Friday, June 7, 2013

The Contrarians

Thinking Small

“The noble title of ‘dissident’ must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement.” 
Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian

If you have ever met one, and I have met a few, you will never forget the experience of being in the presence of a contrarian. Such people are profoundly unhappy, and whether it’s genetics or a dismal view of the world, contrarians dwell in a pool of misery. They have no positive meaningful purpose in life, seeing only misery around them and the need to impose their ideas.

And, of course, their very presence will cause you misery, so negative, angry and self-absorbed is the mind of a contrarian. It’s not important to try to understand why such people view things the way they do; you can but you will never succeed through rational discussion in changing their minds. About anything. Once such individuals have formed their views, often irrational, they are wedded to them forever. Such people are comfortable in the knowledge that their view of the world is correct, even if it contributes to more sadness, more anger, more misery.

Happiness eludes them, since they view happiness as a false emotion; such is their default position on life, not something with which I can accept or agree. Who can say  with certainty why this is so? My advice: stay away from such people; misery is their way and there is no convincing them otherwise. In a letter to W. W. Norton (17 February 1932), Bertrand Russell writes about the quality of such unhappiness:
I think people who are unhappy are always proud of being so, and therefore do not like to be told that there is nothing grand about their unhappiness. A man who is melancholy because lack of exercise has upset his liver always believes that it is the loss of God, or the menace of Bolshevism, or some such dignified cause that makes him sad. When you tell people that happiness is a simple matter, they get annoyed with you.
They sure do. As a group they see through a glass darkly; calling themselves realists when they are in fact pessimists and cynics. Where others see possibilities and hope, they see dead ends and negative outcomes. They counter your views by arguing otherwise; they are skilful of providing reasons why your view is wrong, incorrect or impossible to deploy. And, yet, they can never come up with a reasonable plan that will work. It’s criticism for the sake of criticism. As with a fool, there is no reasoning with a contrarian; it’s a gesture in futility and frustration.

The dissident, however, is different in that he is usually fighting for a just cause. Dissidents are far more interesting individuals, and remain so, as long as they are dissidents. Without a real cause they might turn to contrarians, so used they are to fighting authority.