The Unavoidable Necessity of Conformity

Conformity is a dirty word to most ears, because as most of us see it individualism is the sacred ideal for which we must strive, and to which we owe every great social advancement.  The message is clear: individualism good, conformity bad.  And nice, personable celebration of our inherent uniqueness we can all conform rally behind in union.

However, I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled by the knee-jerk reaction people have towards conformity.  After all, isn’t out conformity to societal norms the means by which society even exists?  Isn’t our willingness to conform to the practices of individuals that preceded us the means by which culture is maintained?  And isn’t our occasional willingness to break away from what we perceive to be the wrongdoings of our predecessors a reflection of our conformity towards the rightness of some other ideal or cause?  So you’re wearing clothes that set you apart from others in your community, thereby showing your individuality.  Great, but aren’t you still conforming to the practice of wearing clothes?  Putting on pants isn’t something that’s innate to people, it is something we are conditioned to do (and, I think, for good reasons).

My point in this post is not to claim that conformity is good, it is to claim that conformity is unavoidable.  You will conform–and you do conform–to something or another (I know I sure as hell do).  But I don’t understand why this should bring despair to anyone.  I don’t see why the fact that we enjoy and take part in activities that we are introduced to by others (people or society at large) should be instantly seen as a sign of a weaker mind.  As long as you, as an individual, truly do like what you’re doing and how you look, isn’t it still an expression of your individuality; even if it is contained within conformed perimeters?  Because, if we are honest, everything we do is causally dependent on the situations and actions that preceded us, thus we are by necessity going to conform in one way or another.

I understand the need we have to assert our individuality, but it’s silly to be so obsessed with being original and enjoying things that only belong to the fringes of pop culture simply because it gives you the right to claim a sub-culture as your identity, unless you are genuinely interested in said sub-culture.  I think that what most people imagine when they hear conformity is submission; the submission of one’s personhood to another.  This is a frightening prospect, so we design clothes, dye our hair, change our speech pattern, and write blogs to show the world that we are individuals, standing apart from the herd.  Now, if we could just get all those other bastards to stop copying us–those damn conformists!

The Sacrifice of Identity

Identity is a flimsy concept.  Most people encompass a wide variety of viewpoints, which hardly fit into one concise narrative or another.  However, many people also seem to go out of their way to adopt (at least externally) specific traits for the sake of living up to ideals of a particular identity.

It starts with a cause and/or message that appeals to a person.  Subsequently, this will lead to a desire to seek out like-minded individuals who are equally enthusiastic about the topic at hand.  The next step is direct involvement; an active participation in the interests of the cause/message.  At this point, it is safe to deduce that you’re involved in an Identity Movement.  The nature of Identity Movements range from hobbies, to cultural and political pursuits, but they all share the characteristics of forging a sought after niche for the individuals who wish to partake in its subcultural communities.

Something that is unavoidable in Identity Movements is the emergence of groupthink.  A clear example of this can be witnessed by looking up any piece of music that has been uploaded to YouTube (in particular the lyrics videos), and read the cohesiveness of the comments that follow.  The vast majority of them will follow along a similar tone of, “This is what real music sounds like, not that other shit that most people listen to.”  What has made these individuals the arbitrators of “real music” is their identification with one particular genre or another, and nothing else.

Often adopting a particular identity can lead to the adoption of other interests that one would personally enjoy, and this seems perfectly reasonable, in and of itself.  But, I can’t help wondering how many are truly adopting interests and attitudes that suit them, and not just adapting to the interests and attitudes that surround them.  In other words, are they taking on an identity simply because they feel they need to, in order to be part of a greater movement/cause/culture?

The problem I see with all of this is the potential it creates in individuals (especially adolescence) to habitually sacrifice certain aspects of their personalities that do not fit in with the narrative of the Identity Movement they wish to uphold–a form of self-conditioning for the sake of representing a pure ideal (an ideal, which, of course, does not exist outside the Identity narrative being adopted).  This becomes most worrisome in Identity Movements that encompass a cultural or political message, because it works to counteract the original desires that led up to the need to create the identity; the goal of achieving normalcy within popular opinion.  However, the more of a subculture an Identity Movement becomes, the more antagonistic it gets towards mainstream opinion.  And without the strive for recognition and acceptance in greater society, Identity Movements become insulated in their own narratives, with little divergence of thinking allowed.  At this point, the individual has been sacrificed for the sake of an identity.  Perhaps, this trend is not widespread enough to cause alarm for most people, but I shutter to think about the great minds the world may have lost to such misguided reasoning.