I’d already created a draft of this post, which included only the title.
I’d created that draft because it occurred to me that that’s what I feel like I’m engaged in sometimes—contrarian diplomacy. I don’t accept popular belief on its face. Nor do I feel like I’m on anyone’s team, which makes me feel like I’m on everyone’s team. This often places me in the middle of opposing sides, understanding where they’re both coming from, seeing that they either don’t understand or don’t want to understand where the other side is coming from, and wanting very much to reconcile that difference. Clearly I’m no diplomat, and maybe “mediator” or “peacekeeper” would be better word choices here. So feel free to go with those if you’d like. Whatever you choose, I’m also very aware that my peacekeeping missions are in large part fool’s errands. But so be it. Because they are also in large part personally and spiritually motivated, at least as much about peace within as peace without.
As I experience them, contrarianism and diplomacy intertwine. They exist in both conflict and harmony. I’m just starting to piece this together, though, as I didn’t see the connection prior to putting the words together.
I think I’ve grown more diplomatic (and mediatory) over time, and I would be okay with that continuing. I’ve also grown more contrarian over time, though, and this causes me more concern. Am I refusing to accept popular belief merely because it’s popular (a bad thing)? Or am I sincerely questioning it because I refuse to accept it on its face (a good thing)?
Enter the Michael Ignatieff essay, which gave me a little more to work with than just my general sense of what it is I think I’m doing, i.e., the untrustworthy story I’m telling myself.
On his way to contrarianism, Ignatieff writes about the “anxiety of influence”:
Learning to trust a discipline and the knowledge it has certified as true is the starting point for any venture into thinking for yourself. Most of what you know you take off the peg, like a suit or a shirt you buy in a store, or the furniture you get from IKEA. College is like an IKEA store. It does not include assembly. In the lecture hall, the concepts are delivered boxed and flat-packed. You take them back to your room, and with the Allen wrenches that the professors have given you, you put together the furniture to fill the rooms of your mind. No surprise, then, if your mind starts looking like everyone else’s.
This creates what Harold Bloom famously called the anxiety of influence, the sense of being derivative, the worry that you are not speaking your own truth but being spoken by the various discourses that you have assembled for yourself. There is even the anxiety that there is nothing left for you to say. “Born originals,” the eighteenth-century poet Edward Young wrote, “how comes it to pass that we die Copies?” You want to think for yourself because you want to be somebody. Thinking is how you create, over time, the feeling that you exist as a distinct individual.
Here, I’m reminded of a hazy memory from when I was young, a memory that keeps coming back to me whenever I think about contrarianism.
I was with my dad and brothers at my grandparents’ house. Everyone was watching sports—football, I believe, maybe baseball, something with a ball for sure—which I had little interest in. They were all rooting for the same team, so I started rooting for the other team, which prompted one of my brothers to say that I was just trying to get attention. In other words: I wanted to be different, an original. I think the comment stuck because it stung. And I think it stung because he was right. And while I accept that I might be projecting, I think we all have at least a little bit of this in us: this need to be seen and heard and stand out, to be both part of the group and different.
All these years later, I’d like to think that this memory is still there because it’s serving as a cautionary reminder for me. It’s not as though I immediately recognized my error, learned my lesson, and corrected course. (I didn’t. I just noticed that I felt bad.) It’s more like I was alerted to the facts that (a) others could spot my bullshit, and (b) I could be full of shit without knowing it.
Slowly over time, I realized that my tendency to go against the grain was, in fact, a tendency, a strong one that I needed to be wary of if things like truth and intellectual honesty and integrity truly mattered to me.
It’s not that I was wrong to question why everyone in the room was rooting for the same team—or as Jerry Seinfeld has described it, rooting for the random group of guys wearing your preferred shirt. But I was wrong to instinctually and irrationally prefer the other shirt in response and opposition.
There are many other personal examples I could cite. This just happens to be the one that turned the light on for me.
We see a similar phenomenon playing out all the time in the form of tribalism. In some sense, that’s what tribalism is: a social deformity made up of (a) an often unquestioning acceptance of whatever views are popular on one side, and (b) an often unquestioning refusal to accept whatever views are popular on the other. I’ve not thought this all the way through yet, but it could be argued that tribalism is in some sense just contrarianism plus groupthink minus diplomacy.
Following up on his thoughts about being original, or “being somebody,” Ignatieff writes:
But originality, again, is not the objective of thinking. Bloom was writing about poets, and more generally about artists, for whom originality matters deeply, but the point of thinking is to say something true, not something new. Originality is not the only marker of individuality. Novelty cannot vouch for the truth of a proposition. And the obsession with originality eventually leads us to admire contrarianism—or as it is more accurately known, sheer contrarianism—which is a contentless and purely theatrical position, determined by no higher ambition than to say what is not being said, and thereby to draw attention to oneself. Sometimes a consensus is right and sometimes it is wrong; if you have thought the subject through and arrived at your own reasons to concur with others about it, then you have not surrendered your intellectual integrity; but a contrarian is just a reverse weathervane. The point is not to think originally but to think critically.
You free yourself from the anxiety of influence, first, by learning a discipline and then by casting a skeptical eye on the discourses that it seeks to make canonical.
A personal note re: the anxiety of influence: I won’t pretend that my thoughts and writing have never been derivative of another’s. In thought and writing just like in music, it is, I think, to some extent unavoidable. But there are also times when it is perfectly avoidable and we choose to be derivative anyway. That’s been my experience, at least. My most blatant and egregious of such sins are far enough behind me now that I feel no need to confess them. But I do view them as sins. Little shameful stains that I wear on my soul, or wherever, as reminders of what not to do, how not to be (somebody).
I point that out to underscore that I understand both the inclination to be derivative and the desire not to be. I also accept that my desire not to be derivative can, if I’m not careful, feed my contrarianism. I think the “reverse weathervane” analogy is apt, and I do not want to be one.
Ignatieff’s larger point above bears repeating: “You free yourself from the anxiety of influence, first, by learning a discipline and then by casting a skeptical eye on the discourses that it seeks to make canonical.”
This goes back to what I asked myself early on in this piece: “Am I refusing to accept popular belief merely because it’s popular (a bad thing)? Or am I sincerely questioning it because I refuse to accept it on its face (a good thing)?”
A “skeptical eye” is present, I think, in the questioning of popular belief, in the refusal to accept it as “canonical” on its face. That skeptical eye may lead to acceptance, or it may not. Both would be okay. But if our aim is to arrive somewhere valid—including a place of uncertainty—then we need to do our homework, which I view as an ongoing process, one that allows new information to enter our minds and have a say in our endless inner stream of conflict and chatter. That is the difference between doing the good thing and doing the bad thing, I think.
A bit later in his essay, Ignatieff writes:
Thinking for yourself is not solipsism, a perfectly isolated and self-confirming activity that occurs only inside your head. It is social: you work within force fields of thoughts and ideas created by others, and good thinkers are often, though not always, generous ones, quick to acknowledge others and their dependence upon them. Since dependence creates anxiety, a worry about being derivative, the only way out of this worry is to gratefully acknowledge your dependence and then make sure to take the thought further than where you found it. From dependence on the thoughts and insights of others, you gain confidence in your own way of thinking.
Quickly: It’s not for me to judge whether or not I’m a good thinker. But writing as a pathological one—and one who’s doing his damndest to be the best thinker he can be—I hope that I’m doing my part to acknowledge my dependence on the many good thinkers I encounter. Ignatieff today. Et al. in the past and future.
Taking the thought further: As I touched on earlier, my point about contrarianism and diplomacy intertwining in both harmony and conflict was the result of an edit. When I first started writing, I’d only noticed the conflict. The act of pushing back is one inextricable from disharmony. There’s no way around it. But there is, I have learned, a meaningful way through it.
When engaging in the skeptical eye/questioning kind of contrarianism (what I called the good kind), the conflict, or disharmony, forms on the side of the argument being questioned. But over on the other side, what forms is a greater sense of harmony than had existed previously. Meaning, whatever harmony there already was—within you, in your relationships with others; wherever—it’s now become a bit more harmonious. Because your understanding of the argument (and by extension, your empathy for the people making it) has grown. Do this enough times, with allegiance to no group or side or individual, and your harmony with all groups and sides and individuals will ultimately flourish.
Framed this way, all disharmony eventually falls silent, acting in the meantime as an indicator for the more robust harmony that is forthcoming.