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!

Conflating Cause and Identity

When we care enough about a particular issue (be it social, political, religious, cultural, or recreational) enough to devote a noteworthy amount of our time and energy into addressing it, we naturally start to relate with said issue on a deeper level than mere interest; in short, it becomes a cause for us to identify with.  And, in and of itself, this is not a point at which I would raise objections.  People looking to find and promote remedies to a problem they feel is serious enough that it needs to be addressed, and are willing to invest themselves into finding reasonable solutions to address it, can all be very praiseworthy (depending on the issue and the sort of solutions being proposed, of course).  The concern for me is when the adoption of an issue (the promotion of a particular cause) starts to take on an omnipresent tone in a person’s life.

When someone stops being “John, who happens to be an environmentalist” and starts being “The Environmentalist John”; or going from “Jane, who cares about tax reforms” [either conservative or progressive, it makes no difference in this scenario] and becomes “The Tax Reformer Jane.”  When the issue being discussed takes precedent over the individual/s promoting it, that’s where I believe people’s judgments are liable to being skewed and easily misled due to an emotional investments in their favored cause.  (Even if the cause itself remains a laudable effort.)

One can look to the revolutionaries of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and deduce how the majority of average persons who made up the ranks of these movements were people who truly, genuinely, cared about promoting an issue, whose benignity they wholeheartedly believed in.  Even the precursors to what would eventually become the Bolshevik faction did not begin under the assumption that it would institute a repressive regime as its end goal.  It began as a movement looking to (in their eyes) elevate the dignity and ensure equal prosperity for the hitherto oppressed segments of society in Imperial Russia.  However, somewhere along the way, for the people driving and participating in the cause, it seized being about addressing the legitimate issues of the cause, and more about upholding the perceived righteousness of the movement inspired by the cause.  This happens when the advocacy of a particular topic stops being just one attribute (amongst many) of a person, and becomes an extension of the individual her/himself–the individual identity gets sacrificed for the benefit of a greater Identity Movement, where identifying with a cause serves as the primary function of the cause itself.

The severity of this depends largely on the scope and power of the Identity Movement in question, but regardless of its impact on the population-at-large, its affect on the perception of the persons who partake and become engrossed with the prospect of having a message with which they can empathize–moreover, with which they can identify–works to create a false impression of the issue which they were originally seeking to address/remedy, as it causes the participants to internalize what is essentially an external problem.  Making the likelihood of ever achieving a solution to the initial issue unfeasible as a development that will be noticed by participants in the cause, because by this point their interests have already (unbeknownst to them) shifted from promoting answers to a cause, to just simply having a cause.  And having their individual identities defined by it.

To avoid charges of plagiarism (and indulge in shameless narcissism), I’ll summarize my own interests in this topic by quote myself from a previous post  when I first wrote my thoughts on “The Sacrifice of 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.

Not to mention, those that it may still end up losing.