Forget the crushing consensus of trigger warnings and safe spaces: Our world needs more contrarians

 
Ali Miraj
A National Day Of Protest Is Held As Students Demonstrate Over Tuition Fees
Over-sensitive young people seek to shut down rational debate (Source: Getty)

The news that the London nightclub Fabric is to potentially reopen is welcome. The progressive house music played there provided an antidote to the chart-toppers heard in the more salubrious salons of the West End.

Similarly, those who speak out and stand up for what they believe in provide a contrarian view to mainstream thinking.

This is important for three reasons. First is the avoidance of groupthink. Siobhan Sweeney, a Cambridge graduate student who has written a paper calling for company boards to appoint a “contrarian director”, points out that the Catholic Church enshrined the role of the Advocatus Diaboli (Devil’s Advocate) in 1708, with the job of identifying character flaws in potential candidates for canonisation.

Second, the contrarian challenges the accepted orthodoxy – and often pays a price for it. Consider the storyline of Dara, a National Theatre production about the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s battle with his brother, Dara Shikoh, to succeed their father.

Aurangzeb’s literalist and exclusivist interpretation of Islam contrasted with his brother’s liberal and pluralistic one. The price Dara paid for standing by his principles and displaying tolerance for others with views different to his own was to be charged with apostasy and have his severed head sent to his parents in a gift box.

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Third, the contrarian changes the terms of the debate. Christopher Hitchens in his epistolary masterpiece “Letters to a Young Contrarian” cites Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident, as an example. Having spent multiple stints in prison for standing up to the repressive regime, Havel played a major role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and then went on to lead his country.

But the ability of people to speak out and go against the grain is being curtailed. On university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic, institutions that were once the bedrock of open debate, dissent and the promotion of radical ideas have become bastions of conformity.

Debate is being censored by hypersensitive students on the grounds that what a certain person says is “offensive”. But offence is a subjective term. A whole set of associated linguistics has been developed – “safe spaces”, “hate-speech”, “no-platforming”, and “trigger warnings”.

These students, branded Generation Snowflake by Claire Fox in her new book on free speech, are aggressive in shutting down the opinions of those they disagree with. A notable example in recent months was the visceral reaction of students at Cardiff University to the feminist writer Germaine Greer’s views on post-operative transgender individuals.

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But how is progress made if no one is prepared to confront conventional wisdom? In the cyber world, the new titans like Amazon, Uber and Airbnb are reimagining retail, transport and travel respectively. But in our personal space, technology is enabling us to filter out the opinions of those we disagree with and allowing us to procure an a la carte menu to suit our tastes.

In such an environment, it is not easy to be contrarian. But the lack of the ability to express one’s opinions openly has, in part, pushed people to rail against the cosy, established, liberal consensus.

The Contrarian Prize aims to recognise figures in British public life that demonstrate independence of thought, courage and conviction in their actions, make a sacrifice, and put new ideas into the public realm or have an impact on the public debate. Nominations come from the public via the website www.contrarianprize.com.

In an environment where alternative points of view are being squashed, we need more people like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic to, in the face of ridiculous conformity, point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.

The Contrarian Prize debate will take place at Cass Business School on 30 November http://www.city.ac.uk/events/2016/november/the-contrarian-prize-debate-2016

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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