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Letters to a young contrarian, responded to by a young contrarian

What does it mean to be a ‘contrarian’ in the social media age?

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The legendary polemicist Christopher Hitchens begins his 'Letters to a Young Contrarian' with a musing: what exactly does 'contrarian' mean? It is not, as he notes, synonymous with 'dissident' - that must be earned in subversion and battle, and is certainly out of the reach of a wannabe intellectual in the West. "Loose cannon", "rebel" and "gadfly", are, according to Hitchens, "slightly affectionate and diminutive, and are, perhaps for that reason, somewhat condescending." There is an irony to the idea of the contrarian, also: To think outside the box, he notes, is a supposedly praiseworthy ability. Think too far outside the box, and you get lampooned with "fanatic," "malcontent."

I'm reading this book because I'm one of those wannabe intellectuals, raised on a diet of Richard Dawkins speeches and "r/rationality" online chatrooms. But of course this is all pseudo-subversion. Because, as Hitchens notes, writing the book gave him a deep sense of: "the weight of every millisecond that marked me as a grizzled soixante-huitard, or survivor of the last intelligible era of revolutionary upheaval, the one that partly ended and partly culminated in les evenments de quatre-vingt neuf - (the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.) So of course there is that visceral discontent of the contemporary keyboard- warrior: real revolution and all that feels sadly behind us. In fact, a friend at school recently remarked to me that: "I'd just like a real, nice revolution."

You might scoff, and you'd probably be justified in doing so. Chinese authoritarianism is not only powerful, but working. Almost 70% of the 167 countries covered by the Economist's Democracy Index recorded a decline in their overall 'democraticness' score in 2020. The global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006. 2020's Black Lives Matter protests were met with a huge and dangerous expression of police force. There are hardly a lack of revolutionary causes to fight for in the 21st Century.

So is this a classic case of "people are always nostalgic for a time before them and are blinded to the importance of the present" syndrome? For illustration think of the protagonist of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a Hemmingway-admiring Hollywood scribe who is magically transported to meet his heroes in 1920s Paris, only to be surprised that the contemporaries of this supposed "Golden Age" are spending their days longing for Paris in the 1880s.

These days, 'radicals', 'contrarians' and 'dissenters' take on roles on both sides of the mostly- online Culture War. Indeed, each side of said Culture War views themselves as the real radicals - the heirs to Hitchens' generation. We have the Social Justice warriors - arguably, those with the most legitimate cause on their side. Social Justice warriors are a curious breed on radical, in the weird flux state of having superficially won but not won their fight. In other words, what is generally considered 'culturally-acceptable' for governments, corporates, and public figures etc is defined through the Social Justice lens. And yet, the scourges of racism and sexism live on - climate change is somehow accepted by consensus but not acted upon by anyone with real power.

And then we have those 'contrarians' on the other side of the cultural chasm - the warriors against so-called 'PC culture.' Those - and it is a disjointed coalition - supporting "Jacinda=Stalin" placards on the back of their tractors, reading the books of the controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, or Glenn Greenwald, 'owning the libs' from his self-proclaimedly anti-mainstream internet blog.1

So, twenty-one years from the publication of Hitchens' little book of letters - everyone is a contrarian, or at least a self-declared contrarian. But what of the 'true' definition? Hitchens traces the traditional notion of the term back to the exemplary radical Émile Zola, the 19th century playwright, naturalist novelist and all-round intellectual. Zola is a model for Hitch primarily for his defence of truth and humanism in the face of tribal afflictions and mob sentiment. He writes: "Emile Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile role played by clericalism, by racial hatred, by militarism and by the fetishisation of "the nation" and the state…. in every epoch, there have been those to argue that "greater" goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over the demands of justice.

In September 1894, French intelligence found a mole had been siphoning secrets to the German embassy. Anti-semitism caused senior officers to suspect Captain Alfred Dreyfus, though there was no direct evidence of any wrongdoing. Dreyfus was court-martialed and convicted of 'treason.' Zola publicly decried the antisemitic sentiments of the French populous on the front pages of the biggest newspaper in the land - and at a time, certainly, where decrying racism in public was a far more dangerous affair. There's a whole canon of this type of intellectual radical - harking back, perhaps, to Socrates the questioner, and certainly Galileo. The individual who stands on the side of objective truth in the face of tribal, populist, spiritual mob-sentiment.

How achievable is this archetype, however, in a world, as I discussed above, where everyone is a contrarian standing for their own sacred truth? Hitchens, presciently, actually takes a stab at what exactly the "truth" that the contrarian speaks to power is. If he didn't have Social Media echo-chambers to grapple with, Hitchens did have postmodernism, with its general rejection of absolutism on matters of fact. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett has noted: postmodernism made it intellectually 'vogue' to reject the concept of objective truth behind layers of perception.

"You have probably heard, from one complacent pundit or another, the view that argument produces more heat than light. You have certainly been instructed that truth lies not at one pole or another but 'somewhere in between,'" Hitchens summarises. He retorts that, as a law of physics, heat is to the contrary the primary source of light. "One does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood. The sun cannot rise in the East one day, and the West another."

When Kellyanne Conway, the former Trumpian press secretary, wrote off a Government misdemeanour to the simple matter of "Alternative facts" back in 2017, she wasn't probably thinking about epistemology. But it's a debate about language and the nature of knowledge, nonetheless - about the postmodernist mindset excusing filter bubbles and theocracy through the concept of "perception." Hitch isn't around for what many term "the Post-Truth" era, but he speaks from the grave in defence of absolutism on some matters - indeed, that is the job of the contrarian - to genuinely believe we can find some ounce of truth in all this mess. Why? Because supposedly the truth exists whether we like it or not. As Galileo maybe said: Eppur si muove. And yet it moves.

  1. As a side note on the farmers placards, what would the teenagers of Hitchens' generation - who tore down the Berlin Wall les evenments de quatre-vingt neuf say to that?

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