed to how they should be done is incredibly difficult. The simple fact of the matter is that people are uncomfortable with anything that deviates from the norm, no matter its potential for positive outcomes.
Take Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s gender-balanced cabinet for example. There is finally a general acceptance that a woman’s sole purpose in life is not to cater to her husband and children. To suggest such a thing would have been considered outrageous at one time, kind of like how a gender-balanced cabinet suddenly revealed concerns over meritocracy. That is, Trudeau’s decision to have women make up one half of the cabinet immediately called into question the Liberal party’s ability to properly run the country. Trudeau promptly responded to this by reminding people that it was 2015, thus signifying that it is high time we start moving past our own prejudices surrounding gender. The decision may be considered radical to some, but it has the power to change how people perceive the importance of equal representation on Parliament Hill. Just give it a few years. One day, having a gender-balanced cabinet may turn about as many heads as women heading to the polls or working outside of the house does (not many).
In writing about iconoclasts, I also want to mention one of my favourites: Nina Simone. She broke through barriers of race, gender and music–in every sense falling outside of expectations that were set in place for her. Born in North Carolina in 1933, Nina was trained as a classical pianist, yet her musical ambitions were often restricted due to the colour of her skin. Despite this, she successfully carved out an important space for herself in the music industry. It was during the Civil Rights movement that she started writing and performing music that directly addressed the discrimination and pain brought upon African Americans due to the long history of slavery, segregation and continued racism. She dared to say what many would not, pushing the envelope with songs like “Mississippi Goddamn,” even when it threatened her career. She demanded the respect that was denied to her in other facets of her life during her performances, when she would stop playing and call out people who were not paying her their undivided attention. When I first heard her song, “Ain’t Got No-I Got Life,” I was moved to tears even though I have never personally experienced racial discrimination. That is exactly why her contributions were and continue to be so important: She helped people to realize how heinous and damaging the treatment of African Americans was and why change was necessary. She was a voice in a movement that sought to challenge the status quo and the unfair treatment of human beings.
Change starts with ideas about how we can improve the world around us and it perpetuates when people actively challenge the confines of existing beliefs. Fortunately, people tend to be more open-minded about new ways of thinking in comparison to days of old. By this point in history, there is a general consensus that although change can be uncomfortable and uncertain, it plays an important role in growth. Oftentimes, the first step in that journey is sparked by an unwavering voice that aims to guide us past our own assumptions and views that no longer fit the world we live in. This is a demanding and even dangerous task, but it plays a critical part in helping humankind to find a better way of doing things. That is why it is important to encourage these voices it even if changing the way we think and do seems daunting. One day our present way of doing things will seem very strange to those who come after us, just as we question and condemn the beliefs and practices of those who came before us. We, at the very least, are willing to acknowledge that there is a world of possibility that extends beyond what we already know and that’s what an iconoclast has the power to show us.