Some individuals live their lives constantly objecting to everything and everyone around them, while some others seem to have perfect harmony with whatever circumstance thrown at them. Yet another group, a large percentage of people go on their daily life unaware of, and unwilling to share in the human drama unfolding in their midst even if it meant turning their whole lives upside down.
Being a contrarian is mostly perceived as obnoxious and insufferable; while a conformist endears himself to those around him by pretending that the word “no” does not exist in his lexicon. He trades off his self-respect for the peace bubble he imagines to be creating for himself. Most members of society though, feel that whatever happens outside their comfort zone is other people’s business and they should not concern themselves with it.
Of course, there are fuzzy areas in this classification as well as varying degrees of overlap. Yet the overall outlook is generally accurate.
A Contrarian insists on his point of view and sees nothing but error in the approach of everyone else. He always looks for that flaw – minute, as it may be – which must exist in every theory and every solution to a problem. The only flawless approach is naturally his approach. He may agree with you that the sun rises in the morning from the east, but he will hasten to point out that at the polar circles there is no sunrise or sunset for months in a row. He may concede that the water of the sea is salty, but he will insist to remind you that there are numerous salt lakes as well and he may even go on to explain how the salinity of the seawater is different in various parts of the same sea. Indeed, a contrarian will never fully accept any one else’s point of view without first shredding it to pieces. Most of the time, such people hold back progress and slow down any improvement in any field. Yet they are indispensable for that same reason, because, as irritating as they may be, they force everyone to stop and look before they leap into a perilous situation. The mere existence of a contrarian is like a safety valve. If it goes off prematurely, you can simply shut it down and go on, but if it goes off revealing a real danger, it will help avert a catastrophe. If you eliminate that valve altogether, you shall be like one, who walks blindfolded in uncharted territory, or one who jumps out of a plane without the benefit of a parachute.
On the other hand, a conformist will accept everything you do and every word you say without objection. Even when he sees the error, he will be too timid to bring it up or unwilling to expose it for whatever ulterior motive he may have. There are various reasons why some people tend to be conformists. Rarely would any of these reasons be justifiable by objective analysis. You shall be very pleased with such a person though you shall be less inclined to give him much respect. You know that you already have him in your corner, even when you decide to venture into an outlandish excursion. You may try to validate condemning an innocent man, and your conformist will easily find reasonable explanation to agree with you. You may try to dismantle a well-organized community and replace it with your own self-gratifying system regardless of the fact that it would create mayhem and major loss of life. The conformist will only consider how approving your plans will keep him in your favor. Therefore, he will defend your atrocity vehemently, despite its obvious error. Conformists are a real danger to any community. They are like faulty safety valves, which never go off when they should. Naturally, they try to justify their behavior, which usually results in tremendous disasters because errors eventually add up and when finally the cumulative effect lead to the inevitable tragedy, it no longer matters who was to blame.
Unfortunately, there are more conformists in any society than are there contrarians. However, the nonchalant far outnumber both.
Consider for a moment a wildebeest. It grazes all day on lush grass, then lies down in the shade and regurgitate. It is totally oblivious to whatever happens around it. It will only react to a wild fire and try to run for its life, even if it means trampling over other members of its own species. It will go to a water hole to drink even though the last time it went there several members of the herd were cut to pieces by crocodiles. At the time of mating, it will fight everybody that stands in its way regardless whether it may win or lose. In other words, it will behave – like any similar animal with the same disposition – in a manner so indifferent to other members’ needs even though it is still a part of a larger herd. In a manner of speaking, the nonchalant are the wildebeest of society. They are driven by instinctive self-interest and try to avoid responsibility altogether. They live off the grass, which they never plant. Whatever happens around them is other people’s business, until they feel the heat of a fire. Only then, they will try to run, in the direction seemingly favorable for their personal survival even if it means stepping over someone else’s neck. They never learn to look for a safer water hole or banding up together against the crocodiles. They are the reason why social crocodiles of humanity flourish and grow.
It is very unpopular and sometimes quite detestable to be a contrarian. Meanwhile, you do not want to be a sleazy nor a pathetic conformist. Moreover, by no means would you aspire to be as detached and blasé as the fodder of the crocodiles. So, what should you do?
Great thinkers, philosophers and leaders in the history of many nations, were distinctively contrarians. They were the kind of people who saw error and blew the whistle to alert their people to the danger. Mind you, they were not “absolute contrarians” i.e. looking for flaws where no flaws existed or riding the waves of other people’s mistakes to their own fame and glory. In fact, many of these special contrarians were hated, ridiculed and even killed for their opinions. Their communities realized their sincerity when it was too late to remedy the situation. Most martyrs fall into this category, from Isaiah to St. Paul and beyond, you can see how these non-conformists tried to bring to the attention of their people, the errors of their ways. Only long after their communities persecuted them and condemned them, it was evident that their voices should have been heard and their advice should have been heeded. It takes a lot of courage to be a contrarian of that kind, knowing what may befall you if you fall out of the graces of the very people you are trying to help, and that is why contrarians are few. Still fewer are the faithful and honest contrarians who only speak out when they see a true reason for alarm and never give a second thought to their own wellbeing.
Does that mean you should never be a conformist under any circumstance? Actually, the most successful contrarians must see a time when they may find it plausible to overlook a minor inconsequential discrepancy if it means being able to address and avert a much bigger tragedy. So you see …there is a time to look the other way and there is a time when you have to put your foot down and stubbornly stand by what you believe in. knowing when to do either, requires not only courage but also foresight. I think such a person is what may be called “a wise contrarian.”
Nevertheless, if you prefer to watch the battles rage around you while you passively chew on whatever cud fills your mouth, then you should not complain, about the fire…the crocodiles …or all those others who want to step on you to reach their destinations.