“The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.” -Alan Watts
Contrarianism: it’s the act of opposing popular opinions and social norms simply for the sake of opposing them. It’s being different for the sake of being different. It’s often the natural rebellion of those who’ve grown weary of being perpetually placed in a box and told how to think, how to feel, what to like, who to love, and how to live. It is the self’s last defense against intrusion, its last stand against unsolicited servitude.
Tragically, it’s also the annihilation of the self’s potential for individuation, and its drive for authenticity. Contrarianism, in essence, is akin to going nuclear: despite its facade of individuality and wholeness, contrarianism is nothing more than a self-induced extermination of being. The contrarian performs this extermination when he loses all hope for self-expression and actualization.
Unfortunately, as they grow up in a society that relentlessly imposes its will on them, many children and teenagers see contrarianism as their last hope for agency. It’s how some teenagers respond to a world that refuses to afford them the opportunity to discover and create themselves, that prohibits even a minuscule expression of selfhood. Therefore, they naturally rebel. They place society’s norms in their rear-view mirrors as they engage in activities deemed immoral and intolerable. They use drugs, they break the law, and they create individualized moral codes that are steeped in cynicism, perceiving themselves and/or their groups as the only ones worth serving.
Those of us who were once teens know how difficult it is to be a teenager. We pressure young people to succeed academically while also creating an identity, making friends, dating, discovering their sexuality, and navigating through a world of bullies, authority figures, and emotionally charged peers. For most of us, by the time we’re ten years old, we already have some inkling of what’s expected of us, of the world’s demands. We know from our parents and our teachers which roles we’re expected to take on and perform, and we recognize our limited autonomy in deciding our fates. Some of us decide to toe the line and become upstanding citizens.
And others, well, they decide to be different—not themselves, just different. Thus, they become the ones whom our society labels as deviant: the rabble-rousers, trouble makers, and the cast-aways. They become our criminals.
Contrarianism and Developmental Stages
While attending virtually any psychology course on development, you’ll learn that life exists in stages. It is a process of growth that begins with enmeshment (i.e., feeling and perceiving oneself as being one with caregivers) and reaches its pinnacle with individuation, the creation of one’s own identity, of an authentic self who can stand on her own.
The irony lies in this ideal’s sharp contrast with reality. If one were to mindfully look around, they would wonder if automatons rather than people populated the world, because despite our innate drive for selfhood, we’ve managed to create a culture of sameness—of individuals who aren’t truly unique. To listen in on one conversation in a crowded restaurant is often akin to hearing them all. And the few who, nevertheless, continue to yearn for individuality often find themselves lost in a monotone sea of banality; it is they who, in their quest for separation, diverge, shattering any modicum of selfhood, and doing so for vengeance. But as they drive daggers into the heart of a shallow and disapproving culture, their true-selves become casualties of war.
Is Being Normal Healthy?
Normalcy, which is often the goal of psychotherapy, lies at odds with the contemporary view of healthy psychological development. To be normal is to be identical, and to be identical is a failure of individuation. Our communities frequently stifle us on our quests of self-discovery.
More importantly to me, our therapists, who try as hard as they can to direct us toward normality, stifle us. They try to teach us to adapt, thus working toward molding us in our culture’s image for the sake of mental health. Yet while mental health positively correlates with social adaptation, it positively correlates with self-expression, too. So rather than persisting in extending normality, we ought to celebrate our differences, focusing instead on individual uniqueness and the actions that express our deepest traits. Instead of preserving socially similar environments, we should work to help others find solace in communities of uniqueness.
The construct of the self is difficult to define and even more challenging to deconstruct; I still can’t differentiate between the parts which are innate and those which are developed. But I’ve accepted its ambiguity and learned to love its mystery. Someone once told me that philosophy intended for popular consumption was mere sophistry, as the real philosophy went on in silence. In my opinion, that philosophy is the philosophy of self—the discovery and creation of who you really are.
In her rebellion against normalcy, the contrarian loses her sense of self. She is defiant solely as rebellion. But as she may eventually realize, both compliance and defiance are fatal to authenticity. They both replace the individual with a phantom, the real person evaporating from this world.
I often speak of death as a catalyst for life. The awareness and acceptance of our mortality is the driving force for fulfillment and satisfaction. That’s why I’m more certain than ever that suppressing this awareness helps perpetuate the ego mask that Alan Watts described so well, for death is the great cleanser of bullshit, the great bearer of truth, the one whose bell will continue to toll until its voice is finally heard. Death wishes nothing more than to be acknowledged, and to acknowledge its truth is to accept one’s path, or rather, the pressing need for its creation. Although death is inevitable, to die wondering who you could or would have been is not. The time to heed its call is at hand, as the hour—and the sole opportunity for creation—fades from view. What is authenticity, and who is your authentic self? Only you can truly know.
Revision made possible with the helping hand of Jessie L. Mannisto. The original version of this article can be found @ From Contrarianism to Authenticity by Leon Garber