A friend of mine sometimes refers to a person or an institution as having a “contrarian spirit.” He generally means it in a positive way, but it can of course have negative connotations too. Personally, I’ve never been crazy about the label “contrarian” or anything resembling it. To me, being contrary for the sake of being contrary—because you have a “spirit” or inclination—is just being reactive and therefore not inherently better than those who unquestioningly accept everything—forget the dichotomies this language and behavior all reinforces.
You may say, but Vanessa, you are rather contrary, are you not? Aren’t you being a little hypocritical? And while I certainly can be contrary—even tend to be—I think of myself as having more a critical, or questioning, spirit, than a necessarily contrary one.
There are things, aspects of culture, ideas, etc., that I certainly think contrary to the “mainstream” about, and this is generally—hopefully—because I have given these ideas thought, questioned them, researched them, and have come to an alternative idea or mode of thinking. Likewise, there are things I’ve thought about and more or less accepted the dominant stance on. Likewise, there are ideas I haven’t given much thought to, which I therefore am likely accepting unquestioningly.
It seems to be the contrary ideas that exist the most fully, to both me and to others’ perception of me. I blame this on what Louis Althusser calls the “obviousness” of our cultural ideology.
The theory is that when an idea is essentially a part of our culture—so ingrained, so entrenched for so long—it is “obvious” to all members of that culture. For example, it is obvious that most people need a car to get to work, that dressing goes on salad, that people ought to form long-term, monogamous relationships. (Try it at home! Find and define your own cultural norms!)
We don’t need to articulate these ideas, because they are “obvious.” We only articulate them when they are being contradicted. An example of this at work: Who needs to come out as straight?
So, therefore, a lot of the ideas I spend time thinking and talking about are the contrary ones, because I’ve had to think about them, because they need to be stated, as they are not givens. The ideas I do not think “contrarily” about need not be spoken of, in depth or at all, because they are “obvious.” Hence, I, and others, questioning like me, may come off as more intrinsically contrary then we really are.
(originally posted on Facebook; see post for comments.)
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