The Defeat of Indifference: Why We Overlook The Enduring Power of Provocation At Our Peril

“Indifference is the strongest force in the universe. It makes everything it touches meaningless. Love and hate don't stand a chance against it.”

Joan Vinge

Reclaiming the power of provocation

Amidst the talk of utility, community, value exchange, sharing, collaborating, disseminating, participating could we possibly be overlooking the power and importance of provocation?

In the days when we only (or at least mostly) thought about TV advertising we were accustomed to worrying about breaking through the ‘clutter’. Which basically meant other TV ads.

Well if we think we had it bad back then, things are now exponentially worse. The entire world - all its meanderings and frivolities, obessions and fixes, usefulness and distractions, rants and confessions.... All of it is now uploaded onto the interweb.

Not only that. But we’re expecting people to do things. Comment, rate, co-create, collaborate, forward, share, and so on.

Indifference - what I think Stephen Pinker referred to as the anaesthetic of the familiar - is our enemy. The bland, the safe, the unadventurous, the stuff that is afraid to divide people, that doesn’t take a position and offers no point of view has no hope of encouraging people to come in and play.

If we want people to respond, and to respond actively - if we want people to participate, share, collaborate, and even advocate then it seems obvious that we’re going to need some appropriately powerful stimulus for action and behaviour.

Which is why provocation is a fundamental necessity.

It is no accident that the word is derived from the word Latin provocare. Pro meaning ‘forth’ and vocare meaning ‘to call’. Provocation is a calling forth. In law, provocation is defined as the act of inciting another to do something. Provocation brings people out - and in. It disrupts, dares, intrigues, seduces, invites, challenges, and involves. It starts a conversation. Ignites interaction.

Encountering something like this, it is almost impossible not to become involved, and in our own minds at least, not to start to talk back - “What do you means it’s not a pipe. I can see it’s a pipe....”:


The many flavours of provocation

Provocation of course can come in many different flavours and guises.

We are accustomed to think of provocation in the context of sex and violence.

As something aggressive, predatory, offensive or anti-social:


Or even more narrowly, as being about sexual display and availability:


But it can be more than this. Provocation can be vigorous. It can start an argument, pick a fight. It can dare and challenge us:

Lapper 3

Provocation can be witty, charming, coy, blunt, playful, challenging, intelligent, questioning, encouraging... It need not involve offending anybody’s sensibilities. It need not shock, appall, or offend.

Provocation doesn’t have to be a punch in the face. In fact there's good evidence that negative reactions get actively screened out. So the need for provocation comes with a caution. There’s a difference between provoking and delighting and just disgusting or pissing off.

Finally, provocation is not limited to one-way messaging. It’s not just about ‘disrupting’. It works in participative contexts. It can call forth actual behaviour, not just a cognitive response:

Do not press2

The elimination of neutrality

Whatever its manifestation and flavour, provocation always ensures that one way or another there are no bystanders. Whether we are for or against, leaning in or leaning back, provocation ensures that no-one abstains.

Whatever illusions we might once have laboured under, the truth of the matter is that we were never in the message business. We are and always have been in the response business. Our palette of stimuli is now more varied than ever before. But it is still responses we are after. In the battle against indifference, we still must devise new and inventive ways of calling people forth.

Show me a piece of banal, unremarkable mediocrity, and I’ll show you someone who was afraid of eliciting a real response. Who lacked the courage of their convictions. Or worse, had no convictions. Who wished people would simply and quietly absorb a message, rather than be called forth into vigorous and heart-felt response. And who above all was afraid that someone might take issue.

Just sayin'.


Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen