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The Gadfly

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A fly with the head of Gandhi

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the gadfly is a fly that bites livestock, especially a horsefly, warble fly, or botfly. The gadfly's annoying behaviour has given its name to a person who provokes others, often by persistent and irritating criticism. This article looks at the human variety of this often-maligned creature.

Pest or Hero

The term 'gadfly' is usually pejorative and is often bestowed by organizations or persons who are on the receiving end of the gadfly's attentions. It implies that the gadfly is an intellectual lightweight whose only intent is to annoy, thereby gaining attention for himself. The gadfly, however, looks upon himself as a social critic, bringing to light certain unpleasant facts and, with luck, improving the human condition.

Being a gadfly is generally a thankless task. People with something to hide will go to almost any length to discredit one who brings their behaviour to light. Indeed, the gadfly has much in common with the whistleblower, who publicises corporate or governmental wrongdoing, and who occasionally finds his life in danger because he runs afoul of some powerful individuals. Even those who aren't being criticised can tire of the constant stream of complaints and sometimes wish that the gadfly would just accept life as it is and get on with it. The one thing that keeps the gadfly on task is the knowledge that he is right and that the world would be a much better place if everyone else realised it.

In fact, he performs a useful function. Like the horsefly and others that plague livestock, the human gadfly pricks and stings the conscience of a society. If he keeps at it, society will react in some fashion. It may just swish its tail to drive off the gadfly, but every once in a while, it may shift itself and so correct something that it hadn't even realised was wrong.

Famous Gadflies

History is full of examples of gadflies, many of whom came to a bad end.

Socrates declared himself to be one before drinking his hemlock, proud of his role as a critic of the political leaders of Athens. He went so far as to refuse the assistance of friends who were prepared to help him escape from prison, choosing instead to accept his death sentence. This marked the beginning, and nearly the end, of civil disobedience.

Civil disobedience was an effective tool for Mohandas Gandhi, through whose efforts India achieved nationhood. His philosophy of non-violent protest inspired other political leaders, among them Martin Luther King Jr, who helped lead the campaign for racial equality in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

Joan of Arc antagonised officials of the Roman Catholic Church with her insistence that the voices she heard came from God. Nowadays such people are hospitalised and treated with psychotropic drugs, but back then they just burned them at the stake. Later on the Church thought better of its actions and declared Joan a saint.

Oscar Wilde was something of a gadfly, in that he had an apt comment for just about everything. Many writers and other artists are viewed as such by their societies, their works banned and themselves imprisoned. One example is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a history and memoir of the Soviet Union's prison camp system. A more-recent example is British writer Salman Rushdie, whose 1999 book The Satanic Verses so enraged Islamic clerics that the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death.

You wouldn't think anyone could find music objectionable, but composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich found their works officially disapproved of or even banned by the Communist authorities. Shostakovich was forced to work as a hack, producing music that celebrated properly heroic subjects, but even so he got something of his own back. One such composition is The Gadfly, which celebrates the feats of an early-19th-Century freedom fighter whose activities 'stung' the authorities1

There are numerous examples of gadflies in literature. Two such are Don Quixote, from the work of the same name by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and Ignatius J Reilly, the hero of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. While many today see the Don as a someone who was fed up with the modern world, in Cervantes' original text he was in fact a crazed old loon who thought that he had been transported into the past and the age of chivalry. Nonetheless, from Don Quixote we get the word 'quixotic' and the phrase 'tilting at windmills', both of which fit the gadfly to a T.

By way of contrast, Theodore Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, wrote a manifesto criticising the roles of science and technology in western society, but he cannot be considered a gadfly. Why? Kaczynski's protests took the form of sending bombs to those he disapproved of, injuring many and killing three of his victims2. The gadfly, on the other hand, knows that you don't improve society by harming people, and he confines himself to less-destructive activities.

Quotes from Gadflies

  • 'Oh, to be able to be a gadfly!' --Terry Gilliam

  • 'Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.' -- Abbie Hoffman

  • 'Life in Lubbock, Texas, taught me two things: One is that God loves you and you're going to burn in hell. The other is that sex is the most awful, filthy thing on earth and you should save it for someone you love.' -- Butch Hancock

  • 'When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.' -- Jonathan Swift

How to Become a Gadfly

Clearly being a gadfly is not for the faint of heart. Should you still aspire to be one, here are some tips:

  • Pick a cause that you're passionate about, and ride that horse for all you're worth.

  • Start small. Your cause may be an item of earth-shaking significance or something utterly obscure, but you're more likely to get attention, and risk serious consequences, if your views push people's buttons. So be content with small victories in the beginning and work up from there.

  • Share your views. Write letters to the editors of newspapers and to your elected officials. Create a Web site, or visit one of the existing 'gadfly' sites to talk with like-minded persons.

  • Be prepared to swim against the current.

  • Take heart from all the gadflies who have gone before. Know that you're part of a proud tradition.

1Music from The Gadfly was used as the theme for the TV series 'Reilly, Ace of Spies'.2In 1998, Kaczynski was sentenced to four lifetime prison sentences without parole for his activities.

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