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October 14, 2013 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Letters From a Young Contrarian

On his 14th birthday, a boy gets a horse. Everybody in the village says, “How wonderful! The boy got a horse!” The Zen Master says, “We’ll see.” Two years later, the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg. Everybody in the village says, “How terrible!” The Zen Master says, “We’ll see.” Then, a war breaks out. All the young men have to go off and fight, except for the boy whose leg is broken. Everybody in the village says, “How wonderful!”

Thank you for reading my column this year. As some of you have pointed out, I plagiarised the title for this column from a book written by the late, great contrarian Christopher Hitchens called Letters to a Young Contrarian (but he stole that from another book addressed to a young poet). My aim, like Hitch’s, has always been to challenge the intuitive and commonly held views of my readers.

Our minds are open to new ideas when we are young, but as we get older we seem to lose the ability to approach things with an open mind. We become set in our views and lose our ability for self-critique. We agree with whatever the prevailing view of our peers is, without thinking of the ways in which we might be wrong. Eventually, we become the stubborn, grumpy, old, racist grandfather, always complaining about the current state of affairs. But it’s important that we don’t do that, lest we as a society lose our ability to constructively come up with new and better ideas.

Everyone wins when you argue for the other side. When a new policy is being chucked around or your friends are chatting about something, deliberately pick the contrary view and force yourself, irrespective of your convictions, to make the best case for it possible. You might end up being right. Which would be great. But even if you are wrong, you force those who are right to improve their policy; to tweak it; to understand its strengths and pitfalls. This year, I was wrong more than I was right. But the point was, I played devil’s advocate and formed a stronger opinion for it.

To recap:

  • When people say that gay marriage will lead to polygamous marriage, the response seems to be either that it won’t because the two are clearly different relationship constructs, or that it might but who cares if it does?

  • Cigarettes obviously cost the country, both in health terms and financially, but we should be sceptical of people who overstate the costs and ignore the benefits of smoking (however distasteful you find it).

  • Flatting warrants of fitness may ensure that all flats are warm and dry, but we shouldn’t forget that the policy might lead to higher rents. That will mean that those who were happy to be cold in order to pay less will suffer.

  • Interest-free student loans are great for us, but we should check our privilege when it comes to complaining about how expensive uni is for us, when the policy costs everyone else in the country massive amounts of money.

  • We may think that Bain and Lundy and George Zimmerman are all clearly guilty murderers, but we should remember that we don’t know every single detail about the case enough to form a reliable opinion.

  • Foreigners coming over and buying our houses may be one of the factors in higher house prices, but we should remember that they also add to our economy and that there are other ways we can reduce house prices, like by opening up more land for development.

  • Unpaid internships and low minimum wages may sound like exploitation, but the point is that the people who participate are doing it freely, they’re gaining valuable experience from it, and those positions might not exist if the businesses have to pay more for them.

  • Spending $36 million on a boat in San Fran sounds nice, but maybe we could spend that money better on starving kids back home.

As students, we are some of the most open-minded contrarians in society. But we can always do better. When all the villagers are saying how wonderful or how terrible something is, be the Zen Master and say: “We’ll see.”


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