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The Importance of Contrarianism

Is disagreeing with those around us a good thing?

The first book I read this year was one of the late Christopher Hitchens’, entitled ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’; it was marvellous – a robust guide to approaching contested issues of the day in a way which is efficacious and courageous. One of Christopher’s most memorable suggestions therein, put into practice by his equally provocative brother Peter, is to be “bloody-minded” from time to time – even when nothing of importance is on the line – because it is, in and of itself, good for the human psyche. In a world which has seemingly forgotten such a prospect, I think that it’s time to revive the contrarians amongst us; to revive those who are at their best, their happiest, and their most comfortable when they are going against the grain of all those around them.

You may ask yourself – why would anyone espouse such an idea: that disagreement, discord, agitation purely for their own sakes are good things? Matter-of-factly, it is the presence of these things, brought about by bloody-minded people, which typically brings us to a better place than its absence. To say otherwise – in a world in which it is utopian nonsense to suggest that we can (and should) all perpetually be of one and the same opinion – is ludicrous. This isn’t to say in the slightest that holders of belligerent, ignorant or misinformed views can in anyway appeal to this as a get-out-of-jail card. The nature of their views will always remain the same.

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What it is to say, however, is that when people with whom we stringently disagree present themselves to us – be they playing the devil’s advocate or otherwise – it is at this point that we should do the moral thing, that which will bring us to a better place: argue against them. The no-platforming cancel culture that we have seen emerging in recent times is not a response, it is objectively unjust, and frankly it’s an embarrassment.

The reason I take such a view stems from the fact that without a negation, without an argument against something, there can be no real argument made for it. Think for a second as to whether or not you’ve ever heard of a public figure who is ‘pro-houses’ or ‘pro-oxygen’. The chances are that you haven’t, because the concept seems ridiculous: there exists no one who is putting forward the case against houses, nor against oxygen (although given the current political climate, I wouldn’t be surprised if this view soon began to gain popularity).

How does this lead back to the contrarianism of Hitchens and his contemporaries? The argument that follows in their defence is quite simple: to be contrarian is to help society itself to cement, solidify and develop the good ideas that it has already, by forcing it constantly to re-articulate and strengthen the once dominant ‘pro-’ arguments that may have been forgotten, or allowed to slip in terms of soundness. Ultimately, this equips us all to do better in the long run when the genuinely precious things that have been debated for centuries – liberty, suffrage, equality – are threatened by those with questionable intentions. When this is not the case – when the contrarian, having taken the seemingly unpopular side, wins – nor is it to be frowned upon, but rejoiced. Many of the great moments in political history – the right to universal suffrage, for example – came about as a result of a handful, or even just one, contrarian(s) ‘winning’ the argument. We’re irrefutably better off for it.

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I have slowly but surely realised that such thinking is not always shared by others in St Andrews, where the discourse is in an almost permanent state of mellowness, which is certainly not always desirable. “I totally agree with you, but…” being the standard, ear-tormenting riposte of most, as they go on to churn out the same, equally diluted, equally ill-processed argument as those who spoke before them in a marginally different way – proud of their non-existent contribution to our ‘robust democracy’, ‘public discourse’, blah blah – whilst it furthers nothing of value. Be it in an online forum, during a panel, or at a UDS-organised debate, it’s yet another limp soundbite.

This needs to change. It is incumbent upon us to realise that the greatest service we can do to one another is to disagree, and to allow others to do the same, regardless of how extreme we find their opinion (within reason). To disagree with passion, with compassion, and with the knowledge passed on by Hitchens, that, regardless if we’re ultimately wrong, our actions, and our bloody-mindedness, are right.



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