By Donavan Makus
What does it mean to be a contrarian? The exact definition, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, states that someone who is contrarian is “[one] who takes a contrary position or attitude.” Usually, this is observed in people who like to go against the majority or enjoy playing devil’s advocate in most situations. In common usage, the term has a negative connotation. A contrarian is someone who rejects conventional wisdom, which prolongs any conversation or meeting with objections and alternative options. Despite this negative connotation, we would benefit from having more contrarians, despite the time and energy they require.
Perhaps the most significant issue with contrarianism is the breadth of activity covered by the term. To use a shipping analogy, the contrarian can be anyone from the person suggesting a 1-degree course adjustment, to the crew member suggesting scuttling the ship. To be a consummate contrarian is not to merely always being someone who “stands athwart history, yelling Stop,” but who also suggests going in a different direction when others suggest holding fast or doing things the way they have always been done. Both a genocide denier and critic of a popular government policy hold contrarian views, yet one likely represents a form of ignorance or ideological blindness. At the same time, the other reflects different government policy priorities. The most isolated contrarians fall into the extreme camp, denying or opposing either facts, popular opinion, or an entire way of life. It is easy to ignore contrarians of this variety, and perhaps justifiably so. I find it difficult to take anyone denying genocide seriously and hope this would be a common stance. However, as extreme as the most contrarian views may be, examining, and potentially refuting them, is a valuable exercise in both strengthening the correct position or potentially changing the mainline ideology.
Contrarians tend not to be shared in most settings, for several reasons. For one, contrarians are not usually popular. Telling the majority that they’re wrong, no matter how diplomatically done, does not typically engender popularity. Being persistently contrarian can lead to an environment where the contrarian, having opposed a significant number of people they encounter regularly, has increased tensions, leading to a risk of the collective isolation of the contrarian. Expressing contrarian ideas can quickly end relationships and lead to an isolated existence, yet this should not dissuade anyone from rejecting all positions considered contrarian.
While the most extreme type of contrarian is the easiest to ignore or marginalize, history is rife with individuals who took strong stances against overwhelmingly popular or mainstream ideas or concepts. Through significant turbulence and personal loss, they are now no longer viewed as contrarians, but as visionaries, rebels, revolutionaries, and great thinkers who were ahead of their time. Individuals such as Copernicus, famous for causing a renewed focus on viewing the sun as the center of the solar system, is now viewed as a visionary who helped launch revolutions in the scientific method. Ignaz Semmelweis was a pioneer in hygiene in medical settings, advocating hand washing and disinfection, a stance that was widely rejected by the medical community of the time, leading to his isolation, commitment to an asylum, and death due to, ironically, infection. It was only after his death that he was recognized as a visionary pioneer. Rebels were frequently viewed as contrarians at the time, such as the German White Rose resistance members who were imprisoned and executed by the Nazi Regime. Today, they are recognized for their bravery. Many successful religious leaders who are now recognized as mainstream started as contrarians, opposing elements of the religious or societal norms of their time, from Buddha to the significant monotheistic religions. In a more negative vein, Lenin was quite the contrarian, opposing the entire capitalist system without a broad base of popular support, one of a small group of vocal contrarians, before completing his revolution, with all the bloodshed his ideas would inflict on the globe. Even extreme contrarians can occasionally bring about enormous positive change, while also being capable of causing great harm. Time is an excellent force for reexamination and change, and views, and we all likely hold positions that would make us extreme contrarians at some point in history. There are many places and times in history where positions such as the universality of human rights, astronomical facts, or scientific truths we know hold as correct would be viewed as strange contrarian positions. It is easy to use the big idea contrarians as examples, or those who were particularly successful, while ignoring all the failed big idea contrarians and forgotten rebels lying in unmarked graves. However, rejecting the most extreme contrarian positions automatically by their “out there” factor may mean prolonging the time it takes the next Copernicus or Semmelweis to change the world for the better. At the same time, we must be vigilant that the particular contrarian is not the next Lenin before accepting their ideas better left on the ash heap of history.
The most significant and most extreme contrarians represent a natural fixation point, but what about the more minor everyday contrarians, the ones not recorded in history books? This is the setting where the overwhelming majority of us operate, and no less an essential arena for contrarian views. It is here that we can all make a difference. Here, as in any interpersonal interaction, tact is important. If everyone is complimenting someone on their appearance, you should not be the one to find a flaw. When everyone in the group wants to go out somewhere, you do not always want to feel the need to suggest a different option and start attacking the majority choice. A better kind of contrarianism is to pick and choose your battles, the contrarian who thinks every hill is the one to die on tends to die on many hills, burning down relationships in the process. At the same time, the majority opinion is not necessarily the correct decision. Groupthink is a powerful force, and sometimes all it takes is one person breaking ranks to reveal that the seemingly united majority had cracks and a compromise, or another path, is the best option. Having the resolve to take a contrarian position, even merely to ensure alternative perspectives are considered, can make a group decision process better, as tricky as deciding when to act may be. Someone may have been thinking the same, contrarian, position you brought up, but was not comfortable being the first to break ranks. Proper decision-making processes involve back and forth, and this requires the willingness to suggest an alternative to what everyone else is suggesting, particularly for the more day to day decisions. By being willing to both take the contrarian view or listen to it, we improve the group decision making processes we use.
Contrarians are neither inherently wrong or right merely on account of their contrarian positions. They must be critically evaluated. It is precisely this process of critically evaluating both the contrarian position and the original mainstream view, that shows the value of contrarians. We have no idea of knowing what ideas, ways of life, and established “facts” will have fallen to the wayside 50, 100, and 500 years from now. By critically examining not only our present environment but also the alternatives, we can continue to move forward. As George Bernard Shaw put it so well in a play, which could describe the contrarian mindset; “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”