This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
“The contrarian dogma is simple and easy to understand,” Christopher Hitchens once proclaimed. “Whatever is popular is wrong.” That lofty dismissal of common taste wasn’t his own — it was first said by Oscar Wilde in 1883 to art students during a lecture extolling aestheticism, or art for art’s sake. “Popularity is the crown of laurel which the world puts on bad art,” Wilde claimed.
Despite the pleasure Hitchens frequently took in verbal combat, he wasn’t endorsing contrarianism uncritically. As a conclusion Wilde’s statement was “questionable”, he said; “but as a mindset, it’s not bad”. This is a nice distinction between contrarianism as a principle and contrarianism as an attitude. The former risks degenerating into a niche form of tribalism. The latter can develop into something much more interesting: principled dissent.
When events and public opinion are fast-moving and heated, dissent can be treated as tantamount to heresy
The most obvious pitfall of contrarianism is that, just like following the crowd, it outsources your judgement to others, albeit in rejection rather than acceptance. It’s also impractical. It’s all very well to dismiss what is popular when you have the time and expertise to judge well for yourself. But nobody knows enough about everything for that. Borrowing some opinions is inevitable.
Even though Amazon reviews can be manipulated and suggestions from Spotify and Netflix can be bizarre, if you want to read, listen to or watch something, plumping for what’s popular at least avoids the duds.
What’s useful about being contrarian isn’t that it makes you right; it’s that it makes you different. How valuable that is depends not on you, or even on the topic, but on the group you’re in. The more conformist the group, the more valuable the contrarian.
In mainstream media outlets, it’s hard to do anything except keep your head down and follow the editorial line. But the rare contrarians who hang in there improve the quality of reporting and writing across the newsroom. They pitch the stories that other journalists miss. And by asking inconvenient questions in editorial meetings, they force leader-writers to do more than setting up straw men to knock down.
Outside the artificial confines of a business exercise, are contrarians born or made? They’re surely more common among people who score low on agreeability, one of the “big five” character traits psychologists use to describe human behaviour. Agreeable people are more sociable and work better in teams. They are keener on pleasing others, on being liked and fitting in, and on resolving rather than prolonging confrontation. Women are on average more agreeable than men, and more harshly punished for being disagreeable. (These facts are doubtless connected.) The less agreeable you are, the less it will bother you to dissent from your group’s orthodoxy — independently of whether that orthodoxy is true or wise. On campus right now, disagreeable people are surely overrepresented among those who take pro-Israel or anti-Labour positions. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, they were overrepresented among Leavers.
When events and public opinion are fast-moving and heated, dissent can be treated as tantamount to heresy. This is most likely when the clergy — Westminster, Whitehall, academia and the mainstream press — and the masses hold very different views.
What constitutes a heresy therefore varies over time. Among the current ones is immigration, which most Britons want reduced — a desire rarely expressed in polite society. Scepticism regarding Covid lockdowns and vaccines is less common, but still far more so in the population at large than you would think from watching the BBC or reading the Guardian.
Arguing with contrary viewpoints helps you understand your own position better
And then there’s my own heresy, usually known as “gender-critical feminism”, though I prefer sex-realism: that humans come in two immutable sexes. Most people know it to be true — except for those in Westminster and Whitehall; campuses and newsrooms; HR departments and boardrooms. That makes it the quintessential heresy: so obvious that most people don’t even question it, but very risky to state.
From within the clergy, it may seem that what happens when a former right-thinker commits heresy is that they join the ranks of the great unwashed. That’s true, but they also join a new tribe: that of the heretics. Its members talk to each other on podcasts marketed as “heterodox”; in conferences about free speech and social events for freethinkers; in upstart publications and channels that cover topics ignored by the legacy media.
Once you’re in that tribe, committing your second heresy is easier. You’re now exposed to people and ideas you were previously deaf to. The price is lower, too: you can’t be cast out again. And after the life-changing experience of deciding, whether rightly or wrongly, that received wisdom is wide of the mark on at least one topic, it’s less of a stretch to think this may be the case for other topics as well.
Even if you manage to avoid becoming tribally contrarian, another pitfall awaits: a new, micro kind of conformism. Once the headrush of your first heresy fades and the love-bombing from those who committed it before you has ended, you’ll notice that many did so for reasons that differ from yours.
People who espouse sex-realism, for example, come from the widest imaginable range of intellectual positions. Some are social conservatives, who value traditional gender roles; others are radical feminists who want those roles abolished.
Some are evangelical Christians who see the two sexes as important because they are God-given; others venerate evolution as life’s organising principle, and the origin not just of the two sexes but of their significance. The materialism common to both Marxism and most strands of conservatism means that on this point the far ends of the political spectrum meet.
You might think that people who had dissented once would be understanding of people who do it again. But the tribal urge remains even among cast-outs. And just as suffering can encourage desire for revenge rather than compassion, being silenced can inspire a desire to occupy the pulpit rather than embrace pluralism. Being cast out is an experience people tend to bond over. If they discover their differences only after that happens, it can feel like betrayal.
But the difficulty goes deeper than hurt feelings, or even disagreements about tactics and strategy. The desired end-points of different groups may differ. And it’s genuinely hard to accept that people who espouse worldviews very different from yours may do so sincerely, rather than nefariously.
Left-wing feminists, for example, are often suspicious of social conservatives who oppose trans ideology, whom they suspect of a hidden agenda to return women to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. The Christians among them, they fear, see an opportunity to recriminalise abortion as part of a wider attack on bodily autonomy.
Social conservatives, for their part, think feminism opened the door to trans ideology by denying psychological sex differences, and that at least some of the gender roles feminists reject result from those differences, rather than being arbitrary and oppressive.
It may seem impossible to get such a disparate bunch to come together for long enough to work together on a single issue. The only way to do so, it seems to me, is to reject both tribal contrarianism and micro-conformity; to lean into difference and embrace dissent within dissent.
That means interrogating yourself about what you really think and doing your best to articulate it, not once, but again and again. There’s deeper understanding in that diversity: as the great nineteenth-century champion of free speech, John Stuart Mill, wrote, arguing with contrary viewpoints helps you understand your own position better. More fundamentally, speaking from your deepest convictions is so freeing that it’s addictive. I didn’t pay the price of dissent only to stay silent and conform again.
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