When I started writing this column one year ago, I made a rash decision to call myself the “Coastal Contrarian.” I had missed an email from the editors asking me to come up with a name for the column and I was pushing deadline, so I fired off the first thing that came into my mind, which, apparently, was the Coastal Contrarian. I liked the alliteration and the title seemed vague enough to encompass all manner of topics and themes. I had this idea that I could redefine contrarianism for an age of polarization; in a time when everyone disagrees with everything, it could be considered contrarian to agree with everybody, to seek consensus across the many silos. I would seek to write with kindness and compromise. That act itself would be contrarian in the 2020s.

That idea was, of course, absurd. You can’t agree with everybody — especially not these days — and it would probably destroy you to try. So, I fell back on the traditional meaning of contrarianism, which is to disagree with everybody, every time. I would be a liberal among conservatives and a conservative among liberals. I would bet against the most popular stocks and read only the most obscure fiction. I would sail into the prevailing winds at every opportunity. It was exhausting.

All of which begged the question: is it ever good to be a contrarian? What is a contrarian anyways?

The word is derived from the Latin root ‘contra’ or against. A contrarian is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “a person who takes a contrary position or attitude.” In other words, a jerk.

But I knew it wasn’t that simple. Contrarians can often be great. They can push us to see the world we inhabit in a different light. They can create new kinds of art or breakthroughs in science because they aren’t blinded by the conventional wisdom. They can get wildly rich and change the world with their tech startups because they didn’t listen to the nay-sayers trying to keep them down.

But to conceive of myself that way was wrong too because I wasn’t that cool. What credibility did I have to go around calling myself the Coastal Contrarian? I barely pull off bearded hipster, and no one ever caught me investing in any stock, let alone an unpopular one. Was reading Thomas Pynchon novels enough to be contrarian? Probably not, though it’s true that no one else I meet seems to like Thomas Pynchon.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been quoted as saying: “You have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong.” (I’m usually wrong, so maybe that’s enough to qualify me.) But you can’t just go around listening to Jeff Bezos. He’s the richest man in the world so it’s in his best interest to keep the rest of us swimming along with the current. He doesn’t want the rest of us thinking outside the box because that’s what he did. In true contrarian fashion, I spent two hours last night criticizing Jeff Bezos then spent $200 Christmas shopping on Amazon.

We live in a time of contrarians. Which is to say that being a contrarian in an age of hyper-polarization is almost to be a non-entity. When everybody is dug into their viewpoint and unwilling to listen to the other side of the argument, everybody is a contrarian. Thus, being a contrarian is just to be a person. Everyone has their own cause that is under attack; everybody is entrenched against the faceless, nameless masses arrayed against us. It’s not even cool to be a contrarian anymore; it’s common!

So, does being the Coastal Contrarian mean getting along with everyone and going with the flow, seeking consensus in an embattled world? Or does it mean giving the impression of disagreeing with all you idiots out there and living in a lonely world of self-satisfied rightness? I really hope it’s neither.

Instead, I’m going to say that being a contrarian means loving you even if I disagree with you. I’m going to keep on loving you, even if I don’t know you and even once the winter holidays are over. I’m going to keep on loving art and music and culture, both popular and obscure. I’m going to keep on reading fiction even if it’s impractical. I’m going to keep learning to be more practical even when it’s not exciting. I’ll keep on sharing my weird perspectives and boring monologues whether you like it or not. Though I hope you do.

I’ll probably sometimes fail to live up to this ideal. It’s hard to be consistent all the time and we must balance the many paradoxes that are baked into our modern lives. I want to believe I can always see beyond the prevailing wisdom, that I can be a contrarian in the best sense of the word without succumbing to its negative connotations. But I probably can’t. Not always anyway. Maybe contrarianism is simply being able to admit that imperfection.

If anyone asks you, though, I never admitted it. I am perfect! I am always right; except when everyone else is right, in which case I’ll choose to be wrong. Because I’m a contrarian and I can’t help myself.

Maybe I’m just a wannabe contrarian. Maybe I shouldn’t want to be one. I guess what I really want is for us all to be contrarians, or at least for all of us to try more often. Not because I want for us constantly to disagree with each other, but because we could all spend just a little more time disagreeing with ourselves. I may sometimes be wrong but that doesn’t mean that everyone else is always right. I only wanted to aim for a voice that recognizes the fluidity of a world that pretends to be stable, that poses questions in a world that only wants answers.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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