Whatever It Is, I'm Against It

I don't think you can point to any one moment in our collective lives when things broke, but I do think you can point to a number of different individual stress fractures that contributed to the structural fatigue. The one I keep coming back to is the difference between true dissent and mere contrarianism.

For a long time I had an is-it-porn-or-not attitude towards contrarianism, in the sense that I didn't think I could define it, but I knew it when I saw it. But over time I puzzled together a set of hallmarks.

For one, It wasn't an attitude taken up by serious thinkers. It was proffered mainly by self-styled gadflies — people who could always fall back on the I'm Just Saying defense, or the I'm Only An Entertainer cop-out, whenever someone seriously challenged them or their willingness to throw red meat to hungry crowds. If people take me seriously, they would say, then they're the idiots for being duped.

The other is that it's the domain of people who are not interested in the truth as such, but are more interested in the way people can be riled up in their search for the truth. This can be hard to suss out, because the two are readily confused. "Pissing off the right people" is not a hallmark of a truth-seeker; you might arouse the ire of some people in your quest for the truth, but that doesn't mean arousing the ire of others is a sign you're onto something. Sometimes it's just a convenient way to excuse manifestly bad behavior, like so many other things we have taught ourselves to be comfortable with at our own collective detriment.

Self-appointed contrarians can get away with what they do because they have an audience that justifies their behavior. I once had a conversation with someone who was a fan of a certain "commentator", whom I'll call "Wayne". He said the reason he liked Wayne was "he tells it like it is" (a phrase I have since deleted from my vocabulary with extreme prejudice). I said, "Is he telling it like it is, or just telling it the way you want to hear it?" He went off on a minutes-long riff about the way political correctness has ruined our lives (read: made it harder to get away with being a regressive jackass in public), and never really answered my question.

The substance of the discussion was plain, though: Wayne appealed to his feelings that he had a right to be a jerk, just like Wayne, and anyone who stood between him and that right was the real bad guy. (There is no right to be a jerk. There is the liberty one can take in being a jerk, but that comes with consequences. People who invoke the right to be a jerk simply seek the privilege to be a jerk without getting told off.)

The problem with true skepticism is that the people who evince it do not come off as being as charismatic, as convincing, as skeptical as the contrarians. They come off as wishy-washy, as indeterminate, as nobody we can turn to for guidance. This actually says very little about such people, and a great deal about how messed up our instincts are when it comes to seeking out advice and guidance in the first place.

We want someone to give us an Answer, even if it's a terrible one. Because at least they believe in that Answer, right? (Well, they do a very good job of making you think they believe in it, don't they?) Tony Robbins and other self-help gurus strike me as being in this vein: they have set themselves up as providers of an Answer that people will pay $10,000 a weekend for and walk across literal hot coals to hear, when that Answer is little more than "Get over yourself, you schmuck." It took me a long time to let go of the idea that it would be bad for me to answer a question with "I don't know", to stop trying to present myself as an expert on all things because I was an expert on a few things, when I realized how poisonous that was for both me and the people listening.

There's one more hallmark I want to note here, one that may divide readers who have been with me up to this point, but here it is anyway. Contrarians, as best I can tell, seem unified in the sense that they ultimately do not believe in anything. That is, they say what will get them and keep them with an avid audience, even if that audience consists of fools mistakenly convinced of their own superiority.

A contrarian's dissent does not stem from them having something better to offer, or a new way to look at something that has gone unexamined, but from them knowing people groove on seeing someone else flip tables and break glass and suffer no adverse consequences for it. Real dissent requires more than just saying "no, you're wrong", but for people who came into the room just to have the thrill of seeing someone told off, it'll do just fine, thanks.

It's not that contrarians have no ideas. If anything, they have too many ideas, most of them incoherent. It's that they don't document their thought processes in any systematic way, because to do so would reveal that they have no coherent systematic thinking at work.

I've read the works of people I have vehemently disagreed with on many crucial issues, but they at least had the integrity to tell me how they got to where they are, even if I think their path was a mistaken one. A contrarian is not interested in showing you his homework, because then this would be a debate, and he's not really trying to have a debate but an argument — and the point of an argument is to humiliate you in front of the people whose whole reason for coming was to see chairs and punches thrown around. Such games are inherently unwinnable, and too easily confused with serious debate by people who have no experience with the real thing ... or who find the real thing unsatisfying, and have settled for bloodsport.

In light of the preceding, here is a simple test I think will help you navigate all this. Imagine a public figure whose word you take on some matter. Can you imagine this person ever saying, "I was wrong"? If not, you may want to find someone else to pay attention to.

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/05/22 08:00.

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