The Human Condition:

On Being a Contrarian – January 13, 2013

When the whole world’s going left, I tend to go right. When the crowd is stampeding for the front door, I look for a way out through the kitchen. When everyone is dancing to rock-n-roll, I listen to classical music. And when people are dumping stocks in favor of real estate, I hang on to my shares. I’m a contrarian.

This is not a choice, you understand. It’s not necessarily a reasoned response. And it’s certainly not a sign of greater intelligence or foresight. It’s more like an aversion, a phobia, a character defect. When I’m caught up in traffic with a hundred thousand cars that are going my way at a snail’s pace—I feel foolish. I don’t belong in herds. Herds are foolish. Herds get slaughtered. Get me out of here.

My first conscious memory of the contrarian lifestyle was in junior high school. You get a lot of firsts in the seventh and eighth grades—at least when I was growing up. First time you take different subjects in different classes. First time you’re offered a foreign language to learn. First time you begin to really notice girls. And, in the case of group action, the first time you get called into a special assembly known as the Friday afternoon pep rally.

As the youngest class in our combined junior-senior high school, we seventh graders were led into the gymnasium and seated on the floor just behind the basketball hoops. Row on row, sitting cross-legged, elbow to elbow, wondering what comes next. Then the marching band starts playing up in the bleachers, the cheerleaders start hopping on the main floor, and everyone starts screaming. But I’m sitting there looking around like a Galapagos tortoise at Mardi Gras. Very interesting, but … My best friend, who’s sitting beside me, turns, grabs my jacket, and yells in my ear, “Scream, Thomas!” I look at him in disbelief and ask—in a normal voice that gets lost in the noise—“Why?”

Maybe I’m missing a gene, some combination of brain proteins that would allow me to read and respond to the wavelength of the people around me.1 But I do feel the power of crowds, and it makes me nervous. When the foot stamping and the yelling start, I sense that the screaming, the rock throwing, and the rending of victims with bare teeth and fingernails are not far away. I can deal with people in ones and twos, but holiday crowds, packed stadiums, and mobs make me want to head for the exits.

Maybe I understand instinctively that—at least in some people—the individual, the personality, the web of rules learned long ago, the kaleidoscope of ambition, fear, shame, and hope that spins the human mind, whatever it is that makes John unique and different from Bill or Tom or Mary is an inherently unstable mechanism.2 Put in the context of a thousand other voices, surging emotions, stamping feet, and reaching hands … it frays, flies apart, dissolves, and surrenders to the movement of the mass.

And sometimes I think that’s just an excuse. That people in a crowd simply look around, calculate, and decide: “Who will know? If I am just one of a thousand other people who break into that store, or charge that police line, or rip apart that scapegoat—where is the blame? No one will see just me. No one will prosecute. I can do murder and no one will remember that I was part of it.” As people can take pride in the building of a cathedral or winning of a war, even though their part was small and contributory, so they can shed the shame and blame of taking part in a mob. Everyone feels good, no one feels bad, and we all go home.

Maybe, for me, there is no such release of the self and self-control. My sense of responsibility to the web of rules, my focus on the kaleidoscope of hope and fear, shame and ambition, is so strong that I cannot believe someone is not always watching. My parents, teachers, family members, and culture heroes—the people who socialized and shaped me by taming my childish will, and who are all mostly ghosts themselves by now—still look over my shoulder and render judgment. And I—whatever the “I” or “self” might be, even if it’s only a ghost—also look over my own shoulder, judge my actions, and compare them to the rules that I recognize as civilized behavior and the responsibilities of personal honor. I cannot forget that actions always have consequences, and those consequences are personal, immediate, and important—even if they are merely figments of the mind associated with shame and self-loathing.

I cannot imagine being a contrarian without having a strong sense of individuality. You have to believe in yourself, your honor, your destiny, your sense of self-worth if you are going to fight upstream against the crowd, close your ears to the thousand whispers that say, “It’s all right. No one cares. Go with the flow. Go along to get along. Don’t let the side down. Don’t make waves. Be a pal. Be one of the guys.”

Contrarians make poor team players, lousy employees,3 and terrible soldiers. While everyone else is listening to the coach, the boss, or the sergeant deliver the playbook, the plan for the day, or the tactical objective, you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “Yeah, but what if we did it this way? Couldn’t we do it better?” Coaches, bosses, and sergeants hate that. It’s like you think you’re special or something.

Contrarians make pretty good engineers, inventors, and artists. It’s not as if we can’t hear criticism, take suggestions, or heed warnings. But we filter all of that outside material through a 0.002-inch mesh in our heads which asks, “Is that what I really think and believe? Is that solution really going to work? Is that opening where the danger really lies?” Between the contrarian’s head and the outside world is a hesitation, a consultation with the memory of those early parents, teachers, and culture heroes, a bad memory of the times when we just shut up and went along, and a fearful consciousness that if the plan we recommend, the design we submit, or the art we create falls short, then no one will take the blame but ourselves.

Contrarians are seldom impulsive. Oh, we might make a decision on the spur of the moment: a purchase that arises opportunely at the cash register, a career move that appears suddenly in the pursuit of other work, a rapid change of course or behavior. But in almost every case the impulse is backed by days, weeks, or sometimes months of thinking about a problem, need, or failure, mentally trying on possible solutions, or considering our dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. Then what looks like impulse is merely the summation of long simmering thoughts, usually in the context of suddenly finding the obviously right solution.4 Or, as Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Contrarians have a rich interior life. It’s not always a wonderful and optimistic interior, as our kaleidoscope is fully loaded with feelings of shame, fear, and doubt. But we are not barren. In fact, we often have too much to consider and weigh before taking action. We console ourselves that a missed opportunity is less to be regretted than a bad choice or a wrong action. The world is full of opportunities, if one can only perceive them. The world is less forgiving of mistakes and blunders.

Contrarians are not easy people to know. They sometimes seem to be obstinate, stubborn, wrong-headed, and obtuse. If they can’t immediately explain why they don’t want to walk along with the crowd, they may appear to be stupid and even vacillating. Contrarians are used to being called fools. Walking against the flow usually brings you into collision with the mass of men.

But more often than not, we discover treasures, ideas, and opportunities that others will miss. We look into the corners that others overlook. We try doors that no one else has opened. And—less often, although not unknown—we stumble upon whole continents that no one has ever seen or imagined.

We are the waywards and malcontents that reassure everyone else in the path they have chosen. And in doing so, we contrarians bring context to life.

1. I use the same excuse for my atheism. Whatever genetic complement and neural adaptation that lets people feel the presence and hear the whispered words of God, angels, ghosts, and demons, I seem to lack. I walk in a forest and appreciate the trees, the sunlight, the scents of growing things all around, the beauty of the moment—but no special voice tells me to take heed and attend. I sometimes think of this as a kind of deafness or blindness. Something I lack, rather than something the mass of men around me are imaginatively inserting into the moment.

2. The eastern religions would tend to agree. Certain sects go a long way in arguing that there is no such thing as the “self.” The web, the kaleidoscope, the spin are all an illusion. The notion of a coherent life, a person, a “me” that continues from day to day and year to year is just a phantom construct overlying what are really separate moments, fragments of memory, incidents, and instances that no longer exist except in memories that are undergoing constant editing and revision. We are all ghosts rattling around inside the braincase of what is really just a multi-celled organism driven by the collective needs and impulses of all those randomly activating cells. However, that’s not a view I favor. It reeks of Skinnerian behaviorism. It reduces a man to the spiritual level of a muskrat. To believe it is to hate yourself.

3. At least in the sort of corporate environment that rewards congeniality and compliance and where it’s more important for you to fit in than provide the right answer. If you’re in the sort of company where you have to study your boss, his or her boss, and the chief executive like an anthropologist trying to figure out what cockamamie new idea will bring a smile to his or her face this week, then work to be the first to suggest that idea, regardless of its costs, fitness of purpose, or contribution to the corporate well-being, then you do well to have an enduring interest in mass psychosis and herd dynamics. And if you can’t adapt to that—then run for the exits.

4. Frank Herbert captures some of this in the Dune cycle: “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.” In that delay is a measure of cogitation and consideration.