The Willingness to Say Controversial and Outrageous Things


(Self) Censored

In the roughly three years I’ve had this blog, I’ve published a few posts that some people have considered a little controversial. At least that’s the general consensus I got from the blast of negative comments I received.

A few of those times were completely unintentional, but admittedly some were deliberately provoking. And in those cases, I would often wait, knowing that someone out there would soon send me a nasty email or comment regarding what I had just said.

It might be weird to say, but it’s kind of a rush.

But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, the first negative comment I received really hurt. I put a lot of thought behind my arguments and people were happy trying to rip them to shreds. Yet through all the feedback, both good and bad, I learned a valuable lesson. You can’t always hold yourself back – you have to be willing to say controversial things.

The Perks of Controversy

Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that it’s completely necessary to be controversial or outrageous all the time. What’s good is the willingness to do it. It’s important to have the courage and bravery to be able to say things that others wouldn’t.

I was talking to a guy at a party once who gave me an opinion about what he thought was going on in the economy. I disagreed. Furthermore, a few other people who overheard supported my position. Before I knew it, he had backtracked over his old position and embraced the new one. He buckled way too quickly under group pressure to conform.

Could you imagine what it would be like if group consensus was never challenged? Everyone would go with popular opinion simply because that’s what is generally accepted as true. Weirdly enough, I would love to have heard more about that guy’s opinion, but he caved in before he could say any more about it.

I know what it’s like to be on the other side too, being in a group of 10-12 people who all completely agree on something that you vehemently disagree with. And I can tell you, it’s a scary thing to defend your position against all those other people.

Admittedly, there are times when I’m wrong. I’m perfectly okay with that – after all, I’m human. But I always bring some unique and interesting perspective to the group that none of them had considered before. And because of my arguments, I often turn people to my point of view.

But bringing people around to your point of view is only one of many reasons to be willing to say something controversial or outrageous. When you have that willingness to do it, you:

• Have the courage to stand up for your convictions
Challenge group consensus
Make conversations more interesting
• Think for yourself
• Show confidence in your opinion making skills
• Share unique and new viewpoints

Think For Yourself

A short story by Hans Christian Anderson called “The Emperor Has No Clothes” highlights just how important it is to have this willingness to go against what others are saying. I think we’re all familiar with the story. An emperor hires two swindlers to make him fancy clothes that they claim are invisible to anyone who is unfit for their position or simply stupid.

Of course, there really are no clothes, but no one wants to be the first person to point that out. When the king goes out to display his fancy wardrobe, a little boy cries out that he’s wearing nothing. Soon everyone is saying it.

It took a little boy’s courage to stand up against group consensus to state the obvious.

There’s more than just a fairy tale behind this. This phenomenon of conforming to other opinions has a link to real-world problems that are both scary and surprising.

A psychological experiment was done in the 1950s called the Asch conformity experiment. In a series of tests, participants were shown three lines of different sizes. A group of people were asked one by one to match a corresponding line to one of those three lines. The matches are simple and obvious.

Everyone but one participant was in on the experiment. It was set up so all the people in on the experiment would unanimously give an incorrect answer. The last person to answer would be the person being monitored.

Researchers wanted to see if the person would conform or go against group consensus. Surprisingly, 75% of the people who were monitored for conformity went along with group opinion at least once even though the answer was obviously wrong.

When asked later why they went along with the group, almost all the participants said they knew all the others had given the wrong answer, they just didn’t want to face ridicule by the rest of the group.

The Willingness to Be Different

You can’t be that person who is afraid of being ridiculed by others simply because you have a different opinion. It can take a lot of courage to speak up especially if you’re the only one who is dissenting.

But after you’ve done it a few times, you build up self-confidence in your opinions and in your ideas that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Plus it’s good to speak up when you think differently. After all, the emperor should know when he’s not wearing any clothes.
photo credit: carolyntiry

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  1. This is an interesting post. I have to admit I often struggle with trying to be completely honest in my own writing, even if it rubs people the wrong way. Too often I wonder, “Does this come across too judgmental or negative?” or “Will people misinterpret what I’m saying?” One of my resolutions this year is to write for myself and not worry about how it gets read (or if it gets read) by others.

    I love how you’re always challenging yourself to do what you think is right.

    • I’ve struggled with those questions in my writing too. I try not to be judgmental, but I do try to explain my point of view. I hope the two can be mutually exclusive, but I know that they can be hard to separate.

      I think it’s good to be honest in your writing. People like when you’re upfront with them so I try and give them that.

  2. Great post Steve on an interesting topic. I am probably far more controversial in person than online, simply because the written word can so easily be misinterpreted. I definitely believe in standing up for what you believe in though and, while I understand the difficulty it can bring, see the value of not being sheep-like and simply conforming to peer pressure.

  3. Enjoyed the post. As you point out group think is a dangerous thing but what stops us from standing up for what we really believe? I think two things. One is fear – this can be good and stop us taking bad risks but can often blunt what we say when when could be sharper (not necessarily cutting though!). The second thing is that we can be habitually dull. We need to mix with lively and controversial people, read about the unreasonbale and develop the controversial habit.

    • You make some great points here. Fear is a big reason some people don’t take a risk on saying what they think. I especially like your second point, hanging out with lively people. When you are around people who don’t speak their mind and talk dull, you can become dull in turn. It’s good to mix it up with people who aren’t afraid to speak their mind.

  4. That’s me. Mrs conformity.
    I have several rules about public meetings. Never talk about religion or politics because i don’t want to be in a position where my strong beliefs are challenged and i have to defend them, or worse, conform to the popular beliefs.

    Now we just need an article on how to stick by your guns. I find it even hard to be controversial on my own blog posts for fear of being ridiculed. And it’s been driving me bonkers. So i’ve been thinking about a good way to get over my fear of going against the main stream thoughts.
    It’s to just blurt out some random thing (related to my niche) that is totally out there and see what happens. I’ve yelled like a pig once to get over my fear of speaking in public, I hope that speaking out on my blog will help me get over my fear of being ridiculed.

    • That’s not a bad rule to have. Religion and politics can be toxic subjects and are often ones not worth debating. Too many emotions are often involved.

      I used to be afraid of saying controversial too, but sometimes it’s good to just dive if it’s something you truly believe. Stirring things up can bring you attention. I’d just make sure not to be controversial for the sake of being controversial – make sure it’s something you really want to say.

  5. Thank you for inspiring us to speak our minds with conviction. There have been times when I would just conform and there have been times when I would speak up. The situation that I am in plays a part in the choice I have made, but yes generally I agree with you that it is important to stand up for ourselves and be confident.

    In the few encounters with negative comments online, I choose not to focus my attention on these. There is no point wasting my valuable time trying to convince people about my opinions and beliefs. I don’t change my thinking where there are no reasons to. I would rather focus my energies on those who share the same ideas or who are more than happy to read what I have to share.

    Interesting topic, Steve!!

    • Well, I like to read all the comments I get, both positive and negative. However, I try to not let negative comments affect me personally. If someone doesn’t like something I wrote, they might have a legitimate claim so I try to put myself in their position. Often it comes down to a miscommunication so I try to correct that.

      It is a matter of being confident in yourself and your opinions. I realize that others will sometimes disagree with me. When you expect it, you prepare yourself.

  6. Great post! I think it’s very important to be honest, to speak your mind and explain your point of view. I sometimes think about people misinterpreting what I write or say. But the thing is …you can’t please everyone.
    Some people will agree and some will not.

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