Quote Investigator

Every Society Honors Its Live Conformists, and Its Dead Troublemakers

Mignon McLaughlin? Marshall McLuhan? Wayne Dyer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: History books laud unconventional thinkers and eccentric characters who faced hardships during their lifetimes. An adage expressing this notion has been credited to magazine editor Mignon McLaughlin and media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Here are two versions:

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Neurotic’s Notebook” by Mignon McLaughlin in 1963. The compendium contained quips, adages, and observations such as the following three. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The works of Herman Wouk seem written by two different men: one who creates a set of characters, and another who turns on them.

Every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.

An artist usually has no friends except other artists, and usually they do not like his work.

McLaughlin worked as a writer and editor at magazines such as “The Atlantic Monthly”, “Glamour”, and “Vogue” for decades from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The attribution to Marshall McLuhan is spurious. It may have originated when someone confused the names McLaughlin and McLuhan. Alternatively, the mistake may have been catalyzed by textual proximity. Further details accompany the 2004 citation given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 a book reviewer in the “Chicago Tribune” presented a description of McLaughlin’s collection: 2

The book is subtitled “How to be anxious, hostile, and defensive while loving every miserable minute of it,” which in itself is a sound prescription for minimal mental health.

The reviewer also reprinted bon mots from the volume:

Politics, Arts, Professions: “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”

God and the Devil: “Many are saved from sin by being so inept at it.”

Getting and Spending: “We’d all like a reputation for generosity, and we’d all like to buy it cheap.”

In 1999 a book reviewer with the Gannett News Service examined “Wisdom of the Ages” by popular self-help author Wayne Dyer. The reviewer credited a slightly different version of the saying to Dyer: 3

Listening to the ideas and philosophies of great thinkers, he says, can help guide positive change, in small personal ways and on grand scales.

“Most of these people were troublemakers in their own time,” he says. “Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers. These people were passionate about their lives, and we can learn from that. It’s through changing consciousness that we’re going to change the world.”

Also in 1999 a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia published an opinion piece about free spirited students that included an instance of the saying containing the phrase “dead rebels” instead of “dead troublemakers”; the ascription was anonymous: 4

Someone once said that the world values live conformists and dead rebels. This is a problem for my friends because they are young and very much alive, and at a time in their lives when they look to the outside world for confirmation of their own worth. And they see no place for themselves.

In 2004 a message posted to the sci.econ newsgroup of the Usenet discussion system contained a series of miscellaneous quotations. A statement by Mignon McLaughlin was placed adjacent to a statement by Marshall McLuhan: 5

Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers. ~Mignon McLaughlin

American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at driver’s-license age than at voting age. ~Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964

A noted mechanism for misattribution occurs when an inattentive reader reassigns a statement within a text to a well-known name that appears nearby. In the excerpt above, McLuhan is better known than McLaughlin; hence, a reader may have incorrectly reassigned her words to McLuhan.

In 2010 an instance of the saying was tweeted with the phrase “dead rebels”; no attribution was given: 6

“Every age honours its dead rebels and living conformists”

In June 2011 a message posted to the alt.quotations newsgroup of Usenet contained three quotations. Once again, statements by McLaughlin and McLuhan were contiguous, and this provided an opportunity for a careless reader to generate a misattribution: 7

Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.
Mignon McLaughlin, editor, The Neurotic’s Notebook (1963)

“The mark of our time is its revulsion against imposed patterns.”
Marshall McLuhan, 1911-1980

“Well behaved women rarely make history”. -Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

The quotation from Ulrich listed above is slightly inaccurate. The correct version is given in the article located here.

In August 2011 a columnist in “The Tennessean” of Nashville, Tennessee presented the quotation together with some of the creator’s biographical details: 8

The other day, though, I happened to notice the Cryptoquote puzzle solution in The Tennessean sports section. The quote of the day was, “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers,” attributed to Mignon McLaughlin, a writer and editor for Redbook, Vogue, Cosmopolitan and Glamour magazines from the 1930s to the 1970s.

In February 2014 a tweet included an incorrect attribution. Only the last name was specified, but Marshall McLuhan was the most likely identity: 9

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers. –McLuhan

In June 2014 a tweet included a variant quotation and a mistaken attribution: 10

“Society honors living conformists and dead rebels” (McLuhan).

In 2016 a tweet containing the misattributed statement mentioned McLuhan’s full name: 11

“Every society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.” ~ Marshall McLuhan

In conclusion, Mignon McLaughlin should receive credit for the expression she crafted in her 1963 book. Neither Marshall McLuhan nor Wayne Dyer created this saying.

The mechanism behind the misattribution to McLuhan is uncertain. The error may have hinged on the faulty memory of an individual who replaced McLaughlin with McLuhan before sharing the quotation.

Alternatively, the error may have been caused by the misreading of a passage containing the name Marshall McLuhan near the target quotation. The Usenet posts in 2004 and 2011 shown above help to illustrate this possibility. Of course, the two posts may have nothing to do with the actual error.

Image Notes: Picture of a line of lights bulbs with one bulb illuminated from ColiN00B at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to sodaflux and Mig Greengard whose twitter exchange led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Greengard identified Mignon McLaughlin as the correct ascription and pointed to “The Neurotic’s Notebook”. Thanks also to “A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations” (1985) compiled by Bernard E. Farber which listed the saying with a citation.)


  1. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 7: Politics, Arts, Professions, Quote Page 72, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1970 July 10, Chicago Tribune, Books Today: Reviews by Clarence Petersen, (Book review of Mignon McLaughlin’s “The Neurotic’s Notebook”), Quote Page 12, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1999 November 11, The Desert Sun, New book taps wisdom of great thinkers, writers by Sue MacDonald (Gannett News Service), (Book review of Wayne Dyer’s “Wisdom of the Ages”), Quote Page D2, Column 3, Palm Springs, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1999 November 17, The Age, Section: Education: On Campus, Playing the game by Anna Rich, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Melbourne, Victoria. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 2004 July 17, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: sci.econ, From: Johnny 5 @yahoo.com, Subject: Re: Flat tax proposal. (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 26, 2018) link
  6. Tweet, From: Will Wiles @WillWiles, Time: 9:15 AM, Date: 23 Jun 2010, Text: @kieranlong @tomdyckhoff “Every age honours its dead rebels and living conformists” (Accessed on twitter.com on February 26, 2018) link
  7. 2011 June 26, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.quotations, From: ~~seadancer~~ @yahoo.com, Subject: Troublemakers. (Google Groups Search; Accessed February 26, 2018) link
  8. 2011 August 10, The Tennessean, Supplement Section: Brentwood Journal, Is suburban life the definition of conformity? It’s a puzzle by Mark Cook, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)
  9. Tweet, From: Professor Morris @Humorousources, Time: 6:43 AM, Date: 22 Feb 2014, Text: “Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers. –McLuhan (Accessed on twitter.com on February 26, 2018) link
  10. Tweet, From: Roy Smythe @willsmythemd, Time: 4:15 PM, Date: 22 Jun 2014, Text: “Society honors living conformists and dead rebels” (McLuhan). Dr. Relman was, thankfully, never a conformist. http://nyti.ms/1qAYuTX (Accessed on twitter.com on February 26, 2018) link
  11. Tweet, From: Penny M @CalliopeCo, Time: 9:58 PM, Date: 7 May 2016, Text: “Every society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.” ~ Marshall McLuhan (Accessed on twitter.com on February 26, 2018) link