Howard Anglin: The contrarian temptation

Skepticism is a healthy way to approach the world, but too much contrarianism obscures as much as it illuminates
A person protesting against COVID-19 health measures, right, argues with a counter-protestor during a demonstration in the downtown core of Ottawa, Ont. during Canada Day celebrations on Friday, July 1, 2022. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

I am a natural contrarian. If you tell me something, my first instinct is to try to figure out why what you said is wrong, of limited application, or an incomplete account of the matter. I hasten to add that this response is usually left unexpressed—a basic courtesy I learned later than most, but did eventually take to heart. 

But lately I’ve been trying very hard to be contrarian about my contrarianism. Perhaps it’s because I see, with apologies to Mr. Ginsberg and some allowance for literary hyperbole, the best (or at least some of the most interesting) minds of my generation destroyed by madness, dragging themselves through the online streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. Twitter is especially tempting for contrarians—the rapid escalation of hot takes leaves mere curmudgeons sounding banal, almost emollient by comparison. 

The internet encourages extreme cases, but contrarian inflation is nothing new. There seems to be a temptation inherent in contrarianism that, if indulged, can produce a mental inversion that leaves you at odds not just with your society but with reality itself. Anyone whose job involves attracting attention can fall prey to this weakness, which is the only way of explaining a certain genre of opinion piece, which sets out to disprove common sense and ends up proving the author’s foolishness. Perhaps it also accounts for curious cases like Michael Coren, Canada’s Vicar of Bray, who can effect a complete reversal of creed with any discernable diminution in confidence or zeal. 

One of the most remarkable examples of the contrarian temptation in my lifetime is the squandered career of Joseph Sobran. Sobran began as a prodigy of conservative journalism. A protégé of Bill Buckley, he was an undeniable polemical—and, indeed, literary—talent. Buckley once devoted an entire edition of National Review to one of his long-form essays called “Pensées” (a title Sobran reportedly hated). Ferociously orthodox in an age of experimentation, Sobran delighted in savaging the vacuities of his Boomer contemporaries, from the New Age philosophies of the 1970s to the neoliberal conformity of the 1980s and 1990s. 

A virtuoso contrarian at a time when America badly needed to be slapped out of its trippy revolutionary reverie, the signs of his eventual crack up were clear by the time he offered his pen to the Oxfordian cause. (The denial of Shakespeare’s authorship against overwhelming evidence is often a good sign that a contrarian has slipped the leash of sense.) After his relatively benign foray into the authorship question, Sobran began dipping his toe in hotter water. 

In 1992, his boss and whilom friend felt compelled to address his increasingly lurid obsession with Zionism. In In Search of Antisemitism, Buckley concluded, unconvincingly, that Sobran’s columns in a small Catholic journal were at least “contextually anti-Semitic.” If there were any doubt, Sobran soon shrugged off his contextual cover. Within a few years he was addressing Holocaust denialist conferences, the ultimate perversion of the contrarian impulse.

Sobran is a contrarian cautionary tale. Most of us (thank God) don’t end up at his extremes—most probably don’t even start out as extreme as he did—but the gradual detachment from reality can take less virulent, though still disorienting, forms. The process is something like what I’ve seen described as the “libertarian to fascist pipeline” (though being neither a libertarian nor a fascist, I can’t comment on the validity of the theory). As far as I understand it (and to summarize crudely), the idea is that people with extreme and unpopular ideas of one kind are susceptible to extreme and unpopular ideas of other kinds. 

The thesis is too simplistic. It’s just as likely that a certain type of dissocialized person drifts from one ideology to another seeking meaning and belonging, more interested in the form of belief than its content. But there is something to it. It does seem that you can get so used to being on the other side of common opinion that it weakens your ability to differentiate between being right and in the minority and believing that you are right because you are in the minority. The fact that almost everything you read and everyone you talk to tells you that you’re crazy ceases to give you pause—worse, it confirms that you are on the right path.

This is a particular vulnerability for contrarians at a time when mainstream elite opinion has shifted so far, so quickly, on so many topics that some degree of contrarianism is practically a precondition for maintaining your sanity. Reading the news headlines as they pop up on your phone, you could be forgiven for thinking that our expert class has passed en masse through the intellectual looking glass. If Twitter has done one undeniably good thing, it is exposing the general shallowness of a lot of people who are expert in one specialized field. Outside their niche, it turns out that even (especially?) very smart people are susceptible to political fashion and hold a lot of unexamined, low-information opinions. But accustomed to the assurance of expertise, they hold them with blithe ultracrepidarian confidence.

So many experts being wrong—publicly, repeatedly, stubbornly, and infuriatingly—is a contrarian trap. Reasoned opposition to mainstream elite opinion can easily morph into reflexive opposition, and from there into blind opposition. One day you are standing up for the benefits of the nuclear family and defending the importance of cultural tradition and the next you are proclaiming that you are “at peace with” a 21st century led by the Chinese Communist Party and burnishing the silver lining of a genocidal regime. We also saw this during the recent pandemic, when some people began by raising reasonable questions about public restrictions and vaccinations and ended up in a fever dream of ALL CAPS TWEETS ABOUT NUREMBERG TRIALS.

Contrarianism isn’t for everyone. A generous and broad-minded skepticism is a healthy way to approach the world, and a stubborn refusal to heed the “importunate chink” of the “insects of the hour” is probably necessary to survive the inanities of social media. But contrarianism is not for the faint of heart or mind. If you are not careful, you can end up falling prey to delusions that are different in their specifics but similar in kind to those of the people you set out to oppose. Refusing to follow the herd, you can end up a stampeding herd of one.

Sign up for FREE and receive The Hub’s weekly email newsletter.

You'll get our weekly newsletter featuring The Hub’s thought-provoking insights and analysis of Canadian policy issues and in-depth interviews with the world’s sharpest minds and thinkers.