How to Be a Fearless Contrarian Without Offending All the Wrong People
How to tell idiots the Truth about this stupid world without upsetting anyone important.
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Congratulations: you have decided to become a fearless contrarian, an impish provocateur, a daring iconoclast, a sharpened piercer of pieties and posturing, a hero of free speech, the last person left who will say what PC nannies and the hordes of uptight microstalins will not allow to be said. You've noticed that there's a lot of bullshit swilling around – that most of what people believe is nonsense, that politicians lie, that God isn't real, that public life is full of cretins, that sheer delusion is fermenting everywhere, its grit and stink in every half-chewed mouthful of words that drops out of every witless mouth.
Someone needs to clear out all this bullshit with the cold and limpid waters of Truth, and screw anyone who's offended. That someone could be you. Why not?
But it's not easy to be a fearless contrarian. You start out wanting to offend absolutely everyone with your incisive wit and reckless criticism – but it turns out some people are more dangerous to offend than others. If you burst some cherished delusions you'll be hailed as a brilliant subversive – but if you burst some others, you're a crank, a nihilist, or, worst of all, just an unpleasant person. Some clever little barbs make you a person with an opinion that must be respected; others will see you barred from all the best house parties as the kind of creature that just shouldn't be allowed in polite society. How are you meant to know?
Don't worry: we're here to help. As long as you follow these simple rules, you will always be on the right side of legitimacy, and always welcome in every sensible, reasoned debate. Little people will still hate you, but the right people will chuckle along, and you will be safe.
PICK THE RIGHT TARGET
Last week, police briefly launched an investigation into 20-year-old Jason Osamede Okundaye, a Cambridge student and head of the university's Black and Minority Ethnic Society, after he tweeted that "ALL white people are racist". The statement was the subject of immediate outrage in the Daily Mail and the Sun, both absolutely shocked that someone could say something so crudely offensive. What he said was a good provocation, and it wasn't exactly false – a white person might not personally hold particularly racist beliefs, but whiteness itself only emerged out of the repression of people with darker skin – but being right isn't enough. The police probe was quickly dropped, but the outrage is now immortalised along with Okundaye's name in the archives of Google.
All of this is the exact opposite of what you want. Of course, as a budding contrarian you already know that you should probably reserve your grand, sweeping racial statements for ethnic and religious minorities, rather than white people, and that unless you're willing to do this you should avoid at any cost being from an ethnic or religious minority yourself. This is obvious.
DON'T BE YOUNG
You should also do your very best to not be young, and especially not be a student. Young people are callow; students just regurgitate social-justice pieties that they learned from their dual-honours degrees in gender-screaming and post-structuralist woodwork theory, probably. Even conservative students get treated with condescension: you don't want anyone, on reading your latest brilliant screed, to be able to go, "Oh, you'll grow out of it eventually." You need real-world experience. You need to be billowingly, magnificently middle-aged.
KNOW THE RIGHT PEOPLE
Like most British people, I had until very recently never heard of the Irish writer and columnist Kevin Myers. Irish readers had a different experience: thanks to his prodigious pullulation through the country's papers, serving up spicy headlines like "Africa is giving nothing to anyone – apart from AIDS" and "There was no Holocaust", a lot of people were basically too wearied to be outraged by whatever gobbet of bile he decided to cough up on any given week. There goes Kevin Myers, being offensive again: the world is in order, everything's in its place.
This changed when his latest (and his last) column appeared in the Irish Sunday Times; an ordinary sexist rant about pay inequality that would have been perfectly acceptable to everyone who counts – if he hadn't, along the way, noted that two of the BBC's best paid female presenters – Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz – are Jewish: "Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity." In other words, he suggested that Jews are all a bunch of money-grubbing Shylocks.
Crucially, this was for the Irish edition of a British paper, and much of the resulting upset came from readers in the UK. Something similar happens whenever Americans find a smugly racist column from Rod Liddle or Boris Johnson, or when people outside of France find out what's really in the pages of Charlie Hebdo. Jewish bodies in Ireland defended Myers against the charge that he's an anti-Semite: of course he shouldn't be condemned; he's a veteran of the Irish media landscape, a bit of a wind-up merchant, but someone with respectable editors and thoroughly decent friends. Like every other kind of reputable body, their instinct was to close ranks.
In the UK, Jewish groups had no such attachments, and they simply saw his remarks for what they were. In the end, Myers was fired from the Sunday Times, and announced on the radio that "I have no career left. My reputation is in tatters." The lesson is clear. If you want to be gratuitously offensive, make sure that everyone who might hear you is already thoroughly sick of you. And most of all, wherever you plan to publish your intrepid anti-establishment heresies, you should always have dependable allies within the establishment.
SAY WHAT YOU MEAN
This one could be controversial. Lesser guides might encourage you to make good use of irony and innuendo, and never really believe what you're saying. That way, if you're ever called up on anything you've said, you always have the option of claiming that it was just a joke, that you were taken out of context, that your accusers are a bunch of literal-minded idiots. And you should claim all those things. But you must not ever actually use irony, because irony is death to you. Your job is to come out with a series of stinging rebukes to anyone you don't like, and the job of everyone who listens is to agree with you. Irony is dangerous: it's the power of language to mean something other than what it appears to mean. Using irony implies a trust in your audience. The ironist trusts other people to creatively engage with the richness of words and the abysses of possible personalities, but you don't trust other people at all. Consider instead using shallow sarcasm, or bullish hyperbole, or just a nebulously jocular tone, as you say all the unpleasant things that you really believe. If things get hairy, you can still claim that it was all a joke. But you'll never have to actually explain what the joke was.
MAKE DELIGHTFULLY PROVOCATIVE STATEMENTS THAT ARE BASICALLY EXACTLY THE SAME AS THE GRUMBLINGS OF ANY OLD HOME-COUNTRIES REACTIONARY, BUT DELIVERED IN A SMUGGER TONE WITH MORE ATTEMPTS AT KNOWING WISECRACKS; THAT EMANATE AS A CHORTLING ECHO FOR THE PRONOUNCEMENTS OF ESTABLISHED POWER; THAT CHALLENGE ONLY THE ILLUSION THAT THE WORLD CAN BE MADE A LESS HIDEOUS PLACE FOR THOSE THAT SUFFER; THAT LEAVE THE POWERLESS FACED WITH A GROTESQUE ARCHITECTURE OF DOMINATION IN WHICH STERN COMMENDS AND FREEWHEELING LAUGHTER MERGE INTO ONE CRIPPLING TOTALITY, WITHOUT LIGHT, WITHOUT HOPE, WITHOUT ANY POSSIBILITY OF SALVATION
This should be obvious.
If you've followed all these steps, you should find yourself transformed. A red-wine stain seeps shining from the corners of your mouth, a mouth that hangs above a chin that gloopily vanishes into a general mess of neck and throat and chest. You are wearing a linen suit, even if you don't remember ever buying one. Your cream-coloured eyes peer out into a world that vanishes two feet beyond your own body; you condemn the stupidity of that patchwork blur in front of you, marinating in your own heft and fearlessness. You've done it. You're putting the world to rights, one parabolic jab at a time, and the admiration of that world is yours. You are a daring contrarian.