To what are “contrarians” contrary?

It’s an iron-clad rule: whenever someone declares himself [sic] a “contrarian,” you can know with absolute certainty that everything that comes out of his mouth will be a well-worn cliché. Contrarians never say that maybe we should totally abolish capitalism, or that maybe we should all become cyborgs, or that maybe we should consider eating four meals a day instead of three — it’s always something like “I know that I’ll catch a lot of flack for saying this, but the traditional three meals are the best way to distribute our food intake.” Their bold, outsider perspective always allows them to see that the most tired bromides of acceptable mainstream opinion actually have a lot going for them. The market really does solve problems better than government. We really do need to get the deficit under control. Women really are worse at math, and black people really do need to stop whining and recognize that all their problems are their own fault. Edgy!

Wherein is contrarianism contrary? Surely it’s not in the content of the statements. Rather, it’s the rhetorical stance. The contrarian takes the counterintuitive position that mainstream opinion is under constant attack, that the ruling class is the underdog. This rhetorical stance serves to inoculate the reader against genuine critique of the status quo — and the inevitable outraged response to click-bait “contrarian” argument is an intrinsic part of the process. Every comment thread appears to confirm the contrarian’s rhetorical trick: “See how much abuse we contrarians take for our brave, out-of-season testimony to truth?”

The question is why this rhetorical ploy is so appealling to so many, and on this point we have rare insider testimony from a genuine contrarian: Matt Yglesias. Discussing his reasons for making the terrible mistake of supporting the Iraq War, he lists some substantive reasons but then becomes painfully candid:

You can, however, always get more psychological. I was 21 years old and kind of a jerk. Being for the war was a way to simultaneously be a free-thinking dissident in the context of a college campus and also be on the side of the country’s power elite. My observation is that this kind of fake-dissident posture is one that always has a lot of appeal to people.

Perhaps we can say that there’s a deeper contrareity at work in contrarianism, then: the attempt to hold together the contrary poles of embattled dissent and utterly mainstream opinions, to speak the truth to power by serving the powerful. It’s the white man’s attempt to “have it all,” to hold onto substantive power while also taking a shot at the prestigious “victim” status to which he lamentably does not have access — and we all know how irritable white men get when they’re told there’s something they can’t have.

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5 Responses to “To what are “contrarians” contrary?”

  1. Chris Lawson Says:

    I disagree that *everyone* who calls themselves a contrarian meets your description, but other than that you’re spot on. It’s the same with people who start any argument with “I know this is politically incorrect…” when what they really mean is, “If you object to the racist/sexist/classist bigotry I am about to express, I’ve already painted you as an oversensitive conformist.”

  2. bzfgt Says:

    Excellent post! You’ve said something I knew without knowing I knew it.

  3. ambzone Says:

    I lol’d.

  4. Lee Says:

    This is also known as the “Brave Stance” troll-bingo square.

  5. Charlie Murray and the Great Glass Bubble | David Iscoe's WordPress Blog Says:

    […] like he can, this might have come to something. And he can say something new, even if it’s at the core the same old yarn. There’s nothing in my writing that you couldn’t read in the writings of other people […]


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