There is nothing a contrarian crowd hates more than a real contrarian, a person who breaks ranks with the group.
“Hail Satan!” yelled the crowd. “Ave Satanus!”
The scene was a black mass celebrated early last year by the Satanic Temple of Los Angeles. The room was washed in red light. The worshipers joined in rituals of bloodletting and destruction and listened to a speaker holding forth on demonic cats. The celebrants wore black, with occasional splashes of red, and some were shrouded in cowls that concealed their faces. A few brandished hammers and crowbars.
But this was not just another Satanist evening. For starters, it was held in a cavernous LA nightspot called Das Bunker. It drew a hipster crowd that was hundreds strong, and they danced to the music of six bands that played deep into the night, waving their index and little fingers aloft in the sign of the devil’s horns and whooping and hollering their support for Lucifer. Actually, it’s his rebel angel vibe they dug—members of the Satanic Temple don’t worship the Dark Lord. The temple is part of a sixteen-city organization headquartered in Salem, Massachusetts, that promotes an orthodox liberal agenda wrapped in a Luciferian package. At Das Bunker, ten speakers lined up to spell out the issues in a series of bullet-point pronouncements. “To invoke Satan is to invoke rebellion, and also to question authority,” declared the first. It is to invoke “the struggle for equal justice and equal rights for everyone,” said another. Others announced the temple’s support for science, the right to “claim your body as your own,” and free inquiry. One spoke of “satanic revolution.” The last speaker sounded the evening’s big theme: “We have each embraced the life of a pariah, cast out for being different. Yet here we are together, hundreds of us gathered in one place. Insiders upending the old paradigms.”11x“Devil’s Dance: Inside the Los Angeles Satanic Temple’s Biggest-Ever ‘Black Mass’ with Blood-Letting, Demonic Cats and Stand-up,” The Sun (London), January 18, 2017, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2641653/black-mass-los-angeles-satanic-temple-pictures-blood-letting/. The article includes a short video of the evening’s celebration. See also “Dancing with the Devil: Inside the Los Angeles Satanic Temple’s Biggest EVER ‘Black Mass’ with Blood-Letting, Demonic Cats, Tattoos...and ‘Destruction Rituals’” Daily Mail (London), January 18, 2017, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4130702/Los-Angeles-Satanic-Temple-hosts-Black-Mass.html.
It was a shrewd piece of marketing. Somebody in the Satanic Temple brain trust had plucked the signal from the noise of the American scene. 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. The farther you position yourself from the mainstream, the better. Conservative Christians and their rationalist-humanist adversaries in groups like the Satanic Temple seem to vie for the distinction of being the most unwelcome group in American society.
The Democratization of Outsiderness
The surest way to lay claim to the moral high ground in America is still to call oneself a victim, but outsider status now comes close. An outsider is in a sense a victim, someone who has been oppressed or mistreated by the majority. But victims possess purity and innocence by virtue of their lack of agency. Outsiders are actively angry and defiant; they are contrarian. Most important, victims seek justice under the terms of the existing moral order. They have a rightful claim that has gone unheard or has been ignored. For outsiders, the existing order is illegitimate and must be rejected or overturned. That was the feeling behind the Tea Party, with its Revolutionary War iconography of three-cornered hats and don’t-tread-on-me T-shirts, and it also drives its Trump-backing successors, who want to “take this country back” from the swamp of traitorous elites who have seized control. Victims want redress; contrarians want disruption and revolution.
The outsiders of the past were mostly outlaw individuals—artists, writers, musicians—or those like James Dean who acted out impulses that those of us leading humdrum lives aren’t normally free to express. But outsiderness has been democratized. The “adversary culture” of the intellectuals, the counterculture, and the entrepreneur “disruptors” of the tech revolution all gave new life to the idea of the heroic outsider who sees truth and reveals the mainstream as a fraud. But instead of individuals, we now have crowds. They have leaders, but the leaders tend not to be consequential or charismatic figures. The Satanic Temple channeled its agenda through ten more-or-less anonymous individuals; the Tea Party had few identifiable leaders. I call these groups contrarian crowds. They are crowds that define themselves against the mainstream, against “the crowd.” In Los Angeles, a leader of a different Satanist group called the Church of Satan told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “Satanism is not now and has never been about seeking inclusion in the herd, but celebrating being apart from it.”
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. Whether you’re a Satanist or an alt-right activist, you sign up for a total lifestyle package that includes a limited menu of approved ideas, clothing styles, and other badges you can choose from to express your individuality. What you get in return is an intense sense of belonging and identity—we’re all pariahs here! Americans once derived the satisfactions of association from traditional institutions—family, community, church, state, employers, unions. As the hold of these institutions has weakened, we have parceled out our belonging to ideas, images, and ideologies that allow us to feel part of a larger whole. Our commitment to them may not amount to much more than pasting a bumper sticker on the family SUV. Many people weave together an array of looser group identities, becoming Prius-driving vegan Democrats or hoodie-wearing tech libertarians, elaborating their identities with the clothes they buy, the foods they eat, and other badges of affiliation. A tattoo or perhaps a piercing may top off the ensemble, giving it all an overtly outlaw edge. Others opt for the more intense commitment and rewards of belonging to a contrarian crowd. And in recent years, even many casual affiliations have hardened into something more tribal and adversarial. Partisan loyalty, for example, was once a loose form of membership that most people inherited like the family photo albums. Now it is becoming more like a uniform one puts on to signal an array of commitments and defiant self-declarations.
Risking Life or Disapproval?
There is not much that is truly contrarian in any of this. Real contrarians don’t run in crowds. On my office wall hangs a picture of a man standing in a crowd with his arms crossed, an impassive look on his face. Around him are scores of people, all with their arms thrust forward in stiff Nazi salutes. It is Hamburg, 1936. We can’t be absolutely certain that the man in the picture was August Landmesser, but we do know one thing: He was a contrarian.22xDenise Hassanzade Ajiri, “What Happened to the Man Who Refused to Give a Nazi Salute,” Christian Science Monitor, July 1, 2015, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/2015/0701/What-happened-to-the-man-who-refused-to-give-a-Nazi-salute.
A contrarian is by definition someone with a singular idea who stands against the crowd. He or she takes a risk. August Landmesser risked everything. (He escaped punishment for his act of defiance but later served time in a concentration camp and was killed in action in 1944 while serving in a penal battalion.) Other contrarians risk much less. For the most part in the West today, their risk is social: They risk the disapproval of the crowd—of their friends, family, colleagues, community, and society. They might simply face unspoken disapproval, or they might be shunned and ostracized or burned at the stake of Twitter. Some face criticism and censure or social or professional excommunication. They risk their status and prestige. Some risk losing their jobs.
Risk is the metric by which contrarians are measured. The greater the risk, the more contrarian they are. Another way of saying this is that it takes courage to be a contrarian. They are a rare but widely dispersed breed. There are intellectual contrarians, such as Christopher Hitchens and Camille Paglia, as well as artistic, scientific, and political ones. Entrepreneurs, from Elon Musk to the most obscure startup boss, are contrarians because they pursue singular ideas, as are some investors, although the risks they face are less social than financial. Whistleblowers are contrarians, as are countless unknown others who fight against the odds in bureaucracies and other settings.
I tacked a picture of August Landmesser on my wall to remind myself of these things. I think of myself as a contrarian, and the photo reminds me how far I am from being a real one. Like the revelers in Los Angeles, I don’t put much at risk by indulging in the belief that I’m a bold outsider. It’s a cheap thrill. The Satanists and other crowds risk even less, precisely because they are crowds. They have each other for support, affirmation, and the occasional nightclub blowout of self-congratulation.
It’s Lonely on the Outside
The contrarian’s great temptation is moral vanity, and what a sweet one it is. I am contrarian by birth and temperament and not a joiner, but when the Satanic Temple made its pariah pitch I knew exactly what they were talking about. For some of us, there is nothing like the joy of being a pariah. There is no better place to be than on the wrong side, scorned, hated, and despised by people about whom you have exactly the same feelings. I’m right and they’re wrong. Their scorn is an intoxicating indicator of my own rightness and moral superiority. The sensation is physical, like what I imagine people get from extreme sports. But it’s a pleasure I strive mightily to deny myself. Over the years, I’ve learned that its costs are high, and that I’m not as smart as I think I am. Even when I’m right, my impulses can lead to bad things. I’ve gone from thinking of my instinctive desire to be a minority of one as a distinguishing trait to thinking of it as something more like Asperger’s syndrome—a disability that can in rare circumstances be an advantage.
One of the virtues of traveling a relatively solo path is that you pay the price directly for what you do. Crowds are shielded from the hard lessons of the contrarian way. They combine the frisson of being an outlaw with the comforts of belonging. The more contrarian they are, the more belonging they offer—and the more belonging they offer, the more conformity they demand. Psychologists Matthew Hornsey and Jolanda Jetten write that “there is a perverse tendency for groups that define themselves most aggressively against the mainstream to be characterized by the highest levels of intragroup conformity.”33xMatthew J. Hornsey and Jolanda Jetten, “The Individual within the Group: Balancing the Need to Belong with the Need to Be Different,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8, no. 3 (2015), 253. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for introspection.
Howard S. Becker captured most of the essential traits of contrarian crowds in his classic 1963 work Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, which includes a portrait of the Chicago jazz scene he had been part of during the 1940s. The musicians inhabited a tight little world animated by the idea that their “mysterious artistic gift” made them different from and superior to the “squares,” and showing their superiority meant acting unconventionally (such as setting fire to a car when it broke down), speaking in slang, and pointedly giving squares a wide berth, even avoiding eye contact. But it was inconceivable that one musician would say a word about another’s playing or (often dubious) lifestyle choices. The “freewheeling” Chicago jazz world was actually a rigid hierarchy, and the only way for these proud individualists to get the best gigs was to join the right cliques and cultivate a large network. One player who was leaving the scene told Becker, “I’m getting sick of being around musicians. There’s so much ritual and ceremony junk. They have to talk a special language, dress different, and wear a different kind of glasses. And it just doesn’t mean a damn thing except ‘we’re different.’”44xHoward S. Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York, NY: Free Press, 1963), 100.
The twentieth-century sociologist David Riesman once compared marginalized groups to members of the “invisible church,” the “union of people who, without organization…but through piety and through print (the Bible) feel close to one another and feel they ‘belong’ through some invisible set of bonds.”55xDavid Riesman, Individualism Reconsidered, and Other Essays (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1954), 155. The benefits of belonging to a contrarian crowd are not just good feelings; studies show that they can rival the well-documented advantages in health and well-being enjoyed by regular churchgoers. One team of researchers set out a few years ago to see how things turned out for young people who embraced the dark “metalhead” subculture that emerged in the late 1970s around the hard-rocking, death- and violence-obsessed sound of heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath.66xTasha R. Howe et al., “Three Decades Later: The Life Experiences and Mid-Life Functioning of 1980s Heavy Metal Groupies, Musicians, and Fans, Self and Identity,” Personality and Social Psychology Review 8, no. 3 (2015): 248–64. The alienated metalheads shared a uniform of motorcycle boots and black T-shirts emblazoned with the insignia of their favorite bands and a diet heavy on sex, drugs, and alcohol—a code of behavior so firmly established that wikiHow could post a fourteen-point guide called “How to Be a Metalhead.”77x“How to Be a Metalhead,” wikiHow, accessed March 20, 2018, https://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Metalhead. Surveying hundreds of fans, musicians, and groupies who were now mostly in their fifties, the researchers found that the former deviants had had the last laugh. They enjoyed levels of education and income comparable to those of their mainstream peers yet also looked back on their youth with more pleasure, reporting fewer regrets and more happy memories. The researchers say that their metalhead identity “served as a protective factor against negative outcomes.”88xHowe et al., 264.
One thing we can be sure of is that August Landmesser and other true contrarians would never have extolled the tonic effects of what they did. By and large, real contrarianism is a lonely business, and it’s not good for your health.
The Insider’s Dissent
There is nothing a contrarian crowd hates more than a real contrarian, a person who breaks ranks with the group. If the whole point of belonging to the crowd is to demonstrate one’s superior moral position, an insider’s dissent is an intolerable violation and contradiction. That accounts for the special fury reserved for academics who break with the party line on social and political issues. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and scathing critic of contemporary liberal culture, is the example du jour, but the list of heretics is long (if not long enough), from the recent case of Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who was pilloried for praising bourgeois culture and declaring that “all cultures are not equal,” to that of Elizabeth Loftus, the University of California, Irvine, psychologist whose research challenged the national hysteria that attended the “recovered memory” movement in the 1990s. Outside the university, there are people such as Bob Inglis, the former Republican congressman from Georgia who committed the crime of taking climate change seriously; Ellen Pao, who upended the heroically contrarian self-image of Silicon Valley by suing her locally fabled employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, for the all-too-mainstream practice of sex discrimination; Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who first linked NFL players’ head injuries to degenerative brain disease; and Kate Roiphe, the feminist who dared to question the #MeToo movement. Vitriol and ostracism are the mildest responses such dissenters can expect. Enraged crowds of contrarians often threaten their livelihoods and their lives and disrupt their attempts to speak in public. Death threats are not uncommon, and a squad of security guards can become a practical necessity.
Contrarian crowds need enemies. The mainstream or squares or some other group is often enough to do the trick, but nothing is more energizing than an individual who represents everything you loathe. If that person is a heretic, the jolt of shared hatred is even more gratifying.
Far from the Contrarian Crowd
Yet contrarian crowds have their value. No contrarian idea succeeds without a band of early adopters who support it and carry it forward. The first Christians were a contrarian crowd, and so were the early civil rights activists. But so were the first communists and Nazis. The differences are rarely so obvious, but in sorting the good from the bad we do have a few key factors to work with.
Do they succumb to the “we’re all pariahs here” syndrome? It’s tempting for contrarian leaders to play to their own crowd by tailoring their ideas for applause and stoking their followers’ feelings of self-congratulation. That was the first alarm that faintly sounded when I read the otherwise cheering news about the rise of the Intellectual Dark Web.99xBari Weiss, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web,” New York Times, May 8, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/opinion/intellectual-dark-web.html. The group, loosely organized and ideologically diverse, is united by a commitment to free debate about the kinds of questions that are now considered beyond discussion in some quarters. They are people who have confronted their own tribes—and perhaps are forming a new one. The conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro quit his job at Breitbart News over its support for Donald Trump, while progressives Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying (who are married) left professorships at Evergreen State College amid a hail of threats and vitriol after they refused to join in a ritual “Day of Absence” that called upon white people to stay off campus. Jordan Peterson is the Intellectual Dark Web’s most prominent member, and like him many of the others bring their own contrarian crowds with them, and some receive donations from their followers through the web platform Patreon. Temptation abounds.
Then there is the ticklish question of truth. To be just a bit contrarian about it, the conventional wisdom is generally correct. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, once explained why his company made many small bets on out-of-the-box experiments by noting that while the conventional wisdom is right 90 percent of the time, the payoff from being right just one time in ten can be enormous, generating enough profit to reduce the cost of the failures to pocket change.1010xJeffrey P. Bezos, “Letter to Shareowners,” 2015, retrieved from Securities and Exchange Commission website, https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/1018724/000119312515144741/d895323dex991.htm. Unfortunately, this formula rarely applies in the rest of life. If I am right one time out of ten in my political or lifestyle choices, the payoff is not going to make up for the damage done the nine times I am wrong.
That’s a reason for caution, not for dismissing everyone who comes bearing an out-of-the-box idea. It is intellectually fashionable to dismiss or minimize the role of individuals in changing the world, but the contrarian impulse remains an essential source of creativity. Even in science, which is structured to absorb new ideas, reputational politics and peer review mean that breakthroughs can still require a strong dose of contrarian spirit. Physicians Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize in 2005 for their discovery that stomach ulcers are not caused by stress, as the medical community had long believed, but by bacteria called Helicobacter pylori, and can be treated with antibiotics. But when they began presenting their research in the 1980s, Marshall and Warren faced a wall of professional rejection and disbelief. “The extreme skepticism of my colleagues led me to believe that I might never be funded to perform the crucial trial of antibiotics,” Marshall later recalled.1111xBarry J. Marshall, “Helicobacter Connections: Nobel Lecture, December 8, 2005,” in The Nobel Prizes 2005, ed. Karl Grandin (Stockholm, Sweden: Nobel Foundation, 2006), 266. Retrieved from Nobel Prize website, https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/2005/marshall-lecture.pdf. In order to move ahead, he needed to prove that H. pylori is a pathogen, and he saw only one way to do it. So one morning in 1984 he drank a brew containing the bacteria. Within days, he was nauseated and vomiting; a test showed that his guts were crawling with the bacteria.1212xPamela Weintraub, “The Dr. Who Drank Infectious Broth, Gave Himself an Ulcer, and Solved a Medical Mystery,” Discover, April 8, 2010, http://discovermagazine.com/2010/mar/07-dr-drank-broth-gave-ulcer-solved-medical-mystery.
More struggle was required before Marshall and Warren prevailed, but today antibiotics are the standard treatment for ulcers, while hospitalization and surgery are rare, and the incidence of stomach cancer, which is linked to H. pylori infection, is a fraction of what it once was in the West.
People like Marshall and Warren show what it means to be truly contrarian, and why this stance is sometimes justified. Genuine contrarians step off the common path, but their actions ultimately benefit the wider community. Because they stand alone, they face withering scrutiny. If they indulge in moral vanity, they pay a high price for it.
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. Cultural innovation is the only answer to our plague of noxious crowds, and for that we must often turn to the contrarian minded, beginning with the brave dissenters who dare to speak truth to the power of their own ill-begotten crowds.