Thursday, March 6, 2014

Contrarianism, its Pleasures and Perils (1)

Contrarianism, it seems to me, is an important and deep topic, and I've long intended to write something about it.

As one might expect from my being drawn to the subject in the first place, I am a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian. I have always been a contrarian, at least as far back as I can remember. I've always been drawn to ideas (and causes, and institutions, and works of art) that are unpopular, or neglected, or even derided.

Of course, we are all contrarians to some degree. Everybody tends to warm to an underdog, to kick against convention, to enjoy startling other people and confounding expectations, and so forth. It's a deeply human characteristic, and explains why writers like Aldous Huxley strike such a chord with books like Brave New World.

On the other hand, we are all conformists much more than we are contrarians. (I suspect that's a very good thing.) Even the most outrageous misfit is mostly a conformist. We send birthday cards, respect the dead, shake hands, wear clothes, nod our heads to say 'yes' and shake our heads to say 'no', eschew casual violence, forbear from lying down on the street, use money, brush our hair, avoid staring at other people, and follow the norm in a million other ways, too numerous to count. This is especially striking when we read about punk rockers or bohemian artists or visionary business leaders or famous eccentrics, and feel surprised (or at least, I feel surprised) to learn that they watch Coronation Street or play golf, or have corn flakes for breakfast. The real surprise is how normal most people are. Outside of a mental institution, even the weirdest person you know does many more ordinary things than strange things.

So really, the only difference between a contrarian and a conformist is that a contrarian is a tiny bit less of a conformist, and a tiny bit more of a contrarian.

Contarianism takes different forms. I think an important distinction is the distinction between contrarianism of belief and contrarianism of behaviour.

Somebody who decides to walk around in the street in a bathrobe is not really putting forward a proposition, or a theory, except perhaps the implied theory that it's a good idea to walk around in the street wearing a bathrobe. His action could be interpreted in a hundred different ways, and we could react to it by rolling our eyes or by smiling or by ignoring him.

On the other hand, the contrarianism of belief is making a definite claim about the way things are, or the way things should be, that is open to argument and denial. I suppose this kind of contrarianism is more vulnerable to attack than the contrarianism of behaviour because there is usually a good reason that a mainstream view about any matter of fact exists. Most people believe that smoking is bad for you because all the evidence seems to point that way.

Of course, we are on less solid ground when we go from matters of scientific of historical fact to questions of ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, politics, and so forth. The proposition, for instance, that selfishness is good is an unpopular one but it doesn't seem as easily dismissed as the proposition that smoking isn't bad for you. It also seems to be a common belief these days that there is not necessarily any objective truth when it comes to matters ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, or spiritual. This is what Catholics often (and rightly) attack as "the dictatorship of relativism", although I think that we sometimes conflate two different claims-- the one claim that there is no objective truth in these matters, and the other claim that there is an objective truth but that it's unknowable and unprovable, or that it's the sort of truth that every man and woman must adjudicate on (not choose) for him or herself.

Sometimes it's hard to say that a belief really is a claim about "how things are". Let's take the example of optimism and pessimism. If a man says he is an optimist, will he be universally understood as making a claim about how things are? Is he necessarily saying that life is beautiful and that the world is a wonderful place? Possibly, but he might also be making a statement about his own temperament, regardless of what the world is like. Or he might be making a claim that it's better for humans to be optimistic for the psychological or practical benefits.

I don't think there can be any absolute distinction between the contrarianism of behaviour and the contrarianism of belief. Most behaviour implies some belief, and most belief can be interpreted as a form of behaviour, or a call to action-- for instance, the belief of an optimist or a pessimist.

As well as this, something that should be borne in mind when we think about contrarianism is that not every theory of "how things are" aspires to be universal or absolute. Very often we have a theory that only applies to a particular moment or a particular situation. For instance, a contrarian might decide to stop watching television completely, not because he thinks that television is necessarily a bad thing or that everybody should stop watching it, but merely as a gesture, a protest, a perception that television is, as things stand, too embedded in our lives. He hopes that his counter-example will be a healthy tonic. This is an instance of both the contrarianism of belief and the contrarianism of behaviour.

The reader may think I am making heavy weather of these preliminaries, but I am trying to anticipate the strongest objection to contrarianism-- that is, that an argument, or a custom, or a sensibility, or anything else that a contrarian might want to challenge, is no more likely to be wrong or bad or stupid because it is popular. The question of its popularity is irrelevant, the anti-contrarian says; the question is whether it's true, or good, or wise. Address that, the anti-contrarian says, in exasperation.

But all truth is not of the order, "Is there more or less than five pounds in my pocket?", or "Is Helsinki the capital of Iceland?". Some truths are a matter of degree. "Are the sexes different?" "Were the Victorians narrow-minded?". "Does man need variety in his life?". "Is competition good?". "Is pleasure good?" Obviously, these questions would be hard to answer, in any satisfying sense, with a "yes" or a "no". For instance, competition is a good thing, but some cultures might have too much of this truth and some cultures too little.

And this is where the contrarian comes in-- not necessarily opposing the majority just for the sake of it, or as an expression of his contrarianism. A contrarian might be opposing the majority view because it is the majority view, and also happen to be right. In fact, he might be right because he is opposing the majority view-- because he is a corrective, or a tonic, or an antidote.

Well, I've only taken my coat off to this topic, and this post is already a long one. I think I will have to make this a series. (There is actually very little written about contrarianism. Don't take my word for it, have a look for yourself. And surely it is a topic deserving of some attention.)


  1. This promises to be a fascinating series.

  2. Maolsheachlann,
    When I first saw the title I expected this to be one of those things that just flies right over my head, but you did a good job of explaining it and even making the topic slightly humorous. Good one.