On Doing the Opposite of What Other People Do
I wouldn’t completely describe myself as a contrarian, but I would admit to an inclination toward doing the opposite of whatever else is going on. I’m not sure where this behavior comes from, and I don’t think it’s a problem. If I’m not doing or saying or thinking or behaving the opposite of others, I’ve at least considered the opposite for the sake of argument, or for the sake of getting to the appropriate conclusion about things.
If you know me at all, you know it’s pretty obvious my life fits into many standard norms and I likely only have a few characteristics that would classify as obvious cases of contrarianism. But if you know me really well, then you know I often argue against ideas just for the sake of arguing.
I’ll admit that I have fun disagreeing, but I’m not arguing for the sake of individuality or to be a thorn in the side of whoever I’m talking to. The use of a contrarian stance is in the fact that there’s many opposing views to each idea, and oftentimes those opposing views are correct, or exploring them allows us to strengthen the argument closest to the truth. We can’t ever determine what’s closest to truth if we haven’t considered every possibility.
Sometimes this means I’ll argue against ideas I actually agree with, or I’ll juggle different ideas in my head and try to find an argument for each one, with some sort of evidence that can back up each argument. This method can have unfortunate consequences, because any argument can find evidence to support it, or at worst the arguer can just rationalize things. (This is how I sometimes find evidence for why I should binge eat or skip exercising when my mood decides it needs an argument for one of these actions.)
I don’t think my philosophical position is that of a skeptic. And I’m not a psychoanalyst, so I can’t speak on why I behave and interact with the world the ways that I do. But I will make the case that it’s often healthiest for a person to do the opposite of what they’re told to do, the opposite of a societal norm, or even the opposite of what they themselves want to do. (In the example of our temptations, it’s very clear that we should do the opposite of the things that we want to do.)
There’s an argument technique known as an ‘appeal to authority’ or ‘argument from authority.’ It’s an argument where the claimed support of an authority figure is used to prove that the argument is right. An example where we often see this style is when atheists argue with theists. Instead of choosing more defensible arguments to speak with atheists, many theists will cite the authority of the Bible and use that as a means to prove whatever it is they’re trying to prove.
A few problems here are:
- not everyone agrees on the validity of a given authority
- most authorities are flawed people just like us.
To add an existential element, some thinkers wouldn’t agree that there is any ultimate authority at all. I’ll point to a local example, our parents.
When we’re young, our parents are authority figures that children usually assume are always right. When we get older we realize that they can also be wrong. Once we realize the authority can be wrong about one thing, we can lose faith that the authority can ever be right about anything.
Our problems with authority figures and losing faith in them is a separate conversation, but what’s useful is this realization that authorities are fallible. That means we can and should challenge each and every authority. We should challenge assertions. These include those that are posed by society, parents, or religious institutions. We should challenge in order to get to the truth. And through this challenge we’ll often realize that it’s the best course of action to do the opposite of what society tells us to do. (But only when we have sound arguments for what we’re doing and we’ve fully thought out our logic, convictions, and motivations. We’ve also hopefully spoken with wiser people than ourselves to confirm we’ve created a usable framework for moving forward and aren’t throwing ourselves off track.)
The Danish, existential philosopher of the 1800’s, Søren Kierkegaard, summarized that we shouldn’t be so eager in doing what others do by being much more succinct and saying:
“There is a view of life which conceives that where the crowd is, there is also the truth, and in truth itself there is need of having the crowd on its side.
There is another view of life which conceives that wherever there is a crowd there is untruth, so that (to consider for a moment the extreme case), even if every individual, each for himself in private, were to be in possession of the truth, yet in case they were all to get together in a crowd — a crowd to which any sort of decisive significance is attributed, a voting, noisy, audible crowd — untruth would at once be in evidence.”
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was known for “philosophizing with a hammer.” This meant he ruthlessly tore down idols and assumptions. This was his approach to getting to the most accurate assessment of things. No idea was safe when he was around.
Nietzsche hammered at ideas efficiently. He said, “It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” This hammering of ideas is shown in Kierkegaard’s saying in a few sentences what I’ve tried to say in a whole blog post. The point being? Where there is a crowd there is likely untruth, so do the opposite of what other people are doing.