Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Long article by Bari Weiss in the Times give me the chance to ruminate on the "contrarian" thinkers of our time. Weiss is writing about people associated with Quillette and the "Intellectual Dark Web," who think they are taking great risks by saying forbidden things. And some of them have suffered for taking unpopular stands, for example:
A year ago, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying were respected tenured professors at Evergreen State College, where their Occupy Wall Street-sympathetic politics were well in tune with the school’s progressive ethos. Today they have left their jobs, lost many of their friends and endangered their reputations.

All this because they opposed a “Day of Absence,” in which white students were asked to leave campus for the day. For questioning a day of racial segregation cloaked in progressivism, the pair was smeared as racist. Following threats, they left town for a time with their children and ultimately resigned their jobs.

“Nobody else reacted. That’s what shocked me,” Mr. Weinstein said. “It told me that a culture that told itself it was radically open-minded was actually a culture cowed by fear.”
On the other hand people like Sam Harris, Joe Rogan, and Jordan Peterson are professional contrarians, who have made selective opposition to popular (mostly liberal) opinions the route to fame and fortune. Peterson is said to make $80,000 a month just off his Patreon, and he recently said that he had "found a way to monetize social justice warriors."

Joe Rogan says his friends are able to make a big splash because "people are starved for controversial opinions." And obviously there is something to that; a big part of Donald Trump's appeal is that his fans think he says things no other politician will.

I feel somewhat bemused by all of this. First, it seems to me that if there is anything our world has plenty of, it's people expressing controversial opinions on the internet. There is a liberal mainstream of sorts (pro-gay rights, pro-abortion, pro-giving money to the poor), but its hold on power is tenuous and there are many, many voices in opposition all the time.

Second is the weird notion that "social justice" or "political correctness" is something new; every society has things you are not supposed to say, and some have been much harsher about enforcing their norms than ours is. There have also always been social or political positions that require you to be very careful about what you say on certain topics, viz., the mayor of New York has to be very respectful of Jews and Italians, and the owners and executives of NBA teams cannot ever say anything that in any way remotely smacks of racism.

This is just life as a social mammal.

Third, I find all of this distantly interesting because I have such a generally skeptical take on life. People seem to shout the loudest about topics nobody knows anything about. Setting aside Cosby and Lauer and their ilk, does anybody have a good theory of how men and women are supposed to interact at work? Does anybody know if giving sex hormones to 11-year-olds will work out well in the long run? Does anybody know how to end the epidemic of opioid deaths? What sort of education to offer poor children not much interested in school? Or how to create an economy that is both dynamic and fair?

Another weird thing about this discourse is that it focuses mostly on hot-button social issues: gay rights, trans rights, sexual harassment, religion. Where are the contrarians in economic thought? In political science? Actually of course there are many such people all over the internet, arguing for socialism or anarchism or proportional voting. Yet they are not part of this alleged "contrarian" movement, which mostly accepts in a bland way the legitimacy of our political and economic institutions. Part of Jordan Peterson's schtick is the full-throated defense of western civilization as it currently exists, and it seems a little weird to me that this could be considered a contrarian opinion. On certain campuses, yes, but does that really matter in the big picture?

One thing I do like about this little movement is a determination to continue the discussion on a rational basis. Most of what passes for debate in our world has nothing to do with weighing different possibilities; mostly we try to shame and exclude people by treating them or their ideas as so far beyond the pale as to be not even worth engaging. Sometimes that works. But sometimes it just makes people mad, and I think President Donald J. Trump is the most obvious result of trying to treat 40 percent of the country as pariahs. So I like it that people like Rogan and Harris will argue with anybody, any time. But I dislike their insistence that they are bold, risk-taking contrarians. If you ask me, any idea you can make a living expressing can't really be all that dangerous.


Unknown said...

I thought the Weiss column was a pure puff-piece trying to cloak with a faux guerrilla glamour a bunch of celebrities and semi-celebrities who happen to mouth familiar right-wing talking points. If these people form some sort of secret, fugitive Dark Web, then Kanye West is a recluse.

John said...

Right. In our world you want to be a guerrilla outcast, even if you are a hugely famous celebrity. Everybody is a contrarian.