by Joe Berkowitz
Yesterday morning, Armond White was removed from the New York Film Critics Circle. He got the boot because last week, at their annual awards, he heckled Twelve Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, mid-acceptance speech, loud enough for much of the room to hear. (White absolutely denies this heckling and the quotations attributed to him; other accounts of his group’s behavior included someone from their party yelling “fuck you” repeatedly and carrying on throughout.)
White’s behavior, whatever he yelled, wasn’t particularly surprising, and not only because he’s had similar incidents over years and years. This latest outburst makes sense in context because White is the contrarian’s contrarian, and heckling during applause is the purest possible distillation of the contrarian instinct.
Contrary to popular proverb, opinions are not like assholes. While everybody does indeed possess the latter, people like White seem to have, in lieu of opinions, a collection of choices. Instead of arriving at a judgment, they assume a conflicting position and work backwards — like screenwriters flinging together a script to justify the pun-based title some coked-up producer picked out. It certainly seems like a justification, for instance, that one of the major gripes in White’s pan of Toy Story 3 was product placement, even though he was totally on board with Grown Ups 2 (“perhaps the closest Hollywood has yet come to making ‘Ow! My Balls!’” said Variety), which has a scene set in a K-Mart and another where Adam Sandler literally wakes up to a can of Pepsi.
White’s not alone, though, in his constant desire to zig where others have zagged. At some point, it became cool to be curmudgeonly, as though a decades-late “Cosby Show” ripple effect hit the Gowanus canal like a tidal wave.
But not all contrarians are created equal. Some are internet writers, forever chasing the currency of clicks through outrageous opinions; for others, the ability to surprise and provoke in general is its own windfall of bitcoins or at least bits of coins. Paradoxically, of course, the more frequently one attempts to shock with contrary opinions, the more predictable these opinions become.
It all depends on what kind of contrarian you have in your life, though.
Someone with only occasional contrarian tendencies likes to think of himself as a Free Thinker. These people approach TV shows like “Girls” skeptically, watch if they’re interested, and don’t if they’re not. When everybody in the known universe seems to be talking about the same thing at the same time, like, say, an awards show or a surprise Beyoncé album, and the Free Thinker is not interested in those things, he or she might certainly express annoyance. Furthermore, the FT might process this annoyance as a triumph of independence, and write a fourth-wave punk song about it called “Society!” But the Free Thinker is not averse to popular ideas like award shows and Beyoncé by mere virtue of their popularity.
These people have more than just tendencies. They live to stir the pot, with questions worth asking (“Does Martin Scorsese still have it?”) and some that are not (“Was Casino actually better than Goodfellas?”) He or she would watch a show like “Girls” because it hits all the right manufactured-outrage notes, even if uninterested — despite the fact that every day each of us lurches incrementally closer to the grave. Whatever it takes for the chance to prove that the general consensus is wrong, or at the very least, not right enough. (See also: a certain breed of Libertarian.)
Christopher Hitchens, the late patron saint of contrarians, would usually be categorized as a Devil’s Advocate, although he sometimes went beyond. While his inquisitive spirit led him to write a book-length audit of religion, it also lead him to write another book on why Mother Teresa is overrated, as well as this fucking thing. Sometimes the pot does not require stirring.
Jack White likely coined the term “reverse contrarian” years ago, without going so far as to define it. In context, it referred to a certain kind of person who liked The White Stripes, except for Meg White’s drumming. Expanding on that very limited definition, the term could describe anybody harboring strong contrary opinions against other opinions that are already contrary. These folks are all about the backlash to the backlash. (The backlash-Inception.) By this definition, the reverse contrarian might look upon Jack White as so much bowler-hat-sporting dead weight, and anoint Meg White the unsung hero of the band. (See also: oppositional defiant disorder.)
Reverse contrarians hate things specifically because everybody else likes them. They like things specifically because everybody else hates them. They will let you know, for instance, that they’re obsessed with “Blurred Lines,” even though it’s ostensibly out of character for their idiom or whatever, but only after so many people become disenchanted with the song that the act of liking it becomes going against the grain. The inevitable conclusion to regularly aligning oneself with backlashes is taking ownership of them, the way that some people do when discovering a band. (“I was over Arcade Fire before it was cool to be over them.”) This is the diametric opposite of what having an interest in anything should be about.
Arbitrary contrarians disagree. It doesn’t matter what about, they just do. They’re non-joiners. They won’t dance at weddings because the music’s lame, unaware of the fact that pretty much everybody thinks it’s lame and doesn’t care. They won’t try a fad like flavor-tripping because fads are lame, and if they stay home instead, they might get invited to blow time-traveling rails with Jim Jarmusch at Max’s Kansas City — you know, back when everything was just so much better. In addition to resisting the will of the crowd, the arbitrary contrarian also takes pride in disparaging sacred cows, couching an unlikely dismissal in false bravado (“The Godfather sucks. Come at me, bro,”) or exasperated loneliness (“Am I the only one in the world who thinks the Beatles are wildly overrated?”) If there isn’t a clear stance to take against a popular issue, they might plead fashionable ambivalence.
Arbitrary contrarians are the evil twins of Improv 101 students. Instead of saying “yes, and” — the watchword of every improv performer — these folks say “no, but” and proceed to go off in their own disruptive direction. This is not to say the world is in desperate, urgent need of more longform Harold teams by any measure, but rather that the instinct to disagree should not come with a hair trigger.
The word “troll” is thrown around a lot these days, and personally I find it a little too dignified for the people it describes. Trolls sometimes guard bridges, which seems like honest work. I much prefer the term “clown-goblin” to describe people who put forth intentionally inflammatory views just to get a reaction. This kind of contrarian takes a scorched earth approach, spraying contempt for everything in every direction.
High school debate teams encourage their members to look at topics from all angles, which helps them develop empathy and become better-rounded people. Unfortunately, this ability to be a conflict-chameleon also makes it easy to argue a point one’s heart isn’t invested in — something that clown-goblins like Armond White seem to do all the time. It’s not enough for them to hate what everybody else likes and vice versa, they also have this inmates-running-the-asylum instinct to tell anybody who doesn’t agree that they’re wrong. According to White, “Grown Ups 2 risks resentment by smart-alecks,” while Toy Story 3 is “essentially a bored game that only the brainwashed will buy into,” in a franchise “for non-thinking children and adults.” If you don’t agree with him, the options are less than ideal.
You will be able to name a few others. We will decline to name them here because, really, who needs two days worth of Twitter invective?
White and his kind are the human equivalent of that jagged bit of exploded kernel-shrapnel that gets stuck in your teeth when you eat movie popcorn. For him, opinions have less to do with the subject at hand than what this subject reveals about himself, which is the one true subject. Contrarians like White have abused the notion that everyone is entitled to an opinion. Their rebuttals to ideas or products don’t seem to be actual thoughts so much as twisted personality-PR masquerading as opinion.
Unfortunately, we also live in a world where the honest and vehement expression of opinion is often dismissed as trolling. That’s only reasonable, as we’ve all been trolled to death so many times. Confounding expectations may add mystique-points, but actively attempting to do so with every single opinion smacks of dark intent, dishonesty and a completely broken psychological makeup. If you love something, love it unabashedly, and if you hate something, hate it like the devil. Have some conviction. Have some compassion. Whatever you do, do it because you really fucking mean it.