Friday, June 29, 2018

Tyranny of the minorities, pt II: "Bands of contrarians"

Julia sends along this very timely essay from The Hedgehog Review, on the difference between contemporary outsider chic and true contrarianism.
The thing to be today is an outsider, an underdog, a moral outlier and exemplar, a defier and disrupter of the established order. It’s an identity that has never been far from the surface in American society, and it is now reasserting itself in a new form. It doesn’t matter if, like the Los Angeles Satanists, you have thoroughly conventional ideas. Or if, like the nation’s Trump supporters, you number in the tens of millions and have put your man in the White House. One of the more compelling claims you can make in America today is that you are proudly and defiantly outside the mainstream. That you are a contrarian. It’s the claim not just of populists but of professors who style themselves as iconoclasts, climate change deniers, radical environmental groups, libertarian seasteaders bent on creating autonomous floating cities, countless alternative-values and lifestyle groups, and many others...Much of what social critics decry as rampant individualism in contemporary America is really rampant crowd behavior. It is herds of people busily declaring that they are not part of the herd.
Lagerfeld contrasts this with "true contrarianism," (a possible analog of Tocqueville's tyrannized minority?) which is to stand alone, at substantial risk to oneself against a group, in the name of a truth or end that is ultimately for the benefit of all.
Contrast that with the experience of the typical crowd contrarian. The very point of belonging to such a group is to seek safety in numbers, which shields crowd contrarians from the scrutiny and self-criticism that are essential checks on the contrarian impulse. And if, as the Church of Satan official said, the point of belonging to such a group is to celebrate one’s distance from the rest of society, what is the hope that your actions will somehow benefit others? Banding together is a healthy human impulse. Banding together in knots of narcissistic fury is not. The rise of contrarian crowds is a measure of our failure to create new, widely shared forms of belonging and community.
This account suggests that both possibilities from my earlier post are taking place: there is a real breakdown of the majority into shifting group coalitions whose members exhibit both the pathologies of minority persecution and those of the majority that tyrannizes, and a repudiation of insiderness and its concomitant institutional responsibility.


Alex Small said...

Not so different from something I see in seminars on STEM Education Reform (TM): A speaker with countless awards, government grants, corporate partnerships, and a very nice job title at an elite school (generally more elite than the schools where the audience members teach), proclaiming that they are unorthodox, outsiders, Disrupters (TM), pushing back against the status quo of education.

Of course, their obvious tokens of establishment respectability also serve to make me, the vocal traditionalist in the audience, feel edgy and alternative for pushing back on them.

We all seek to be hip rebels, even when we defy those seeking the eame.

Miss Self-Important said...

Outsiderism does seem like a pose very much enhanced by the ascent of Big Tech. It has some basis in fact, in maybe the 1970s. Not now, obviously, when half the students at every liberal arts college aspire to found start-ups.

But I do wonder if we *all* have *always* tried to strike this pose, or it is a relatively new one. And then too, even with Disrupter (TM) tech companies, if that's the standard self-perception, how much institutional responsibility can we expect of them?

Alex Small said...

I'm open to the possibility that some of this is new. Could it be an outgrowth of meritocracy? When positions of influence were more explicitly for people from certain backgrounds, socialized through certain networks, maybe there was less need to go around shouting "I'M TOTALLY DIFFERENT!"

But now the elite institutions contain a non-trivial number of kids who might have gone through a shy, bookish phase before moving up and then discovering their inner TED Talk stage persona, so they still fancy themselves outsiders. And the institutions have to swear that there's no inner-track, that everyone earned it, so nobody can admit to being an insider. Even the people who clearly did leverage connections of birth have to insist that they got where they are via cleverness.

And if you can't actually be clever, you can at least pretend to be clever. So some kid with the family money to live in the Bay Area while trying to make it takes the age-old concept of a roommate, re-brands it as "Co-Living For Millennials", and then says they're DISRUPTING the rental housing market with an app that looks suspiciously like ads for roommates. But it's NEW AND DISRUPTIVE!!!! See? They ARE TOO clever!

Because nobody can admit that they got where they are via enough family money to pay full tuition for a marketing degree at a private university and then live in the Bay Area.

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe, since as Tocqueville also says, more equality = more intense competition and greater difficulty getting your head above the crowd. Effective meritocracy (a response to increasing equality) makes us feel more like outsiders at institutions where we are actually insiders b/c they lack the family inheritance of being in them and knowing how to behave as an insider, plus they are under additional pressure to stand out as individuals (my personal brand!) under conditions of actually expanded competition, and the anti-institutional pose is one that helps them to stand out. All this means that conditions are actually pretty equal, and it's not family money elevating a few individuals, or competition for distinction simply wouldn't be that intense.