Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Place of the Contrarian

It is not always a bad idea to be against things. A certain critical spirit, a skeptical spirit is needed in every time, especially in a time of social pressure to conform. (Though my use of "skeptic" is not to be confused with the way the so-called New Atheists and some humanists use the word Skeptic-as a kind of code for the privileging of their form of natural scientific inquiry over other kinds of inquiry). Since this blog continues to be titled "the moderate contrarian" I had thought it timely, considering my absence here of about three months, to revisit and rethink what it means to be in opposition or against something.

There are (relatively) few things in life that admit of requisite assent and conformity. That Hitler is evil and Shakespeare is good are verdicts with which only the ethically insane or aesthetically blind would wish or dare to argue against. Then there are scientific facts and laws which have an approximate correspondence with physical reality is something that anybody in air travel with a modicum of faith should be expected to hold, even if not entirely understand (as the pilot does).

In truth, such matters of universal consensus are far fewer than we would like or expect. One does not wish to oppose as a game or philosophic tic. This is not what is meant by contrarian. Being contrarian is not a spirit of wanting to lord it over one's fellows or to be in opposition for the psychological thrill of it. Rather, being contrarian has something to do with the fact that most matters of great and small importance are unsettled, inspire intractable and continual argument and the majority of people in any given time or place, once they reach a consensus. are usually wrong about the matters in question.

Being contrarian also has something to do with liberty and independence. It is simply part of being a human being of integrity. The highest figure in  modern history for speaking of the spirit I have in mind is, of course, Immanuel Kant, especially in his What Is Enlightenment.

He could not have put it more plainly. Dare to use your own reason (understanding). This has consequences that do not sit well in our current epoch. In our current epoch there is a love and preference for group identitiy. Community and neighborhood are seen as superior virtues or at least catchy buzzwords. Conversely, the individual is usually seen as vice: a sign of egotism or selfishness. This is a mere fashion, perhaps born of an overpopulated world where each individual is force to count for so little, or where humans are inculcated early on, vis a vis the complex ties of family obligation and loyalty, into the preference for the group.

But it is a fashion nevertheless and it is a fashion against which we should be armed. Though I use the word fashion it is a remnant of the very oldest human societies - traditional societies that are much more collective in spirit. Nevertheless I use the word fashion because our longing for some kind of return to such a state of affairs, an uncritical return, is a fashion masked as the normative. It is even more problematic and confusing that when the individual makes its appearance on the current stage it is in pathological and indeed sinister forms: the Ayn Rand cult of capitalist domination, to name but one example. When I praise the individual as golden I am thinking not of these deformed and quite contemporary examples. It is important to recognize that contemporary Libertarians, however much lip service they pay to individual liberty end up, however inadvertently, creating a bondage and slavish devotion to "great men and women" to heroic business entrepreneurs, for example, even to the point where society as a whole is forced to give over huge amounts of wealth and attention to such exalted figures, even if the result means poverty for a great many people.

 When I speak of the individual I mean the conscience and inner life of an individual, which is priceless and sacred: the individual as understood by the the Enlightenment Philosophers, by the early political theorists of Democracy and literary artists of Democracy such as Whitman and Emerson, and by the great Romantic thinkers such as Schelling, Hegel, Nietzsche and by an attitude exhibited in Kant's great essay.

When Kant enjoins us to use our own reason who is the person in question? What can and does he mean? It is the individual human being. He is speaking to a single reader of his essay; he is not speaking, as would Marx a century later, to a group identity to be mobilized in the name of some progressivist cause. It is not the nation, or tribe/blood, or precious identity. It is not even one's own family, and, most controversially for traditional religionists, it is not even one's own experience with the the commandments of a personal God. The process of interiority for Kant must be so independent as to  ignore even that obligation to the highest authority, if that highest authority is in violation of moral law or aesthetic preference, if such authority  doesn't feel right or violates one's sense of autonomy in reasoning. If the vibes are bad. Daring to use your own reason is quite simply living out the fullest potential of being a self, in its independence. The independence to make up one's own mind. Yes, we live embedded in society and we come in a context, but Kant urges to be as free as is possible from such influences.

The question of how to honor both self and community is far from settled and George Kateb stands practically alone among contemporary philosophers is critiquing group conceptions.

An important caveat about freedom: freedom is really only one good among many. It is never the sole nor even primary good. Liberty must be tempered by many other social matters, especially safety; safety being a value that is under theorized and ill considered outside of criminological circles. Yes freedom is a necessity and a precondition but far from sufficient. Much of the evil in the world has been committed because someone had the freedom or was enabled to have the freedom to commit the evil. This is why, protestations of certain anti-government Anarchists notwithstanding, we need things like courts and police forces. This does not make freedom the problem as authoritarian conservatives might argue. Freedom as I use it here merely means the absence of forces preventing any person from acting. The problem here is an infantile or juvenile conception of freedom whereby freedom is the only value that matters. Lots of things matter, not any single thing.  We need freedom but we also need security and safety, for example, to name two often contrasting and conflicting value claims. And in large part, I think the debate between political Left and political Right is not a debate between good guys and bad guys but between those that perhaps overemphasize freedom (the economic Libertarians) versus those that overemphasize equality (the Marxists and Anarchists). Too much freedom, and you get the rapacity and savagery of our economic inequality of the U.S. over the past thirty years. Too little freedom and forced (though imperfect) equality, and you get the Soviet Union for its entire duration. I call my blog the moderate contrarian for a reason. I don't think that you can or should be a moderate in all things but moderation is a safe and good starting assumption with which to begin and, as Hegel remarked, we must after all eventually begin and start somewhere. Moderation is a better starting point than the alternatives. If needed we can rise in our passions and even become excessive, but in special cases and on rare occasions. I take moderation to be the antidote to and antonym of fanaticism.

Karl Popper noted that Kant, though a fan of revolutionary political activity, was concerned about fanaticism:
"It was Robespierre's rule of terror that taught Kant, who had welcomed the French Revolution, that the most heinous crimes can be committed in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity: crimes just as heinous as those committed in the name of Christianity during the Crusades, in various epochs of witch hunting, and during the Thirty Years' War. And with Kant we may learn a lesson from the terror of the French Revolution, a lesson that cannot be repeated too often: that fanaticism is always evil and incompatible with the aim of a pluralist society, and that it is our duty to oppose it in any form-even when its aims, though fanatically pursued, are themselves ethically unobjectionable, and still more so when its aims coincide with our personal aims".

Current social media makes independence of thought and spirit more endangered than it ever was in the conformist nineteen-fifties. One of the major reasons is that the internet is a project of the group mind or the hive: it is all group identity all the way down. Liberals talk to only other liberals and conservatives talk to only other conservatives. Groups of people ride waves of instantly felt and instantly shared enthusiasms as well as shared hates. Current social media is like mirror neurons on steroids. One of the results, if it is not already happening, is that all sorts of new politically correct consensuses will form on a variety of hot button and moral issues. The problem is, what if the consensus is actually wrong? Or what if an individual human being cannot feel or see his or herself in the new shared norm? Or what if the consensus is hysterically overwrought? Or reductionist? And last but not least, what if the facts are hard to find and without definitive authority?  In a sense and in short, without the contrarians, without those that dare to challenge  beloved and agreed upon norms and mores, we will be in great trouble.

Being a contrarian in my personal behavior might mean refusing current fashions in areas of speech as well. I refuse the current vernacular. For example you will never hear me say awesome about anything. I might call things good and bad or say I love something instead. Neither will I say "no worries" in an awkward moment. I want to resurrect the seventeenth century use of the word disinterestedness, not in its current (and, interestingly, original) form as a synonym for uninterested.

It is important to be suspicious of anything that is greatly popular however entertaining it may feel. Why? Well it is one way of maintaining individuality and independence; it is also a way of taking the longer and larger view. Yes Breaking Bad is perhaps well acted and written but to read people's responses to it you'd think it was as good as or better than a Chekhov play! Larry David (who does deserve the praise he has been given) called his show Curb Your Enthusiasm for a reason. It was his way, I think, of asking us all to be less credulous and more, well, contrarian.

That is all I have to say after my long absence, I revisited a larger theme and now it will be time to discuss what really matters: 1970s music and films, Jazz, jazz, and more jazz, funky music, European classical music, and Chantal Akerman's News From Home, and many other delights. For, my oppositional tendencies notwithstanding, I always prefer to praise than to blame and to celebrate and understand than to merely critique.
Still from Chantal Akerman, News From Home

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