It is sometimes hard to know what it is we want until we see it. We are, for the most part, not much different from dogs chained up in backyards never much realizing that there may be other backyards and luckier dogs with bigger food bowls, and perhaps longer chains and maybe a few flowers to smell or pee on.
I am an expert contrarian. A self-trained automatic skeptic. A compulsive reverser of the order of things for my own mental amusement. I am well aware that little of this is sensible nor persuasive as actual discourse, but I still can’t help mentally switching the world around, swapping genders, extending events to the ad absurdum-ad nauseum limits, creating ridiculous causes for prosaic events, and of course tickling myself with people’s reactions which often range from disgust to disappointment in much the same way a fan of the worst of puns gets amusement from the annoyance leveled by his or her lousy jokes.
For a long time, and I’m now convinced that this is no doubt simply a natural extension of the toddler’s burgeoning exploration of the assertion of the self—“No!” becoming a favorite term and concept for the beginning personality—I thought of this behavior as ingenious!
Interaction on this level being not much different from the socially inept youngster who reads billboards to his or her mates in a moving vehicle without further comment or position. The hard truth is that merely flipping words around or denying their intention isn’t much in the way of discussion or idea exchange (if we accept that the exchange has this purpose), it is only exercise of basic pattern recognition. It is a trick we all, unless we’re somehow damaged, can do, and have done since childhood.
As a teenager I fell in love with Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys, a hard-core West Coast guitar band that used the humor of contrarianism as the core of its song writing. Biafra was a master of creating controversial verses based on current events that undermined the integrity of authorities, any authorities. Most of his accusations and contagious railings were conspiracy-theory in form, but some of his best efforts were spotlights on the hypocrisy of man and society. I took it all very seriously. I used Biafra’s (even his name had an underlying outrage) lyrics as a kind of short course in skepticism and distrust. At that age what he was creating seemed entirely without parallel, it seemed to sever me from the banal world around me, and I could not digest enough of it. Looking back it is easy to see the appeal. As a young man wishing to assert himself in a largely incomprehensibly complex world it was easiest to dismiss that world as rotten and intractable. Part of my outrage, I believe, stemmed from the fact that as a child I thought that adults smarter than me were in charge. As I grew however, it became clear that those who are in charge are not necessarily clever, bright, or even particularly invested in their service. And this shock, coupled with my extended toddler contrarianism (No!) served to create in me a serious naysayer –a negative Nancy, more or less Monty Python’s argument clinic come to life. And while skepticism—a devotion to empirical evidence being required to support a claim—isn’t at all a bad philosophy, this isn’t exactly what I was doing. What I was doing was denial out of hand. What I was doing was doubting without a care to evidence. What I seemed to be about was building an identity for myself through the strength of conviction–though that conviction was often about absolutely nothing. Like the old Marlon Brando character in The Wild One I was rebelling against whatever you got.
This sort of contrarianism it now seems to me, is undoubtedly common, rampant, and emotionally charged. Reviewing arguments from friends, workmates, neighbors from bar stools to graduate school, going back through my life, it becomes clear that most of it was this idle pointless contrarian exercising. Freud said, in his Civilization and Its Discontents that we argue in support of our illusions of happiness. Freud also ponders the idea that perhaps we can’t avoid this, that perhaps it’s wired right into us by nature. He isn’t sure that it’s true, but he’d be happier if it were and then, he adds, we could simply yield to it as beyond our control.
What always astonishes me now is that I spent so much time in meaningless argument drivel without a care to my own lack of any credentials with which to speak on the topics! And that this blowing of hot air without a qualification to do so, without an iota of value in my voice is shockingly and grossly ordinary. It is utterly common, perhaps even the most obviously normal thing we human beings do. And I’m sick of it.
I’m sick of every childish verbal clash and rehash. I’m disgusted by our desires pushing our irrational buttons and creating in us meat machines motivated to babble about our rightness and superiority. I see in us thousands of dogs chained up to dingy doghouses in grim featureless backyards barking at barking, howling at howling, imagining our own patches of dirt somehow sacred, and in the end, experiencing nothing, qualifying nothing, just repeating the accidental rituals we are familiar with. . . .
So what do I want now? That’s the question right there.