Few students on this campus have been fortunate enough to escape the classmate smitten with the sound of his or her own contrarianism — the devil’s advocate, as they often self-describe. We’ve all had the distinct displeasure of listening to them plead “not necessarily,” to the most basic of concepts, waiting around as they search for some toothless dispute — which, more often than not, rests not on any real tangible academic qualm but rather the desire to be recognized as a daring, independent thinker. After a few semesters, their presence seems eternal — part of the decor of the University, as intrinsic as that gray carpet and red brick. But that knee-jerk contrarianism is not a valuable criticism of academic thought, and it has not always been characteristic of the college campus. It is indicative of a phenomenon far larger in scope, and much older.
In September 2017, an editorial in a recent edition of Third World Quarterly used counterfactual history to make the case for the benefits of colonialism. Predictably, and especially so when considering Third World Quarterly was published for the express purpose of voicing narratives of the colonized, the rest of academia bristled. Many called for the article’s removal. But still, the article stood as a good example of real scholarly contrarianism — challenging the dominant narrative in order to assess whether it stands up to the criticism, and thus whether it is worthy of being the accepted narrative at all. In this case, scholars wrote myriad longform responses, and demonstrated the ‘offending’ argument to be superficial and baseless in certain, specific ways. In this same vein, we have always seen contrarianism on the college campus. Traditional scholarly contrarianism is part of debate, discussion and consensus — and it has always lived here, in places of higher education and critical thought.
But today’s political contrarianism arising out of post-Cold War politics, tied up in media influence and polarization — to challenge truth not for the sake of improvement, but for the glee of reaction — should not be confused with the older, scholarly approach. It’s everywhere, disguised as measured politics, wise warnings, illuminating reassessment of supposedly sycophantic national beliefs. We see it shaking up headlines, gathering clicks in the millions, feeding the quintuple-forwarded email chains of our older relatives. Everything you knew about X is wrong! Why Ben Carson Could Sweep 2016!
In the ’70s, American journalism relied on analysis, narrative and tone to replace the long-form authoritative piece; in the ‘80s, news and argument became even more expedited — enter Andrew Sullivan, Michael Kinsley, and others who traded narrative for the flashy and pithy. The ’90s weathered Mickey Kaus and his Kaus Files (the zit on the face of an even larger zit, Breitbart News) and pieces like Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You. Enter the 2000s and the present, flashy contrarianism became an art form. We know it today as ‘clickbait,’ or perhaps in the larger scope, ‘fake news.’ Even before 2016, President Trump and our present polarization, the Economist was writing in their 2009 Democracy in America feature that “as journalism has come increasingly to focus on contrarianism, it has become less and less adept at actually describing the world.”
New, exciting journalism, exaggerant headlines and unclear realities — a part of a modern-day polarized America, but not necessarily a result. In general, the bastardization of scholarly contrarianism by American journalism tended to ignore facts and publicize findings that were very, very wrong, mostly for the sake of the same flashiness that characterizes clickbait today. The “debunking” of climate change science in one chapter of Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner’s Superfreakonomics is a good example; marketed not toward academia but the layman, its dramatic denial of climate science stirred remarkable academic unrest. Multiple climate scientists, geologists, geomorphologists and paleoclimatologists had no trouble poking remarkable holes in its reasoning and data — most of which was predicated on cherry-picked facts and misunderstood aggregate results of other studies in order to aid in the melodrama of its assertions. This is not to make a point about the audacity of those who challenge climate science, but instead to ask, who published this? And where were the editors who too could have found the lapses in Superfreakonomics’ judgement, as easily as a geology undergrad?
The consequences of the new contrarianism come from the new nature of journalism: I.e., that our news is as concerned with being popular, or more so, as it is with being correct. Take a few headlines from The New York Times as example: “It’s Not Just Wrestling that’s Fake. It’s the World”; “How Vital Are Women? This Town Found Out as They Left to March.” Clickbait is no longer characteristic only of Buzzfeed quizzes or Breitbart’s primal screams; instead it defines The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal this week characterized economic tensions between Norway and Russia as “Cold War in the Arctic”; coverage of California wild fires by the Washington Post begins with a jarring “Death Toll Rises.” In that same sense, the new contrarianism is focused not so much on making counterarguments or proving and disproving points, but goading reactions.
In the context of campus thought, it serves to unfairly bolster arguments which were basically false in the first place — it is, as John Quiggin wrote, “ a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never thinking (in fact reinforcing) the status quo.” It feeds into the millennial abdication of responsibility to become truly informed (because everything is probably wrong, anyway) and it mires our news in the Catch-22 of producing attractive almost-falsehood to be read, and losing the public trust from being exaggerative and wrong. It is, as Paulina Borsook wrote, “to see what you want to see in pursuit of defying conventional wisdom; to ignore interconnectedness where convenient; and to do the math but leave out the bits that don’t conform to ideology.”
It also feeds the recent rise of devil’s advocacy language amid the public discourse of the college campus — and encourages its application to issues that do not require a devil’s advocate. Applying scholarly contrarianism to constructively challenge Bernie Sanders’ or Ted Cruz’ economic platforms is good, and the purpose of that contrarianism; but playing devil’s advocate to the safety of gay students from hateful discrimination is not. One is a political and academic position — e.g., ‘taxing the wealthy has the potential to support a free and reduced-cost college program.’ The other is an issue of basic human rights. The application of one is dependent on its correctness or incorrectness — that taxation can either support free college or it cannot, and that result can be objectively evidenced. The success of the other, however, depends not on its objective academic correctness, but the willingness of the dominant group to share power with a disempowered minority. And by promoting contrarian language in reference to movements of much-needed social progress, campus culture encourages an understanding of civil and human rights as nascent philosophical theories, instead of the deeply crucial instruments of national progress they actually are. As Albert Hirschman argued in his work “The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy,” social change and progress forces societies experiencing that progress to adapt; experts develop solutions to existing problems, and those solutions usually center around forcing a dominant group to share power with a disenfranchised and underserved minority group. Contrarian news, and political contrarianism, both essentially comprise counter-reactions to those processes — arguments against ‘safe spaces’ or task forces, backlash against scholarships for women or minorities, vicious outrage at the expression of oppression or recognition of privilege.
To answer the question of where contrarianism came from or where it is going, we need not look past our own campus. Contrarians like Milo Yiannopoulos drum up firestorms because political contrarianism, whether you agree or disagree with the focus, is sexy, and bigots like Yiannopoulos know and bet on that. Sure, playing devil’s advocate by talking over your peers in your political science intro course can feel like a flashy demonstration of higher thought. To buy into a contrarian political ideology (radical socialism on the left, Tea Partyism on the right) that does nothing but say ‘no’ means you have given yourself to a movement that cannot create its own original ideas, but instead replaces them with pomp. It encourages partisanship, it encourages clickbait news, and it burns the bridge between the chaos we find ourselves in now, and the centrist intellectualism most of us would probably prefer to return to. In short: Maintain scholarly contrarianism, but reject political impetuousness. Be a thoughtful critic, not an inflammatory contrarian.