Saturday, March 8, 2014

Contrarianism, Its Pleasures and Perils (2)

This is the second part of a series on contrarianism that I started writing without intending it to be more than one post. I discovered I had even more to say about it than I thought I would.

In this post I want to deal more specifically with the objections to contrarianism.

One of the most obvious objections to contrarianism is that contrarians can't be taken seriously, since they simply say the opposite to what everybody else is saying. If everyone else says red, they'll say blue. (I would have used black and white, except...)

This is expressed well in this very funny passage from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

I described to him an impudent fellow from Scotland, who affected to be a savage, and railed at all established systems. Johnson: "There is nothing surprizing in this, Sir. He wants to make himself conspicuous. He would tumble in a hogstye, as long as you looked at him and called to him to come out. But let him alone, never mind him, and he'll soon give it over."

(I find so many things about this passage hilarious, most especially the language which the passage of time has made seem so stiff. "An impudent fellow from Scotland"..."affected to be a savage"...but, best of all, "railed against all established systems". Brilliant.)

Are contrarians attention-seekers? Undoubtedly, in many cases. I will even admit that my own contrarianism has been an attention-seeking device, quite frequently (mostly when I was younger). But more often than not, it hasn't been. (Rather ironically, Johnson himself was a notorious contrarian: "He appeared to have a pleasure in contradiction, especially when any opinion whatever was delivered with an air of confidence; so that there was hardly any topick, if not one of the great truths of Religion and Morality, that he might not have been incited to argue, either for or against.")

One notorious contrarian who I think might be vulnerable to this charge is Kevin Myers, the Irish newspper columnist. He's certainly a talented writer who has many important things to say and who is courageous in his willingness to say things that have become almost unsayable. His bashing of the Equality Authority has to be cheered by any sane person. (What's wrong with an equality watchdog? Nothing, if its purpose is to protect old people against being discriminated against in job applications, or similar reasonable goals. But if it's actually a lobbying group for a radical social agenda, it's sinister.)

But Myers seems to go in for being outrageous for the sake of it. For instance, in an article attacking the criminilization of Holocaust denial (something I tend to agree with him on, despicable as I consider Holocaust deniers to be), he writes:

Moreover, there certainly was no holocaust. For if the word is to have any literal validity at all, it must be related to its actual meaning, which comes from the Greek words holos, 'whole', and caust, 'fire'. Most Jewish victims of the Third Reich were not burnt in the ovens in Auschwitz. They were shot by the hundreds of thousands in the Lebensraum of the east, or were worked or starved to death in a hundred other camps, across the Reich.

This is just silly quibbling, and bad taste to boot. (Myers is committing the etymological fallacy.) It reminds me of the argument of Noam Chomsky (or was it John Pilger?) that Israel was an antisemitic state as the Palestinians are Semites. I also think that, although Myers is basically right in his argument, the subject is so sensitive that contrarianism is not an excuse for not treading more softly.

I don't want to get sidetracked into a discussion of Kevin Myers. I'm not bashing him at all. But I did stop reading his column for this very reason; that I felt he was being contrarian for the sake of it, just to be controversial. (Not all the time. I know he has subjects about which he feels very strongly, such as the murder campaign of the IRA, and upon which he is as serious-minded as he could possibly be. But too often he seems to be simply twitching the nose of liberals and progressives, or sometimes Catholics or other groups, and it becomes tiresome.)

So can you be contrarian and serious-minded? Contrarian and sincere? I think you can.

You can be contrarian and serious-minded if your contrarianism is not based simply upon a desire to provoke but upon some deeper principle; a desire for fair-mindedness (and I should mention here that I think Kevin Myers also possesses this trait), or a perception of a particular widespread tendency at work in contemporary society that should be checked, or (to go even deeper) a perception of a particular tendency in the human spirit that should be checked. A good example is G.K. Chesterton's constant reiteration of the need for gratitude and wonder, and his acute awareness that mankind was always in danger of forgetting this and needed to be constantly reminded.

Ultimately, of course, we can go as deep as Socrates playing the gadfly to the people of Athens, stinging them to re-examine their concepts and go the heart of the philosophical matter. Socrates is probably the most famous contrarian in history. And yet Socrates was not simply being oppositional for the sake of it, but guiding the Athenians in a particular direction.

The idea that a philosopher should be a "gadfly" is an idea that has percolated down through the ages, but not all philosophers are happy with this. I read one philosophy lecturer complaining about the attitude, widespread amongst some undergraduates, that everything a lecturer said should be challenged. The philosophy professor simply denied that serious philosophy could be done in such an atmosphere, and I agree with him. You simply can't have a serious discussion if everything is challenged all the time, anymore than you can dance if someone keeps kicking your feet from under you. This is why I think contrarianism should have limits.

To move to the subject of religion for a moment, I also think that this consideration is relevant to the question of dogma. You can't have a serious discussion about Catholic theology until you first agree upon the validity of dogma and the infallibility of the Magisterium. At least, you can't have a discussion that's actually going to go anywhere. This is why arguing with dissidents is so frustrating. It's like playing football with someone who doesn't agree upon the rules beforehand.

So much to say about contrarianism. I will return to the subject soon.

1 comment:

  1. Ha ha Yes, I don't like when people act a certain way just to be different. I suppose we all do it to some extent though. Good post Maolsheachlann.