Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Contrarianism, its Pleasures and Perils (3)

In this post, I will conclude my reflections upon the pleasures and perils of contrarianism.

In the second post, I concentrated mostly upon the objections to contrarianism. Now I want to sing its praises.

Having been a contrarian all my life, its benefits are so obvious to me that I pause, almost baffled, when I try to sum them up. Isn't it enough to quote the words of G.K. Chesterton: "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it?". Isn't all life a kind of contrarianism, a temporary defiance of the inertia of dead matter? Isn't all human activity a kind of contrarianism, of one kind or another? An attempt to hold back the tide of chaos, or forgetfulness, or apathy, or pain? Isn't all human life a struggle of some kind? Isn't it the case that most active human pleasures, from crosswords to rock-climbing, involve some element of resistance?

I suppose a critic might say: "Most human activities do indeed involve an element of resistance, but contrarianism involves resistance against other people, not against entropy or ignorance or abstract forces." And that is a fair point.

In this way, I suppose, the contrarian might seem anti-social, or proud, or troublesome. But I don't think that is necessarily true. Nor do I think it is necessarily true that the contrarian is acting out of selfish motives, such as a desire for attention or a desire to think himself special.

I think the contarian is just as likely to think of himself as a public benefactor; an opponent of groupthink, or of fashion, or of homogenization, or of sheer dullness. A contrarian might plume himself on making the world a more interesting place, and who is to say he is wrong? Isn't it a fact that everybody can verify from their own experience, that conversation in a group containing one or more contrarians will be much more lively than conversation in a group of head-nodders?

A contrarian, too, might think of himself as a kind of anti-body. If a particular belief is so ill-founded that nobody else holds it, the contrarian sees nothing wrong in trying to make that case just to see if it's really so poor after all. (This doesn't mean the contrarian has to be insincere. He might genuinely oppose something that is commonly held to be good-- say, democracy, or regular exercise, or egalitarianism-- or he might argue against it explicitly in the spirit of open-mindedness, without committing himself to opposing it.)

When we call someone a contrarian, the implication is that contrarianism governs their utterances-- that is, that they speak out against the common view because they are contrarians. But I think it goes deeper than that. Being a contrarian, I know it goes deeper. Contrarianism is more visceral than conscious. The contrarian (often) feels the way he does, and thinks the way he does, because he is a contrarian.

In my own case, I can say that I've always had the inclination to side with anything that I think is imperilled, outnumbered, fragile, overlooked, or otherwise crying out for defence. But it also happens that I do genuinely think that many of the best things in life are in this category. Which is cause, and which is effect? I don't know.

Here is a list of things that I have defended in the spirit of contrarianism. Some of these are things I would no longer defend. Also, the inclusion of anything on the list doesn't mean that I don't think there are solid arguments in its favour, or that contrarianism is my only or my main reason for defending it.

The Carry On movies

Cold, "horrible" weather

The seventies

Slade, the British glam-rock band



The class system (in a certain sense)

The British Empire (not anymore, though I still have an affection for many aspects of it)



Eamon De Valera's 'comely maidens' speech (in which that term is never used)



Ethnic and racial humour

Bores (as in, people who talk continually on one subject-- as opposed to people who talk vaguely about nothing in particular, which is considered to be polite conversation)

The Monarch of the Glen (painting)



Adam Sandler movies

The caw of crows

Humourlessness (as explained in this post)


Self-esteem, the building-up of in minors (something that is often dismissed as being namby-pampy)

Mull of Kintyre (song)

Paperbacks, as opposed to hardbacks

Censorship, especially the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse

Women's magazines

Single-sex clubs

Wearing pyjamas in the supermarket

Petty regulations

The poetry of Rod McKuen


Modernist churches

"Incorrect" spelling and grammar, especially on shop signs

Nepotism (to a certain degree)

American exceptionalism

And many, many more (as the ads say).

I'd like to think I'm doing a service to the world by holding these contrarian views. At least one recent reader of this blog thought so. This was a comment left on my review of the movie The Rocky Road to Dublin from several years ago:

Thank you for your very eloquent and precise review. Of course, these are YOUR personal views, and I disagree with almost all of them. However, since I have spent much of the last two days reading whatever I can find about this film, I must admit I found YOUR piece singularly contrary to the common train of thought and as such perversely refreshing.

Perversely refreshing! There you go. Can there be any higher accolade?

I'm sure I could write a lot more about contrarianism. But, for the moment, three posts is long enough.


  1. Thank you for your posts Maolsheachlann. What an interesting concept contrarianism is. It seems like the kind of term that can be highjacked by people though, but still an interesting read.

  2. I'm glad you liked it! I don't think there is too much of a danger of contrarianism being hijacked, because it's generally seen as something to be avoided, though I was trying to defend it here.