The dangerous allure of contrarianism

It’s rarely been more popular, or more fashionable, to be a contrarian. The baseline assumption that “all official speech is false speech” is now an article of faith for a loosely knit global network numbering in the hundreds of millions (if not billions).

This isn’t some sinister cabal or dangerous new religion (although it does share some of those characteristics) - it’s more of a grassroots rebellion and revulsion against the present state of the world. Social media has allowed what would once have been isolated grumblings to coalesce and metastasize into a global bloc paradigmatically opposed to any kind of official consensus. This is dangerous for many reasons and to many people, not least to contrarians themselves. More on that later.

This wave of rejectionism isn’t new or even unexpected. After decades of slow decay, major global institutions in all spheres of life have lost much of their credibility. Globalisation, endless Middle Eastern wars, the Great Recession and the attendant rise in income inequality (among many other factors) have fomented a deep and corrosive distrust in enormous swathes of people around the world. Although its middle-class adherents are the most vocal, plenty of less connected people are just as fed up with business as usual.

The media are a particular target of disdain for contrarians. Seen as venal, ideologically bankrupt and wilfully biased, these mouthpieces of the global elites are not merely distrusted - they are actively loathed. A useful predictor for almost any contrarian position is simply to assume the polar opposite of what the media is saying. Trump bad? No, Trump good! Vaccines good? No, vaccines bad!

Many dismiss this entire group of people as some combination of stupid, misanthropic and reactionary. The problem with that glib analysis is that many of them are none of the above. I talk to them all the time on Twitter and many are intelligent, thoughtful and genuinely compassionate people. There are, of course, plenty of dyed-in-the-wool hatemongers, psychopaths and crypto-fascists - but in my experience, they’re not remotely in the majority.

We’re talking about millions of South Africans here - I’d thumbsuck an estimate at least 10 or 12 million. This includes middle-class black Evangelicals, young Afrikaans-speaking people of all colours, professionals and artisans, young and old. Dismissing them all as nazis or tin-foil hat wearers is lazy and ultimately self-defeating.

So where’s the danger? Surely these people have every right to their opinion? The world has been badly led in the last few decades, and many problems seem to be getting worse. Who am I to police their thoughts, particularly when my own are so clearly derived from the very elites they so despise?

The danger is very simple, but very subtle: excessive certainty. The notion that you and your fellow “thinkers” know “the real truth” is intoxicating. You have solved the riddle of the world - you understand it all. And you know this because your echo chambers - social media, instant messaging, physical - all confirm it with an endless stream of confirmatory clips, memes and headlines.

For a subculture that prides itself on looking deeper and mistrusting easy conformity, contrarians display a striking degree of uniformity of opinion. This opinion also forms extremely quickly. Confirmation bias is incredibly powerful - particularly when an entire alternative media apparatus has sprung up with express aim of informing you of what you already suspect: the media are lying, the real truth is the opposite.

Take Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for example. Within literal hours, all the contrarians I know were saying more or less the same thing: the West provoked Russia and are equally to blame. We should condemn both Russia and NATO equally. And what about these troubling reports of Ukrainian Nazis? And why are we ignoring Palestine / Syria / Yemen in favour of Ukraine?

All humans are subject to influence by peers and trusted sources. If the main criterion for those sources (conscious or not) is “they disagree with MSM and the elites”, then your natural scepticism takes a back seat to your ideological instincts. The availability heuristic trumps sober analysis every time and twice on Sundays.

Yet some of these trusted sources are trojan horses - witting or unwitting - for exactly the kind of fake news and misinformation that disgusts contrarians about the mainstream media. I’ve seen local contrarians parroting, verbatim, Kremlin talking points. Whether said talking points are true or false, reasonable or unreasonable, is largely beside the point. The contrarians, so certain of their ability to discern the truth, are just as likely to spread disinformation, or even an official position, as the rest of us.

Contrarians are also, like all of us, deeply motivated by incentives. There is an enormously strong incentive for tribal agreement and acceptance. A global movement built on meaning only thrives when that meaning is shared and magnified - heresy means ejection from the brotherhood.

This tribal incentive is sharpened by the opposition contrarians face in both their personal lives and online. Many were made pariahs by their families over their opposition to vaccination. Many are the Trump-loving black sheep of their friendship group. This criticism and censure does not moderate their views - it hardens their resolve. Like the 16th Century Puritans, they draw strength from their persecution.

Nor are all of those views wholly unreasonable and without basis. The reaction against the worst excesses of the Progressive Left, and its doctrinaire militancy, are difficult to dismiss out of hand for example. Much of the hypocrisy, venality and cowardice they point out is genuine - and much of it is ignored by the powers-that-be for the sake of political expediency.

The real danger isn’t in disagreeing with the comfy consensus, or questioning the complex nature of the world more deeply - those are virtues of a kind. The real danger is making that approach the only lens through which you view the world. The more accustomed you become to being “the one who sees the truth” - the more likely you are to assume that whatever you see must, by definition, be the truth.

You might ask what right I have to make these judgements. You might say I am simply a blind conformist appealing to power and dismissing the uncomfortable truths. Several local Twitterati of the trad and contrarian persuasion have said that about me at some point - Robert Duigan for example. To the red-pilled I am a dupe and an ignoramus - a marginally useful idiot spewing the party line.

You’re entitled to those views, but I respectfully disagree. I’m not special - I have eaten up the party line in my time, and come back for seconds. But I have grown increasingly wary (and weary) of both sides of the current global divide. I do not trust corporatist US media of any stripe, nor do I assume anymore that the UN is an unambiguous force for good. Dismissing me as a blind fool may make you feel better, but it’s no more true than the idea that nazis run Ukraine.

One of the only things I am entirely certain about anymore is that people who are absolutely certain about things are full of shit. At best they have bought entirely into their tribe’s consensus, and at worst they are active agents of disinformation and chaos.

You may pride yourself on looking deeper. If so, maybe ask yourself why so many other people agree with you, and why their views match your own so closely. If your knee-jerk response to that is “because it’s the truth” then I have a nice bridge to sell you between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Certainty is addictive, don’t kid yourself. If you’re going to question everything, then question everything - including yourself.