We need better ClimateBall contrarians. Perhaps they need better contrarian role models. Let’s find them, if only for our own sake. Here are five of mine.
Fred Rogers was a TV show producer, a comedian, an author, a puppeteer, a composer, a singer, a pastor, an old-school conservative, and a life long Republican. His values may not reflect contemporary viewpoints, but his contrarianism shone (good grief, English – sometimes you’re drunk) in his slow-paced and nurturing child TV programs. His candor during a congressional testimony may have saved American public broadcasting:
I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country. And I’ve worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as — as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to…make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.
A version of this approach rocked Quebecers of my generation and beyond, with a show called Passe-Partout. I wouldn’t mind having been Mr. Rogers’ neighbour, it may have appeased my cynicism.
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Philosopher Agnes Callard presents herself as a devil’s advocate advocate. She also talks about trangressivism. That’s more than contrarian to me. I expect that her debating style, like her overall persona, will change the philosopher stereotype:
The book the Guggenheim Award is being used to support, The World Socrates Made, will analyze contemporary intellectual culture—within philosophy; within academia more broadly; and extra academically, on social media—in the light of its Socratic origins. Our cultures of debate have a peculiarly Socratic structure—that of an adversarial division of epistemic labor—that we have come to take for granted. Both the idealistic heights we expect from argumentative engagement, as well as the depths (defensiveness, ad hominem argumentation, and mutual suspicion) to which it often, in reality, sinks bear the Socratic signature. Learning to read it is critical to creating the culture of refutation that we want and need.
For the better I believe, as I think philosophers waste too much time writing arcane deliverables nobody but themselves read. Social media changed everyone. It’s about time it changes everything, including academia.
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That is all.
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Alice Dreger is a historian of science. Once a professor, she turned into journalism and won the first HxA Award. The title of her most popular book sets the contrarian tone: Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice. Although the word “justice” appears in that title, the word “Galileo” predisposes her to be well-loved among Freedom Fighters. Nevermind, I like her. Perhaps it’s a matter of style. Take this tidbit from her correspondence with John McDermott:
I previously sent you a link with an essay that explains my decision to leave Northwestern and generally take be wary of academia, and I have the sense you haven’t read it and may be under a misunderstanding with regard to my history. So here it is again:
It’s short so it won’t take you long to read.
To be frank, I’m hoping not to have the same experience with you that I had with Bari Weiss, when I was lumped into an alleged secret society about which I knew very little if anything. Here’s my cheeky piece on that:
But in all seriousness, I’m concerned you’ve come to this story with an assumption that isn’t playing out, and you’re determined to make it the story — that there is a secret peer support group of people who have been “cancelled.” I do not think of people like me, Katie [Herzog], or Jesse [Singal] as cancelled in any way — we all have vibrant careers — nor do I think of them as extraordinary work friends. They’re work friends like so many others in my life.
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Ecologist Tomas Crowther wants a trillion more trees on Earth. He’s described as a disrupter. His approach is overly numerical. It relies on data, which at first seemed hard to get when sharing what provides one’s edge is hard. He got some, extrapolated from it, and published. Sounds like the best way to exploit what Czeslaw Milosz calls the Reverse Telescope in his Road-Side Dog:
Probably nothing can be accomplished without a belief in one’s superiority. This is achieved by looking at the accomplishments of others through a reverse telescope. Later, it is difficult not to be aware of the harm done.
We’ll see how it goes. How not to wish him the best?
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From this list one can take away that contrarianism does not represent a one-size-fit-all box. I don’t believe in that kind of box. So here is my own take-away: likeability matters, but not as much as constructiveness. All the examples are constructive, all of them vary in likeability. This may be a personal bias. Perhaps we’d need to invent dislikeability, as there are many, many, many, many, examples of dislikeable contrarians. Finding less-than-suboptimal examples would have made this post both easier and longer.
We are all in it together, we all have neighbours, and we need better contrarians. I would not go so far as to suggest we all are contrarians, but any time spent online ought to be enough to realize that we all have our moments and our manners. We certainly ought to foster the best contrarian traits. While researching for this post I stumbled upon a Contrarian Prize in UK. Perhaps climate institutions ought to take heed and create a ClimateBall prize to celebrate the most constructive contrarians.