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“No” is one of the first words human children learn in life — and it usually becomes our favorite the instant we figure out that it gets a rise out of our parents. We’re contrarians from birth, it seems. But where does this tendency come from?
A quick search through trending topics today would probably reveal numerous things you have strong feelings about. And for the most part, this is stuff you took no part in creating. “Game of Thrones” is trending right now. How does that make you feel? And what’s your hot take on Greta Van Fleet? I bet it’s totally original.
The fact that we allow art, music and film critics to exist seems to suggest we believe there’s some universal constant out there which defines the “goodness” or “badness” of all things. We even call these people “tastemakers.” But we can all make our own “tastes,” can’t we?
Is there any scientific or psychological explanation for why we delight in hating popular things? Or are we just a very silly kind of animal?
Is There a Psychological Explanation, or Are We Just Jerks?
To get to the bottom of this phenomenon, or at least try, we have to understand something called “normative social influence.”
This is the human tendency to conform in order to be accepted by a larger group. If you think of democracy as a process rather than a power structure, you begin to see one example of normative social influence taking place. None of us enjoy paying taxes, but we do so because it’s part of living in a civilized society. We conform — in this case, to rules which have evolved slowly over hundreds of years.
Some of us want to burn homes or churches to the ground for the insurance money or just for fun. But most of us don’t — because we have to live by rules if we’re to go on living at all. The overwhelming consensus tells us these things are antisocial behaviors. When we want to change something as big and important as a law, it takes time, effort and bravery.
You know what doesn’t take time, effort or bravery? Talking down to somebody about the things they enjoy.
When we shrink down the normative social influence to a much smaller scale, it gets very silly very quickly. If you don’t like playing “Fortnite” or watching hockey, you can opt out, quietly and respectfully. Ultimately, no harm will come to you. And yet there’s that fear of missing out or alienating yourself or being rejected.
And we fear these things because we’ve all helped condition each other to expect judgment for every little thing. “I can’t believe you don’t like ‘Harold and Maude!'” If we can beat somebody to the punch, and insult their favorite thing before they insult ours, we’re sitting a little higher in the pecking order.
There’s something else at work here too: “rebellion in group.” As it turns out, rebellion isn’t even about individualism, for the most part, even though we tell ourselves that’s what it’s about. It’s an attempt to escape it.
Rebellion doesn’t mean standing alone and being content and confident in your uniqueness or your contrariness. It’s an exercise in power. Rebels often don’t want to be that different after all — they want other people to think the way they do.
The Universal Soap Box
There’s no reason to think this tendency is a brand-new phenomenon. Tribalism has always existed in one form or another. And human beings have always insisted on doing this preposterous dance between dividing ourselves up and desperately seeking the approval of others. We’re “rugged individualists” until somebody — a fake populist, maybe — comes along and tells us our majority and our country is slipping through our fingers. Then, we’re desperate for the company of folks we can identify with, usually on a quite flimsy, superficial basis.
The issue is not necessarily that cutting against the grain — hating popular things — is becoming a more common tendency. The issue may be that we’ve built a society which gives everybody, and therefore nobody, a soapbox to stand on and a megaphone to yell into. We hate popular music because it’s popular. We hate trending TV shows and movies because they’re trending. As soon as something achieves apparently universal appeal, and we find conversations about those things cropping up around every water cooler, across our social media channels and on every talk show, it becomes time for some of us to tune it out and tell the world how thoughtful we are for doing so. We start to build our personalities less on who we are and what we do and more on who we aren’t and what we don’t do. How sad that is. Even sadder is the basic concept of building your personality on the shifting sands of consumerism.
Many of us embrace contrarianism because we feel society has left us no other choice. There is a reason for the persistent popularity of Breitbart “News”, The Daily Mail, Alex Jones and Donald Trump. They have statistically unpopular opinions, to be sure. But they express those opinions confidently and sometimes even convincingly. They’ve managed to thrive because they figured out how to dog whistle to folks who already felt disenchanted, disillusioned and left out of “the mainstream.” It’s one of the basest appeals to human nature, but it works.
This universal soapbox we all spend our time climbing to the top of every time we log onto social media allows each of us to feel like we have a voice, even if it’s just for fifteen minutes or one day at a time. The internet represents, for the most part, a democratizing influence. It’s helped us organize our ideas, air a lot of grievances, disseminate useful information, blow the whistle on bullies and reach people who couldn’t be reached by any other means. And, like democracy, the internet is also an engine that drives conformity — slowly. There are some types of sub-Reddits we’ll only have to ban once if we do our jobs correctly.
Do We Have to Be Forever Condemned to the Concept of “Division?”
To be clear, “conformity” and “rebellion” themselves are not the problem. Conformity with cruel ideas is. Rebellion against inclusion, just because it’s popular, is. Getting petty and catty and slinging personal attacks based on somebody’s taste in music or films or sports teams is. Films and TV don’t matter in the slightest, from a cosmological perspective. We’re generating a lot of really negative noise about things that make other people happy. Maybe we should separate the signal from all of the noise and figure out what democracy, society, and the internet are really for. Big ideas. News that matters. Cooperation instead of competition and rivalry.
Here we are in a world everybody delights in calling “divided.” But that’s only because we all insist it must be so, and not because it actually is. There’s no social issue, no piece of art, no personal opinion too insignificant that we can’t derive some measure of self-worth from loving or hating it publicly. And most of us are fickle enough and desperate enough for attention and belonging, that we don’t even care that much which it is — love or hate — so long as we’re the ones trying to erase one line in the sand and draw another instead.