There is a lot lurking behind this question (as there so often is with questions of this kind) about what is more interesting – the widespread acceptance of a given social practice or custom, or the minority dissent from it. For one thing there is the comparison or analogy with everyday life and with present politics, reform, ideas of progress and improvement. Looked at in that way, it may be said that at least in some ways the reformist side is more interesting than the pro-status quo side. That’s almost a truism, or what Jerry S calls in that scholarly way of his that I can never hope to emulate, an argument by definition. Imagine to yourself a conversation. X says ‘the way this is done is all wrong and could be done much better’ and Y says ‘nonsense, the way it’s done now is exactly right and should be left as it is.’ Which is more interesting? Which offers more of an opening for further conversation, for thought and research, for something to do and plan and hope for? (Other things being equal, of course – assuming the reformer is not a monumental bore and windbag while the status quo-ist is not. Sadly, not always the case in the real world.) Or to put it another way, X says ‘the way this is done is unjust and an outrage and causes needless misery to millions of people’ and Y says ‘Oh? I’ve never thought about it’ and changes the subject to last night’s game. Which person (ceteris paribus again) seems more boring?
So in that sense it may seem true that dissent from the majority way of doing things is more interesting than mindless or conformist acceptance of it. Thoreau certainly seems a great deal more interesting than the quietly desperate people around him. Huck is more interesting, with his despairing decision to go to hell, than the self-regarding slaveowning hell-avoiders around him. The great Bartolomé de las Casas is more interesting than the murderous Indian-abusers he exposed. Montaigne is more interesting in his views on Indians in ‘On Coaches’ than the indifferent people around him. As people, dissenters and reformers are generally more interesting – though that also of course depends on our views of what it is they’re reforming. On exactly what the majority and minority practices are. I’m not sure I find people who rail about the dangers of women running around in the streets with their hair uncovered just doing whatever they want to do without asking a man, particularly fascinating. So there’s another complication, another place we have to be careful to distinguish between some and all. But in addition to that, another reason the conformist view is also interesting is because it is not just personal. It is also for instance a moral question. I for one find it fascinating to read about the rationalizations that Southern slaveowners were able to come up with, because it is interesting to know how people can justify to themselves what now seem to us intolerable cruelties. I find it interesting to read the Jefferson-Adams letters, for instance, partly for this reason. Jefferson is a fascinating study (and I’m obviously not the only one who thinks so: there have been a good few books on the subject lately). He had all the equipment to see things otherwise, including his friendship (broken for many years then restored) with both Adamses, yet he didn’t. Surely the reasons are interesting! Was it just because he wanted the wine and the books and the upkeep of Monticello? Would he have thought the same if he hadn’t owned any slaves? If not, can any of us trust ourselves to make disinterested judgments on moral questions? And that’s just one example.
Well it’s a large subject, and I don’t have time to write a book on it, so that will do for now.