Becoming contrary

How do you know that what you hold dear and true is in fact so? What are you using as your own personal fact-checker? Merely going along to get along might make you popular (it might also make you a doormat) but it doesn’t guarantee veracity. Following the masses could find you stepping off a cliff with a group of your fellow lemmings.

I’m a big fan of contrarians. Picking writers and thinkers that hold positions diverging from the accepted and mainstream is one way to step out of your own personal echo chamber. Being contrary can actually be a good thing and serve as a preventative to being swept along by the conventional thinking that we’re too often buffeted by.

Seeking out the heterodox on any subject or matter of thought is one way to push the parameters of your own understanding. It can open up new avenues and be a source of new ways of seeing the world. Some might even call this growth–I know I would.

Being a contrarian doesn’t mean being a crank. It also doesn’t mean that you leave off with scientific evidence and data. No that’s being stupid and narrow. Swimming upstream isn’t the same thing as continually disagreeing merely to be disagreeable. You know what I’m talking about, too. There are always those people happy to take the opposite position just because they’re argumentative and possibly a miserable soul, who must always contend on issue, even if they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. No, I’m talking about genuine, thoughtful contrarians who hold positions that are comfortably outside the conventional or mainstream on any issue. Oprah Winfrey is not a contrarian. Wendell Berry is.

My reading choices regularly reflect this approach and they will continue to frame my own personal growth as I travel my personal path of self-learning, or as I like to call it, “my education at the University of Autodidactica.” Look up “autodidact” and you’ll know what I mean.

We live in a land that has come to rely on too much magical thinking, or maybe a better way to look at it—we rely on others to do our magical thinking for us. That’s a topic I plan to come back to as I start my reading in 2013.

I just began a book by a noted contrarian and in it he mentions that America as a nation “has reached a point where we seem incapable of constructing a coherent consensus on anything.” Just look at our current debacle in DC concerning “the fiscal cliff,” which is actually a term I hate but it gets used by the mainstream media, so it now defines the narrative on the matter. To me that’s a case of legislative breakdown and dysfunction.

I’d encourage you to widen your sources of information this year. Turn off the talking television heads, and surely avoid talk radio at all costs. Try reading something out of the mainstream or at least something longer than 500 words on a particular subject. As I mentioned, I enjoy and learn new things every week because I read The New Yorker. Not necessarily a contrarian publication, but you do get longer, well-written pieces on subjects not always covered by mainstream news media. A recent profile on Rob Bell, former megachurch pastor, was a case in point of the kind of thoughtful, well-written articles you won’t find anywhere else. There are certainly other similar publications, but not too many, thanks to media consolidation.

Watch some independent films, especially films with subtitles. Listen to some new music that wasn’t recorded back when you were in high school. Visit a nearby art museum. Pick out a book about architecture from your local library.

Stretch your thinking just a little bit, and step outside of your comfort zone a few times this year. You’ll find your thinking and opinions starting to broaden just a tiny bit, and that’s a good thing.

4 thoughts on “Becoming contrary

  1. What about listening to music that was recorded when Wendell Berry was in high school? 🙂 I look forward to taking a few classes at the University of Autodidactica…now, where did I put my reading glasses?

  2. I think you hit a very key point there–people are relying on others to do their magical thinking for them. Despite shouting their fantasy future of hydrogen cars and endless oil from the creamy center of the earth (yes, I’m borrowing from Kunstler), they don’t bother to do even the most fundamental research into chemistry, physics and geology. A passing familiarity with any of them will reveal the fallacies in these magical futures. It just requires thought.

  3. @ Proustish-

    There does seem to be this need for Americans to rely “on others to do their magical thinking for them,” doesn’t there? Not sure if it’s as prevalent in other western countries–you might be able to shed some light on that.

    Kunstler’s new book is stronger, IMO, than “The Long Emergency.” He touches on points he made back in 2005(?) and builds new “infrastructure” on ideas for the future, rooted in our bad choices made in the past when we didn’t have to–mainly hitching everything in this country to Happy Motoring.

    Thought and thoughtfulness seems to be something we are in dire need of.


    I keep thinking of Berry, his own aversion to technology, and his essay, “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer.” He mentions his wife typing his work up on “a Royal standard typewriter bought new in 1956 and as good now as it was then.”

    How many of us can say that about our laptops, PCs and other digital devices? They seem to be obsolete 6 months after we purchase them.

    As we have been discussing, ala Kunstler, Greer, and even Berman, the old ways, and modes of technology more akin to Berry’s Royal may be back in style sooner than most realize it.

    I guess that makes me a “contrarian,” possibly a “doomer” to some. I don’t think I’m deserving of the moniker of “crank,” although questioning our magical thinking and everlasting progress is liable to get you labeled as one; it’s not my intent to be “cranky,” however.

  4. I wish I had my old uprights, a Royal and my father’s Underwood. The smell of the ribbon, the ability to control the mechanical action, and people forget how gentle they were on arthritic fingers, compared to keyboards.

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