From the Bastille to Berkeley: A Complex History of 'Provocateurs'

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Protesters toppled a mobile spotlight and set it on fire during a demonstration against the scheduled appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley on Feb. 1, 2017. The event was canceled after demonstrators removed police barricades and occupied Sproul Plaza. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

UC Berkeley has become a prime target in what linguist Geoff Nunberg calls a “provocation cycle.”

It began heating up again when Milo Yiannopoulos proclaimed that he's returning to the campus, and possibly bringing Steve Bannon and Ann Coulter with him. All three seem to delight in offending and provoking the political left, which  has led countless reporters and commentators to call them "provocateurs."

Being labeled a provocateur is far from a bad thing in this age of outrage. It’s a quick way to earn some time on TV and pad the bank account with speaking fees and book deals.

Like a lot of words imported from French, it's got a certain panache, or cachet. Words like entrepreneur, raconteur, restaurateur and connoisseur all sound a lot more distinguished than their English counterparts: middleman, storyteller, restaurant owner and expert.

Provocateur is certainly sexier than provocator. Yes, that’s a word too, but hardly anyone uses it anymore. Katherine Connor Martin, head of US dictionaries at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), did a scan of texts and found that provocateur is about 100 times more common than provocator.

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Nunberg, who teaches at UC Berkeley, became interested in the term when speakers like Yiannopoulos began coming to campus earlier this year. He said it first appeared around the time of the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century.

Back then, the full term was “agent provocateur.” It referred to people the police or army would hire and send to infiltrate activist groups. The agent provocateurs would incite the activists to commit violence, which would create a pretext for authorities to crack down and arrest people.

Throughout history, agent provocateurs have most often infiltrated groups on the left end of the political spectrum. Nunberg said "the history of provocateur is largely written in the history of the European left.” The classic literary example is the agent hired to blow up an observatory in Joseph Conrad’s aptly titled novel, "The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale."

Agent provocateurs went to work in the United States as well. According to Martin from the OED, the first documented use of “agent provocateur” in an English text was in 1831. Over the decades it was shortened to just “provocateur.” Here’s a prime example from "They Call Me Carpenter," a book written by Upton Sinclair in 1922: “The poor devils who went on strike were locked out of the factories ... and their policies bedeviled by provocateurs.”

Leftists, as you might imagine, did not love agent provocateurs. Around the time that Sinclair was writing, the term had become a nasty slur among people like anarchist Emma Goldman. “Emma Goldman says it's the worst word there is, worse even than a traitor and/or spy,” Nunberg said.

Over the decades, sentiment around the word slowly changed, evolving from negative to positive. By the 1980s, provocateur had become a term of praise for those who provoked like-minded people to reconsider their assumptions.

The paradigmatic provocateur of the 1980s, according to Nunberg, was the essayist Christopher Hitchens. “He drove people crazy,” Nunberg said, “but the people he drove crazy were people of his own tribe, so to speak.”

Since the '80s we have begun to retroactively apply the term to people in the past, mainly writers. The label has been given as a mark of distinction to the likes of Dr. Seuss, D.H. Lawrence and George Orwell. It is particularly ironic to herald Orwell as a provocateur. In his lifetime, Soviet newspapers used that exact word to slander him for how he depicted them in "Animal Farm."

In recent years, the term has shifted yet again. Now, you no longer have to provoke your own tribe, or really anyone, to think. “It's used for anybody who flouts public opinion or tries to kindle a sense of indignation or outrage," Nunberg said,

Political provocateurs have been in the news lately, but the term applies to all sorts of people across the culture. There are "pop provocateurs," “punk provocateurs,” “rock provocateurs,” “fashion provocateurs” and “cultural provocateurs.” After “agent provocateur,”  pop, punk, rock, fashion and cultural are the most common words paired with provocateur, according to Martin with the OED.

You see the word provocateur appended to the names of everyone from NBA commentator Charles Barkley to singer Miley Cyrus. Not to mention President Trump and, in another twist of irony, Meryl Streep, who earned the label for calling out the president.

In the realm of politics, or rather the kind of “political” commentary that dominates 24-hour news, provocation has become a full-time career. Nunberg said, “Ann Coulter makes a tidy living saying things calculated to outrage the left for the delectation of the right.”

To be a provocateur you need people who get provoked, which has been no problem at UC Berkeley. When  Yiannopoulos last tried to speak at the campus, protesters came out in opposition to his racist, misogynistic and anti-transgender rhetoric.

Nunberg said those who come to protest in a way that gets media attention, particularly the more aggressive anti-fascist groups, help bring the spotlight that the Yiannopouloses and Coulters of the world crave. “In the larger picture of things they round the provocation cycle,” Nunberg said. “You want provocation, we will be provoked.”

The media also play a key part in the provocation cycle, by continuing to cover the reactions to these provocateurs. Because of our current political climate, Nunberg said, we probably won't stop hearing the word “provocateur” anytime soon.