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In my years at Harvard, I have been called many things, few of them pleasant. If you think I have elicited rather harsh epithets in the "Letters" section of this page, you should see the letters my editors forbore to print. But I do not mean to repine over unrequited love or unjust persecution. Far form it, since I never sought to be loved or to be treated justly.
How could I? I wrote against sacred cows, such as the cult of diversity, affirmative action, conspicuous compassion and radical participatory democracy. I wrote in favor of taboo notions, such as a Promise Keepers, student apathy, honor and (most unforgivably) conservativism. Moreover, I wrote these things in the flagship publication of what not too long ago was known commonly as "Kremlin on the Charles." No, I could not have sought or expected popularity and its absence concerns me not at all.
Nevertheless, there was one pleasant adjective attached to me, though in certainly was no compliment. In march, I participated in a panel discussion on student activism. After my opening remarks, another participant called me "contrarian." That I did not intend my remarks to sound eccentric or esoteric yet still received this label especially pleased me.
In retrospect, I have devoted my time at Harvard to cultivating contrarianism. It has not always been a chosen or a conscious endeavor with me, but as my colleague's comment illustrates, it seems to be realized one. That most readers would agree with label only pleases me more.
To be contrarian means simply to hold views or attitudes contrary to those held by most. One might call the popular views or attitudes conventional wisdom, especially if one holds them. Or one might call them, as I do prejudices.
Despite common parlance today, prejudice is not restricted to the ignorant or dim-witted. Prejudice pervades the human condition and we all have our prejudices. Some have more idiosyncratic and invidious prejudices, for which we rightly condemn them. But as we condemn the most noxious forms of prejudice, we blithely overlook subtler forms of prejudice for the very reason that we all share them. And we all share them because they do in fact appear as conventional wisdom. The prescient Tocqueville called it the omnipotence of the majority.
Few persons have the good fortune to escape their prejudices. That is to say, few persons have the opportunity to receive an education, which understood precisely is the freeing of one from the grips of prejudice. Harvard used to provide such education to its students as a matter of fact, but no longer. It now leaves them ignorant and adrift to choose courses from a sea of boring and impoverished prejudices.
This is the reason I have written polemical philippics: I have sought to counteract rampant prejudices. While I stand by my previous writings and their cogency, my first end was not to persuade but rather to offend your sensibilities. For with offended sensibilities comes indignation and with indignation a desire to refute. But to refute an argument successfully, even or perhaps especially a contrarian argument, requires understanding. And if one attempts to understand a contrarian argument, one might even come to appreciate or agree with it. In a word, one might lose a prejudice or two.
It was my intent to challenge with my writings; and by challenging, I meant to improve, to jolt slumbering minds into wakefulness. Even if my contrarian opinions have been incorrect, I hope they have made you rethink received opinion and conventional wisdom, as J. S. Mill suggested they might. But I conjecture, with reserve, that at least some of my contrarian opinions have been correct. If so, I hope they have made you reject received opinion and conventional wisdom.
Only last weekend I was characterized (good-naturedly) as someone who would like to have lived a century or two ago. I suppose that comports with my acknowledged contrarian sympathies, though it is not simply correct. I probably appreciate the alien world revealed in Plato's dialogues and Jane Austen's novels more than most others do. But it is because of this appreciation, not in spite of it, that I also probably appreciate our world and the possibilities of it more than most other do.
Hence, I am a frank, but not a blind, contrarian. I have taken my lesson from the prudent Tocqueville: "I have tried to see not differently but further than any party." I have tried to understand the prejudices of all, while dogmatically accepting the prejudices of none. I have tried to educate myself and I hope I have educated in the process.
Tom B. Cotton '98 is a government concentrator in Adams House. This is his last column.
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