Saturday, December 20, 2008

On Being Contrary

Isn't a contrarian someone who merely wishes to get you to try something different? Is it human nature to resist this? Is it really? There are so many people who say, “I find what I like and I stick to it,” or the line I often here when I recommend a movie or a rock band, “It really isn't my thing.” I never understand this remark. Why on earth do you have a thing? Are you so rigid? So self-defined?

I have often called my generation “sloppy” and “lazy,” and I would argue that the contempt so many of my fellows have for “nay-sayers,” “killjoys,” and other contrarians speaks of their own inabilities and deficiencies. It is quite common for a person between the ages of forty-five and twenty-five to adopt an attitude of intellectual leze fair. Or perhaps It would be more accurate to phrase it this way: “Dude, I've got my own opinion, and I really don't need to hear yours.” My instinct in these situations, which I am learning to control, is to say: “Actually you do need to hear mine, because it isn't really an opinion. An opinion is what a person has about a subject in which he is not an expert. An opinion is something that one grabs out of the air, something that can be decided upon without any more thought than one would devote to choosing a belt to wear for the day. What I have to offer are carefully considered evaluations. I speak not from hasty decision but from years of watching, thinking, writing, teaching and arguing. Your request to be left alone assumes our “opinions” are equally valid, and they most certainly are not.”

I don't say this though, because it upsets people. All anyone wants is to be left alone. Even in my classes! Students think they are entitled to their opinions. This never ceases to astound me. I always end up thinking, but rarely saying, saying things like, “If you don't want me to tell you how to think, then why am I the teacher?” And this speaks to the heart of the matter. They don't really believe that the subjects I teach – literature, film, the arts – are subjects that can be taught, at least not the same way objectively verifiable subjects can be taught. The crucial division is between the cultural and social spheres of existence.

Almost everyone I know in this generation is not the least bit shy about arguing politics. Indeed they have a degree of respect for social nay-sayers, at least for the historical ones: the Abolitionists, Suffragists, Civil Rights activists and anti-war protesters. These people were involved in something real. I would argue that this position rather demeans culture, and any time I detect it in the words of people who work in the culture industry or academia I am led to wonder why they devote their lives to something they know is of lesser importance.

Culture is not something we take seriously. We let the market create it.

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