The Human Condition:

On the Virtues of Being a Contrarian – January 11, 2015

Stampeding horses

“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs …”1 you just might be a contrarian. Heaven knows, I try to be one. It’s a difficult and dangerous job, lonely work if you have the stomach for it, but somebody’s got to do it.

The trick is not to be a scold, a boor, a curmudgeon, or a generally uncongenial fellow. If you’re going to be a contrarian, it’s best not to argue in everybody’s face about how differently you see the world. Really, your position is not about who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead, it’s about what feels appropriate for you to do—personally, on your own responsibility, without reference to others—at any given moment. So being contrary usually involves shrugging and quietly walking away. When everyone else is running down the street waving their arms and shouting the latest popular slogans, the contrarian’s reaction is generally to step back, look around for a side street, and try to disappear.

To be a contrarian is to be out of step with the world. It’s a matter of temperament and impulse, rather than a reasoned philosophical position. The contrarian has a sense of self—often going back to early childhood—as being different from the people who crowd in on all sides. And contrarians generally don’t like crowds.2 The condition is probably glandular rather than spiritual.

Contrarians don’t quite trust what they’re seeing and hearing in the actions and reactions of other people. You are standing on the lip of an old quarry, facing a twenty-foot drop, staring straight down into dark, green, impenetrable water. Everyone is shouting, “Go ahead! Jump! It’s safe!” But rather than take their word for it, you try to exercise some internal radar, sharpen your x-ray eyes, see below the surface, and sense if there isn’t an old block of granite a couple of feet below that smooth surface—something square, mossy, solid, and sharp-edged, left over from the quarry operations, just waiting to crack open your skull. When your eyes fail in this impossible task and doubt takes over, you climb back down, stand on the block you can see, and dip cautiously into the water amid the jeers of your braver friends. Being a contrarian is to trust your personal instincts, and too often your instinct is for preservation rather than for mania and bravado.

Contrarians understand that the world and all of its activity are made up of endless cycles: come and go, rise and fall, happenstance followed by circumstance. Everyone and his broker are saying that the market for technology stocks or houses, the price of gold, silver, or tulip bulbs—or any other realm of investment opportunity—will go up forever and ever and will never come down. So everyone and his broker are leveraging themselves to the ears in order to become rich on the upswing of the wave. But you remember that waves always crest, followed by a dip, and the valleys are usually just as deep as the peaks. So, instead, you take your profits, or keep your money in your pocket in the first place. You watch the market cycle and crash. Being a contrarian means that you usually miss pulling out the richest plums in the pie, and almost never fall into a tub of butter, but you also generally avoid having to dig yourself out of a deep hole.

Horses, cows, deer, and the other hooved mammals all have the herd instinct. It’s probably in their genetics—or as I say, “glandular”—to follow the path that others are taking, to move with the crowd. In the crowd, they expect to find safety. This is not necessarily bad thinking. When horses or deer move across the plains or the glade in a solid mass, then predators like wolves and mountain lions can’t kill all of them at once. So, as an individual, each one plays the odds, moves toward the center of the herd, and runs like hell.

Humans retain some of this instinct at a subvocal level: “If we just close ranks and march shoulder to shoulder, then the police can’t arrest—or shoot—all of us, can they? There’s gotta be safety in numbers.”3 And if things do go badly, they will rely on the ultimate justification of the social man: “Well, everyone else was doing it.”

Contrarians seem to lack this genetic makeup. We may tell ourselves that our sense of individuality, or personal honor, or superior morals, or greater intelligence drives us to take a stand. But really, we’re just strangers to the herd instinct. We don’t feel comfortable in crowds. We don’t sense any safety in numbers. And “everyone else was doing it” is an excuse our mothers had long ago laughed out of court. So, when everyone makes a break for the fire doors, we can imagine our bodies being crushed and trampled under that crowd. Instead, we turn and look for an exit through the kitchen. And usually that works.

I can remember a conversation with my once-upon-a-time publisher, Jim Baen of Baen Books. I forget the exact subject matter, but it might have been my interest in continuing to write old-fashioned, “hard” science fiction while the literary marketplace seemed to be moving toward fantasy, magic, and new-age themes. “You’re a contrarian,” he said. And his judgment was: “Contrarians always win.”

I don’t know if I would go that far. We contrarians are sometimes left out in the cold, standing watch on a long stone wall under the northern stars, while the rest of the army relaxes in warmer, more southerly climates, content to let us wait for an enemy that will never come. It takes patience, perseverance, pigheadedness, and a smidgen of blind stupidity to stand your post, stick to your guns, and not waver in your convictions despite all the evidence. But much of the time you can also avoid either getting rich in the housing bubble or losing your house. You can stay ahead of the curve by deciding not to climb it. And you seldom get trampled and broken in the stampede against a fire door that somebody forgot to unlock.

1. The opening line from Rudyard Kipling’s “If—”. The rest of the poem offers much good advice for a moral and rational life, but this is as much as I needed to prove my point.

2. I remember my earliest experience of the obligatory “pep rally” during my first year in junior high school. We seventh graders were marched into the gym on a Friday afternoon and seated on the floor under the basketball hoops; upperclassmen and –women were given the bleachers. The marching band was playing its heart out, heavy on the drums and horns, and the cheerleaders were tumbling around the open floor area. It was all noise, confusion, and kinetics. I was sitting cross-legged next to my best friend with a bemused expression on my face. I kept looking around, mostly perplexed, when the coordinated cheering began. Suddenly my friend turned to me, grabbed me by the lapels, and yelled in my face: “Scream, Thomas!” I looked at him and answered, “Why?” When you’re a contrarian, the noise isn’t about you.

3. This worked well enough on the battlefield for about 3,000 years. The way to overcome a loose collection of tribal warriors, each of them fighting as individuals seeking glory in combat, was to form a phalanx. You dress your lines, lock your shield edges, couch your spears, and march steadily forward. It worked well for the Greeks, the Romans, armored knights in cavalry charges, and European armies of the 17th and 18th centuries. Stay in step, fire on command, fix bayonets, and charge en masse. Group cohesion was the secret to winning battles.
       Then Hiram Maxim invented the machine gun in 1883, and suddenly the massed charge became the ideally compacted target. The Europeans spent 1914 to 1918 figuring this out. And finally was born the “invisible battlefield” of World War II, where soldiers in ones and twos spread out, took cover, and offered supporting fire for the next wave of advance. If the enemy could see you, they could kill you with their powerful weapons—unless you hid yourself and kept their heads down through judicious countering fire. And now today the battlefield has changed again, and the enemy just packs a car or the vest of some hopeless dupe with plastic explosive and goes for a drive or a stroll down a crowded street.