On being contrary

Little Miss Contrary book cover
Image from the Mr. Men Wikia

You know those people who are perpetual students? The ones who never grow up and wish they could be at University forever and ever? You could say I’m one of them, but not in the way you think. For the past 5 years I’ve been working in a University. For the 4 years before that I was studying at University. In fact, while I was studying I was working in University too (as your glamorous equine studies library assistant). It wasn’t the same Uni for the whole period, or the same department, but it’s scary to think I’ve donated almost a third of my life to the further education cause. It’s like Higher Education took over the protector mantle from my parents when they dropped me off at the halls in Fresher’s Week.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, I’m quite up-to-date with most Higher Education concerns. Recently there’s been a massive debate about what universities are for. The government wants them to actively monitor and ban dissemination of ideas that are deemed to be extremist from campuses across the country. Some student bodies seem to be fully on board with this. The most noticeable example being the protests against prominent figures such as Germaine Greer being invited to give lectures in universities because of controversial personal views. Universities are trying to hold against this tide of restrictions and suppressions of free speech and thought. After all, weren’t universities created to encourage independent thought and explore ideas and concepts of all kinds? The University of Buckingham, for example, has announced that it is setting up a “Contrarian Institute” as a backlash to all of this controlled thinking. I’d like to see what comes of that!

As someone who works in a University, I’ve been confronted with this argument on a daily basis and I’m siding with the universities on this one. New ideas can’t be created in a vacuum. We all need stimulation and the freedom to let our minds go where they will in order to come up with creative and innovative solutions to modern problems (which is what most universities say they do with their research programmes). Unis have been geared towards this type of working and have, in the past, been rewarded for innovative and impactful research through the funding that is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework which evaluates the standard of research in university departments across the country. And now the government and some students want to impose a ban on critical thinking and voicing opinions? You might be forgiven for thinking we live in a totalitarian state, or at the very least are walking into one with our eyes and ears firmly shut.

I’m not agreeing with the view of extremist groups. But I don’t think we should play into their hands by banning free speech in venues where it should be encouraged. That sort of thing fosters closed-mindedness and laziness of thought. We already swallow enough pre-packaged junk ideas from the TV and media in the name of entertainment. I’m not going to let Theresa May tell me what to do, say or think in the name of protecting my rights. What about my rights to privacy or free speech? My right to unbiased information so I can come to my own conclusions? I have a healthy mind and it needs to be exercised, like my body.

Universities should be hotbeds of people from different cultures and social standings coming together and brooding out their ideas. One of the reason many of us went to University (or at least something that came from us going) was so we could articulate ourselves, even if we did have outlandish opinions. We could voice them in a safe atmosphere and debate them. We could talk to others and test the limitations of our ideas and completely overthrow them if they proved to be, in essence, stupid. I distinctly remember hanging out with the international politics crowd during my undergrad years, many of them members of the debating society. I even went to a couple of debates they hosted. Most of them pitching outlandish ideas to a miniscule audience, all the while honing their rhetorical and argumentative skills. I imagine that some of them are currently developing into the politicians, lawyers, or stand-up comedians of the future.

I loved being a part of that community, even if I never actually took to the debating stage. I enjoyed discussing all sorts of ideas – political or otherwise – with a group of likeminded people. That was something that I didn’t have in school or at home. I can’t imagine not having had the freedom to express views and discuss them. In fact, even now when I try to debate an idea with my mum she takes it so personally that we end up falling out. All I’m trying to do is explore an idea or theory (we often talk about how to tackle homelessness for example), but she thinks I’m being contrary deliberately to upset her and negate her opinions. Not a great atmosphere for debating any sort of societal solutions, it’s quite stifling really. No wonder I was chomping at the bit to leave home!

I think it’s important to be able to see an idea from someone else’s point of view. When I think about or discuss a subject, I enjoy setting out the stall for a particular argument and then turning everything on its head. It’s not sophistry. I just like to see it from all sides. I love these sorts of discussions. They make me feel invigorated and alive – mental acrobatics for my mind as it flits from one person’s circumstances to another and explores arguments and standpoints connected to a topic. To really find a solution to a problem I believe that it needs to be looked at from all sides with honesty and integrity and no desires to hide or whitewash information. If all known components are acknowledged and understood only then can working compromises and solutions be created, agreed on and implemented.

I guess that by being contrary I’m trying to instil this way of thinking in others and am subconsciously training them to explore ideas in a similar way. Apart from mental agility it helps me to empathise with people who might be widely different from me in terms of background. Above all, I want people to care about their opinions and freedom of speech. It’s what makes democracy work. It’s a celebration of diversity but also a voluntary community where we have respect for one another. Let’s take pride in being contrary, for what it’s still worth.

Do you enjoy being contrary or taking part in discussions? How do you stand on the debate around universities banning speakers deemed to be extremist?

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