“There are things I can’t force. I must adjust. There are times when the greatest change needed is a change of my viewpoint.”– Denis Diderot
In a recent post, I talked about the growing “demonization” of wealth and success in America – about how the mainstream view of political economics is drifting rapidly toward the far left. Brad S, a reader, wrote to ask me, “How would you think the change of opinion from ‘demonization’ to ‘truth’ would occur? Or could it in our current society?”
It’s a good question. A good topic for a philosophical discussion. And were we to have it, I might say that I think widespread views like these tend to move in cycles.
The Never-ending Debate – on Everything – Between Contrarians and Mainstream Thinkers
There are always people working to refute popular assumptions about important topics, whatever they may be. These people are writers and students and teachers and others that are, by nature, contrarian. They have the instinct to distrust conventional ideas, and spend what philosophical time they can trying to contradict the conventional with ideas of their own, ideas that are often polar opposites of accepted beliefs.
This happens on both sides of any belief system. When a Communist regime is in power, contrarians promote free markets and Capitalism. In an economy that is largely free, contrarians promote Socialism.
The same is true for all the important social and political ideas – including hierarchy vs. equality, individual freedom vs. government authority, even war vs. peace.
But we are talking now about people that are genuinely engaged by ideas. Most people aren’t seriously interested in ideas at all. Most people treat ideas like clothing. They pick those that correspond to their aesthetic preferences and are appropriate for their budgets. And they stick with them until their stylistic preferences and/or their budgets change.
Which is to say that most people don’t think at all. To put it in different words, most people are content with mimicking ideas that make them feel comfortable or justify their lifestyle and behavior. Most disagreements about politics, health, immigration, and religion fall into this category.
I enjoy a philosophical debate as much as anyone. But if a friend or colleague voices an idea that sounds like a well-cut suit, I shy away.
Sometimes I feel like this is not right. I wonder if I shouldn’t argue the topic anyway – that I shouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a mutually rewarding conversation. Is it my duty to point out where the sleeves are short or the hat doesn’t fit or where the threads are going bare?
And then I tell myself, “No. Don’t bother.”
I will shirk this individual responsibility and trust that there are plenty of contrarians out there that will do the work. That in these discussions of major social, economic, and political issues, there will always a proportion of mainstream thinkers and contrarians, of group-thinkers and individualists. And that although the number of mainstream and group-thinkers will always greatly outnumber the number of contrarians and individualists, the energy of the latter will always rise to the occasion and tilt the conversation towards some sensible truth. At least until the contrarian view is the dominant view. And then the cycle will resume.
I spend most of my time thinking not about how to change the world but how to change myself within the world. I like to think of myself as an individualist and a contrarian, but most of all as a pragmatist. The opposite of a pragmatist is an idealist. And an idealist in action is a zealot. As Joseph Conrad said, “Instead of clearing his own heart, the zealot tries to clear the world.”