Sometimes great things don’t mix well together.
In my life, for example, a desire to do good and a preference for contrarianism have often run against each other. Because I believe neither of them is worth sacrificing, I therefore perceive of a need to clarify this conflict and provide some guiding thoughts on combining doing good with contrarianism.
Groups: The Bad
Growing up, I quickly realized that large groups can easily turn into a breeding ground for ignorance and lazy thinking. Even worse, the larger and the more powerful a group, the more likely it is to morph into a dangerous mob. Frankly speaking, joining a large group can be the quickest way to descend into group-think and forget basic facts and logic. In the end, each group creates its own standards of orthodoxy and those who don’t conform eventually end up being mocked, judged and exiled.
Examples of the dark side of grouping up are abundant. From political and religious movements through sports teams to various online communities, the group social dynamics are always at play. Each group, taken sufficiently seriously, creates an out-group, an other. And since most groups believe themselves right and the out-group wrong, it’s a short way going from difference of opinion to intolerance and intense hatred.
Given all of that, you would think a basic avoidance of groups, i.e. of belonging to and identifying with one, would be a prerequisite for a life ruled by wisdom instead of status-seeking and intolerance.
Indeed, being in a group seems like a sure-fire way not only to attract judgement against yourself (because of your own quirks and peculiarities), but also to become judgmental towards outsiders in your own way too.
In a way, just like controlling animal instinct and inner emotions is a precondition for virtue, so it is with staying away from large groups. Call it detachment, prudence or a love of independence, resisting the appeal of groups seems a great way to secure a bit more freedom for yourself.
Both a cause and an effect for that particular sort of freedom from groups is the exercise of contrarianism. In other words, thinking critically, questioning assumptions, and always being predisposed to disagree more so than agree.
Sounds too negative? Frankly put, it does. It does indeed look a bit grim to walk around and always look for flaws in every position out there.
But given our human nature, i.e. our propensity to be naive and follow our biases, contrarianism is perhaps the most reasonable of default positions. Indeed, whenever somebody tries to rally us up around a cause, few things beat an initial and rigid attitude of “yeah, not buying it”.
Well-practiced and reasoned contrarianism is the worst enemy of received wisdom, ideology and tyranny. As such, it can be the best friend of truth-seekers of all stripes. Contrarianism, practiced not as an obstinate refusal to consider arguments, but rather as a willingness to consider them all, is a vaccine for the mind against the mental viruses of dogma and attractive falsehood.
Personally, I look at contrarianism as a mental discipline. I know that I am frequently too easy to convince. After all, sellers and professional persuaders work day and night to make me buy their products or ideas. Moreover, they would be more than happy to overlook criticism and ignore any inconvenient fact. Given this context, it makes sense for me to stay vigilant and say no a thousand times before I say yes once.
It is important to note that contrarianism does not mean blind criticism. A good contrarian is never the one who fails to see the positives in an idea. Otherwise, the end result is simply an uncritical embrace of the opposite position. The greatest examples of this is political commentary where any flaw in one side’s arguments is implicitly assumed an argument for the other. Contrarianism dies when criticism becomes a weapon for proselytization instead of a tool for overcoming bias.
Nor does contrarianism mean sitting on the fence and never having a position. Rather, contrarianism is more about seeing the inherent nuance of life as expressed by different ideas. Being a contrarian does not imply a commitment to not having a judgement at the end of the day. But it does imply that whatever the outcome of this judgement, a contrarian will always feel a certain level of critical unease.
Precisely this unease is what protects a contrarian from becoming too extreme in his/her actions, if not his/her views themselves. The upshot is a reluctance for radical action and the establishing of a certain distance between the contrarian and activist groups of all kinds.
And herein lies the problem for me. On one hand, I want to be a contrarian. I like being honest with myself about the flaws in my own ideas and the possible criticisms of them. I also want to do the same with the ideas of others. Partly as a consequence, partly as a life lesson, I have acquired a distaste for the lack of nuance in the black and white thinking so characteristic of large groups.
On the other hand, however, I realize that groups are not to be avoided at all costs; that on great many occasions progress happens precisely through efforts of the group; that truly great ideas can’t help but spread and thus form a group around them; that groups have good sides to them too.
Groups: The Good
Of course, groups can be much more than a point of contact with the tribalism in our nature.
Since individuals are imperfect and knowledge is spread out through society, it is predominantly groups that best combine expertise, skills, and a will to action toward the achievement of important social goals. Moreover, groups provide a rich environment for intellectual discussion around common values and ideas. Thus, groups, at least in theory, are best equipped to amplify messages that need hearing and enable social movements that need to happen.
The problem of distinguishing good from evil social change notwithstanding, it follows that it’s foolish to avoid groups completely. Especially since it might be possible to avoid or at least ameliorate the dangers of large group dynamics if sufficient care is taken.
In other words, history is not just a list of groups committing the worst of atrocities, but also a list of groups embracing virtue and achieving lasting social progress.
The upshot is that for the active mind that wants to make a difference, joining or creating a group based around good and virtuous ideas is likely the best course of action.
So, going back to the beginning: there is an obvious tension between the contrarian’s skeptical reluctance to joining a group and the practical need to do good effectively, efficiently and in conjunction with others. Moreover, the problem is made worse once uncertainty is taken into account. We can rarely be certain that the ends we pursue are unquestionably good. To speak nothing of the means we use to actually pursue those very same ends…
So, what’s to do about that? How does one do good without being sucked in into a movement which eventually proves more harmful than helpful? After all, the road to hell is paved with good intentions…
A crucial piece of the puzzle is a delicate combination of authority, power, independence and autonomy. In many ways, the reason why groups can corrupt is because they end up magnifying the worst instincts of the majority or the leadership in charge. This is usually when ends-justify-the-means thinking occurs and people go along to get along.
Those are able to break free and still pursue the original good are predominantly those with authority and a certain level of independence. In other words, it helps to be a partner to the group as opposed to a mere member. After all, a partner group has its own influence whereas an average individual member has none.
I believe this is why I, along with many, have always felt much freer to pursue our ideals outside of the workplace through the role of entrepreneurs and independent artists or creators. By detaching ourselves from large groups and relying on them only while they still share the same positive vision and goals as us, we become more flexible and independent. If our goals subsequently change or the large group goes crazy, our impact takes a much lesser hit. We have our own following and autonomy that is not derived through the large group.
Indeed, this relationship is worth exploring further. Independent work and creativity are great because they force independent thinking out of us. Crafting a separate creed, organizing separate events, producing original content and making unique products all help clarify thoughts on the original subject matter and explore important distinctions. Partnerships can and should still happen, but only as long as goals align. As since creativity is what helps elucidate any unrecognized points of difference, going autonomous is a great way of making sure that your commitments to action are indeed correct.
More than that, being autonomous removes a certain level of economic and operational dependence. The result is a lessened need to conform and a greater incentive to perform for the sake of the cause as uniquely seen by you.
In many respects, the above is simply saying that a creative pursuit of independent action is much more preferable to relying on the outside world. It’s a lesson applicable not only in relation to large groups, but also on smaller scales, e.g. in personal relationships. More succinctly, if you want to ensure something done, start doing it yourself.
Of course, even in partnerships the dangers are not completely mitigated. Therefore, another crucial piece of the puzzle is drawing redlines and having a clearly defined measuring scale of good and bad performance. Imposing a certain level of rigidity can be beneficial when relying on others because of the following basic asymmetry: we are content with changes of conviction from the inside, but rebel against those from the outside. In other words, even if we are more lenient and experimental in our own minds, we should be extremely cautious when giving a carte blanche to any outside agent. When it comes to large scale real world action, trust should be constantly re-earned.
To this end, it is of utmost importance that a certain level of mental detachment from the group be maintained. Not in the sense of not caring for the group at all, but rather in the sense of committing to the vision behind it more than the group’s inner social dynamics. This way the scale of measurement shifts from in-group status to objective performance. Consequently, the allure of group politics and status-seeking diminishes. Moreover, a renewed willingness to hear criticism and discuss with outsiders allows for a rethinking of priorities, means and even ends.
In conclusion: decentralization of power, resource independence, idea- and action-flexibility — those are some of the most important ways a contrarian can work within a group without becoming unreasonably dogmatic and intolerant in the process. Combined with a good exercise of judgement along with a never-ending import of wisdom from books and speeches, that might well be all a contrarian needs to have a lasting impact on the world without selling his/her soul.
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