Contrary to Unpopular Belief

In the middle of last week, a meme swept across Twitter called “confess your unpopular opinion.”  Emboldened by the hashtag-ification of this injunction, scores descended upon the Twitterverse to express their deepest, darkest convictions about anything their hearts desired.

While one generalizes about the entirety of Twitter at one’s peril—the site does, after all, represent pretty much everyone on Earth with a computer or a cell phone—perhaps the most useful tweet under this “unpopular” header was by dallin33, who wrote, “95% of #confessyourunpopularopinion tweets are in fact a popular opinion.”

Following a brief random sampling, I found this to be very much the case, with tweeters making such “bold” assertions as “gay marriage should be legal” (a view currently shared by 52 percent of Americans) and “God is real and he loves you and me” (more than 9 in 10 believe in God in one form or another, albeit not among young people).

I have written from time to time about the importance of expressing dissenting views.  Just last week I bemoaned the fact that so few people in our free and open society seem to think differently from the majority in the first place, and how this makes the airing of contrary positions that much more essential.

This Twitter twaddle demonstrates a related but distinct phenomenon:  The innate desire of many people to be intellectual and philosophical rogues, even when they are plainly not.  People who value and exercise opposition for its own sake, wearing it almost as an accessory.

On Internet social networks, one encounters such specimens all the time.  My college film classes were teeming with them:  Rebellious hipsters who churned out pages of copy about how Citizen Kane is worthless trash and Billy Madison is a masterpiece.

My problem with such oddball, improbable sentiments is not that they exist, but rather that, deep down, they probably don’t.  That the sorts of people to whom I refer are not being straight with us:  They don’t really believe the uncommon opinions they express, but they publicly assume them because doing so is more fun than simply agreeing with everyone else.

A part of me wants to applaud these self-appointed devil’s advocates for at least attempting to think outside the box, in a world where far too many just go with the flow, never questioning the conventional wisdom and assuming that if the majority agrees on a particular proposition, then it must be true.

And yet, I would much prefer if these intellectual gadflies came by their views honestly, as I suspect many of them don’t.

Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian, which he began with a denunciation of the volume’s own title.  A “contrarian,” Hitchens argued, is not some sort of vocation to which one could or should aspire.  It is merely a descriptive term for one who, for whatever reason, tends to disagree with the majority most of the time, as Hitchens himself was known to do.

In this way, Hitchens saw his book as a means of reassurance for those who find themselves in the minority and worry that there is something wrong with them as a result.  However, Letters was not meant to stoke or encourage dissent in those who do not naturally possess it.

I think that is the correct balance to strike.  People should be made to feel confident in expressing their views, whether they are popular or not, and to arrive at them honorably.

There is nothing inherently special about thinking differently from others.  The point is that one has the right to do so, and should not be deterred from espousing such thoughts out loud over such shallow considerations as political correctness or simple agreeableness.

However, just as one should have the courage to express inklings that are unfashionable or strange, one should be equally dignified to acknowledge when one’s conclusions fall squarely in line with popular belief.  After all, once in a blue moon, the majority is actually correct.

Give the poseurs credit for one thing:  At least they know an unpopular opinion when they see one.