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In a woke world, be a Contrarian

The Contrarian Prize celebrates British public figures that have the chutzpah to challenge the status quo

The Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, is a lucky man. Having been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent on an internal flight from Tomsk to Moscow on 20 August, he was subsequently treated in Berlin and discharged after spending over a month in hospital, a fair chunk of it in a coma.

We are facing a pandemic of conformity

Mr Navalny has been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin for years. He has exposed the corruption of the ruling class and branded United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s political party, a collection of “crooks and thieves”. He has, as yet, not succeeded in securing the political change that he yearns for. Nor is he universally popular. But he is willing to champion what he believes in despite endangering his life on multiple occasions. He is a Contrarian.

So is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who stepped up to lead the official opposition to Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, following her husband’s incarceration for confronting the regime. Mr Lukashenko secured an incredulous 80 per cent of the vote in the Presidential election on 9 August, triggering widespread anger and mass rallies calling for him to resign.

Clearly rattled, he had Ms Tikhanovskaya apprehended, forced her to record a video message standing her supporters down, and banished her to Lithuania. Ms Tikhanovskaya could have kept her head down. But the allure of self-determination outweighs the personal cost.

That we in the West should, therefore, have become so complacent about the erosion of freedom, whilst others around the world are willing to die for it, is negligent. We delude ourselves that we live in a free society when that freedom itself is being curtailed by an aggressive minority that determines what is acceptable for the majority to say or think. Covid-19 is not the only threat we are grappling with – we are facing a pandemic of conformity.

The virus of groupthink now pervades many of the key institutions in our country

Having initially taken root in academic establishments, the virus of groupthink now pervades many of the key institutions in our country, particularly the media. Diversity of thought has been subjugated. The Enlightenment ideal of rational thinking – the formation of one’s own opinion having considered various arguments – has been jettisoned in favour of tribalism and identity politics, where what you think is driven solely by what you are. It has rendered nuance, subtlety and the exploration of thorny subjects in good faith, redundant.

Add to that the rise of “cancel culture”, where individuals who dare to express a view that others consider unacceptable, are subjected to coruscating attacks and may end up losing their livelihood. David Shor, a Democrat-supporting data analyst, tweeted in May citing research from a Princeton academic that non-violent protest was more effective than the type of violent protest which followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and helped the Republican, Richard Nixon, win the Presidency. He was immediately rounded for not being supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. He retracted his statement and was dismissed by his employer.

Katharine Birbalsingh is someone who appreciates the consequences of speaking out more than most. She pulls no punches. When I visited the Michaela Community School last year, which she founded in 2014, I immediately noticed how polite the children were as they glided along the corridors, impeccably attired and without a squeak.

Contrarians don’t accept the world as it is

I recounted to her my experience of conducting a career-taster workshop at an inner-city school in Southwark in 2004, when the hapless teacher sat at the back of the class and endured abuse. Missiles were being thrown across the room and chairs were hurled around. When I told the children about my career as a City financier, the only questions they wanted the answers to were, how much I earned, and what car I drove. I decided to change tack and split them into groups telling them to imagine that they were running a nightclub and to develop a business plan which they seemed to relish.

“That’s exactly the problem,” retorted Birbalsingh. “People like you dumbing things down to engage with kids.” I felt suitably admonished. But her robust approach has achieved results. In 2019, the school had its first set of GCSE results and ranked 5th in the country on progress in its 8 core subjects.

I first saw her speak at the Conservative Party conference in 2010, when she electrified the hall with an impassioned address about how a lack of discipline and low standards in inner city schools had left the education system broken and kept “poor children poor”. She was particularly direct about how readmitting young black boys who had been expelled for bad behaviour was wrong, and how “black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to him.”

She also argued that teachers tended to be blinded by leftist ideology, but that many of the necessary changes to the education system required conservative thinking. High expectations, competition, tough exams and good behaviour, were all essential to reverse the decline.

But the decision to put her head above the parapet cost her dear. Her position as Deputy Head of a school in Camberwell became untenable and she resigned. She was told by headhunters that she would probably never work in the state education sector again and the stress affected her health. After three years out in the cold, she managed to establish her own “free school” in Brent, after earlier attempts to get the school open in Lambeth and then Wandsworth were scuppered by opposition from local councillors.

It is because she took a stand and the price she paid for doing so, that Birbalsingh won the Contrarian Prize

Birbalsingh, who describes herself as a “square peg”, had the temerity to challenge the pedagogical orthodoxy a decade ago when any questioning of it was considered beyond the pale by an educational establishment which saw itself as the embodiment of virtue. But then Contrarians don’t accept the world as it is. Irrespective of whether you agree with her perspective or not, there should be space for open debate on the most effective manner in which to teach children. It is because she took a stand and the price she paid for doing so, that Birbalsingh won the Contrarian Prize.

I have always been fascinated by people that have the chutzpah to challenge the status quo. That is not because I always agree with them, but because they have deep convictions and often shape the future. The polemicist and political activist Tom Paine is a good example. Paine played an instrumental role in two revolutions, the American and the French. With the publication of his leaflet “Common Sense” in 1776, which advocated republicanism and championed independence from Britain, he became the intellectual father of the American Revolution.

He then moved to France, where his 1791 treatise “Rights of Man” directly challenged the position of the ruling class. Paine was convicted for sedition and libel and imprisoned by the French authorities. He was driven by the belief that ordinary people could make sound judgments on major political issues. Maligned and execrated by his rivals, when he died only six people attended his funeral. But as the late Christopher Hitchens pointed out, “don’t expect to be thanked, the life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult. Solitude must be welcomed not feared.”

The ability to think independently is key. So is the courage to tell people what they don’t want to hear. But the Contrarian is not a professional naysayer. Being contrarian is something you are and not something you are paid to do.

These people do not seek plaudits and are driven by bigger causes than personal career advancement. That is why they often go unrecognised. The Contrarian Prize, which was established in 2012, aims to redress that. It encourages members of the public to nominate British public figures that demonstrate four traits: independence of thought; courage and conviction in their actions; personal sacrifice for principle; and the introduction of new ideas into the public realm.

The Contrarian must be prepared to be eviscerated

The guiding mantra of Birbalsingh’s school is that “Knowledge is power”. But it is how that knowledge is formulated that is under threat. The dialectical approach, whereby people holding different views about a subject seek to discover the truth through reason and argument, dating back to Socrates in the 5th century BC and refined by Hegel in the 19th century, is being scorched. The conception of a thesis being advanced, which is then challenged by an antithesis, with the aim of eventually arriving at a synthesis through the ebb and flow of discussion, is dying. That makes those ideas less robust than they could be as they have not been refined and honed, or in some cases, discarded.

But in today’s social media-fuelled cauldron of bile and vitriol, where offence-takers have now become offence-seekers, victory is now secured not through the exposure of ideas to scrutiny, but via the silencing of others. The Contrarian must therefore be prepared to be eviscerated. That there are a handful who still choose to do so, is a great service to our society, as it is only through argumentation, examination and disputation that progress is made.


Ali Miraj is founder of the Contrarian Prize. He will be “in conversation” with Katharine Birbalsingh on 25 November. If you would like to register to attend then you can do so here.

For more information on the Contrarian Prize, please visit www.contrarianprize.com

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