Bookshelf: The Center Cannot Hold

Can fringe activists create change—before the mainstream swallows them whole?

By Lauren F. Friedman, published September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

 Book Cover - Republic of Outsiders
What do renegade musicians, animal rights lawyers, transgender feminists, and the makers of Beasts of the Southern Wild have in common? Republic of Outsiders author Alissa Quart argues that they all share outsider status, working slowly and imperceptibly to pull the mainstream in their direction. Quart astutely identifies a cultural phenomenon that includes everyone from songwriter Jill Sobule to antiestablishment schizophrenics, and her careful reporting and vividly rendered characters make the book a vital,  engaging read.

“Today, many acts of rebellion have become extremely elaborate negotiations with commercial culture,” Quart acknowledges, articulating a central tension of her thesis: Push and pull though they might, can outsiders instigate change without being co-opted by insiders?

Some of the outsiders she documents wholeheartedly reject the mainstream. Mad Pride is a grassroots network of people with serious mental health conditions—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder—who refuse the conventional characterization of their diagnoses, recast their illnesses as strengths, and aim to supplant psychiatric care with peer support—an example of what Quart calls “self-sufficient amateurism.” Yet people tend to turn to such radical alternatives when in crisis,  happily circling back to mainstream care if they stabilize. So while a core group of Mad Priders remains committed and uncompromising, they’re left without a strong network to build and popularize their vision.

The neurodiversity activists are a more successful outsider group fighting the constraints of a diagnosis. They include heavyweights like Temple Grandin and rack up significant victories, like convincing the NYU Child Study Center to pull ads that “falsely represented autism as purely monstrous.” And gender nonconformers—trans feminists especially—have been effective in their agitation, successfully pushing the majority of Fortune 500 companies to include gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies (up from just 3 percent of companies 10 years ago).

Republic of Outsiders also offers a thoughtful examination of the animal rights movement, which has clearly made mainstream inroads (witness the vegan patties available at Denny’s), even as—or perhaps because—its old-school hard-liners refuse to rest until meat is no longer on the menu.

While it’s impossible to guess which of these outsider groups will be as successful as erstwhile radicals like abolitionists, suffragettes, and AIDS activists, it’s a fair bet that at least some of them represent the future of the mainstream.

Heretics’ Handbook

If you haven’t heard these terms, the outsiders aren’t doing their job.

Mad Pride

Mental health patients advocating for autonomy and peer support

Gender Fluidity

A reconceptualization of sex and gender as a continuum

Neurodiversity

Autism is a valuable difference, not a deficiency