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August 2014

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So What's a "Contrarian"?

Ever since I declared myself a Contrarian Optimist and renamed my VDM Diary to ContraPositive Diary in 2000, people have been asking me what a "contrarian" is. Everybody seems to connect it with buying stock right after a market crash (not always a bad thing) or buying gold because, after all, the end of the world is coming Real Soon. Nor does it mean stubborn, although it may mean "stubborn about refusing to agree with you." It's a fair question, and warrants some explanation.

First of all and most fundamentally, a contrarian is a sharp stick in the eye of conventional wisdom. There are certain things that "everybody knows" even though this "everybody" is often the intersection of the sets of the captious, the lazy, and a tribe of opinion-makers with an agenda. The troubling part is that conventional wisdom is sometimes true, and sometimes in opposition to other tenets of conventional wisdom. The world is never as simple as we think, and conventional wisdom is often an oversimplification of a difficult truth, offered up to the ignorant to keep them from having to work too hard, and sometimes serving to sugarcoat an agenda in the process. Contrarians understand that conventional wisdom is the cross-product of lazy thinking and hidden agendas, and go digging for the truth. Where to dig is important, and generally not obvious.Contrarians pay attention to those who doth protest too much, and look for clues in the sound and the fury. Much can be learned by listening to fools and discerning their agendas; fools are less adept at concealing agendas than the people who originated the agendas.

Agendas are key. Contrarians do not swear fealty to tribes or tribal ideologies. (Tribalism is a special danger to civilization, and I'll expand on this issue here on Contra as time allows.) Tribes are groups who define their own specific conventional wisdom--a collection of ideologies that I call "received opinions"--and then enforce it within the tribe as mercilessly as they must. Deep psychologies are at work here. There seems to be a peculiar and powerful desire in some personality types to offer fealty to a tribe, in a very deep and preverbal way that precludes any meaningful opposition to the tribe's ideologies. We are looking at things we inherited from our primate ancestors, things we've had since before we had language. Such people are pretty much owned by the tribe, and serve the needs of tribal leaders while feeling that the fate of the world depends on their loyalty to the tribe and their vilification of The Enemy--basically, competing tribes.

Contrarians may hold positions that they develop over time, but they do not swear fealty to anything, and reserve the right to change their minds, and recognize their occasional responsibility to do so.

Changing one's mind is good exercise (way better than leg lifts) and Contrarians do it as often as necessary. Key here is that contrarians are not certain. Contrarians doubt everything, in the older and higher sense of "doubt," meaning to recognize the incompleteness of a particular understanding of something. Doubts do not preclude faith. Doubts, in fact, are how faith happens. Certainty is how faith dies. Faith may well be defined as "conditional acceptance of something for which we have incomplete corroboration." I have personal doubts about whether God exists, but I also have faith that He does. This is not schizophrenic; this is how it works. When you become certain of something, the game is over, the doors are locked, and the lights inside go out. Further insight is impossible, and further movement toward wisdom does not happen. (Worse, people prone to certainty are easy pickins' for tribal leaders who need foot soldiers.) Certainty, after all, is the conviction that there is nothing more to be learned. After that, what's left but watching hockey?

Issues of God and religion may be bad examples; I'm just odd that way. I believe in the laws of physics, but I also know that somebody with Major Doubts got the "law" of parity conservation repealed in the 1950s. That's how science works, and in these days of belligerent certainty, a true scientific mindset is a contrarian attribute. I will not be surprised when String Theory gets shot in the head by some doubter somewhere (who may not even be born yet) and I won't get annoyed when it happens. Less cosmic and closer to home, I am pretty sure that eating carbs makes you fat and eating fat makes you thin. I won't say that I know for certain, but the more I look, the more evidence I've found to balance my doubts. My doubts remain. This doesn't bother me. Nor would being proven wrong. I enjoy changing my mind when the evidence suggests that it's necessary. The process is painful, but so is a twenty-mile hike. The pain will pass.

Doubts are a manifestation of humility. We always know less than we think we do, and the best way to learn more is to assume that you know less going in. No matter what you think you know, you are wrong. And so am I. A contrarian, however, is willing to admit it, and keep on diggin'.

It's not all drudgework, this contrarian business. A contrarian enjoys the perversity inherent in being a contrarian. A touch of perversity keeps your crap detector sharp, and prevents you from falling into predictable ruts that all too often lead directly to tribal enslavement.

The more I read wine snobs dumping on sweet wine, the more I enjoy sweet wine. The more some people froth about Global Warming, the more intrigued I am by the possibility of Global Cooling--and the research that I've pursued there has been a lot of fun. I enjoy tweaking cultural snobs of all types, and my practice in being a contrarian has allowed me to work both sides of most of these streets: I'll waltz but damn, I'll polka! I read Chaucer in Middle English, but I like country music and I have a cowboy hat made by Ronald Reagan's hatmaker. I like a good souffle, and I like Egg McMuffins. I write my reserved words in uppercase. (My language allows that. Sorry about yours.) My mix CDs jump between the Chicago Symphony and The Peppermint Trolley Company. Bach, sure. Barry Manilow, no problem.

Ruts, after all, are horizons pulled in too close. Shove 'em back whenever you can. I know dopers and scientists and crackpots and 4-star generals, and I have enjoyed the company of all of them. Life is full of irony and little weirdnesses, and as Art Linkletter hugely profited in learning, people are funny. Contrarians strive not to take anything too seriously. (We fail sometimes, but we try.) Even, or especially, ourselves.

Finally, a contrarian is free. This shouldn't be necessary to say, but so much of modern life consists of surrendering your intellectual freedom to tribes of various kinds for dubious rewards. Tell the weasels to --ck off. (Tsk. Really, now. The hidden word is "back.")

So I begin 2009 and a rebooted Contra, with a promise to revisit some of the points here in more detail as time permits. Happy New Year. Keep an open mind. And stay tuned.

Comments

You'd make a good Buddhist . . . in one tradition, Gautama Buddha's last words were, "Doubt, and find your own light."

Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books.
Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing just because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.
-- Buddha

"I slept with faith and found a corpse in my arms on awakening; I drank and danced all night with doubt and found her a virgin in the morning."
- Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies

Don't believe everything you think.
-- Robert Anton Wilson

(Yeah, my .sig file needs pruning.)
I've read a number of books recently that would highlight Wilson's line in bright neon: Don't believe everything you think! We are not as rational as we believe ourselves to be, and we remember a reality that is highly personal and in no sense of the word objective.

I have a couple of interesting stories relating to that, and I'll try and get them posted here as time allows.