“Do your own thing”, they tell you. “Be yourself”. Then, there’s the real world of prejudice, gatekeepers, herd instincts, power, money, employment, groupthink, uniformity and conformity. Ultimately, you have to make a choice about which world you live in, but rest assured that in making that choice, you will have to pay a price, as the other world impinges upon you anyway. There doesn’t appear to be a way to inhabit one world or the other, without being affected by the world you shunned.
It seems easier to simply do as you’re told, meet the expectations of others, fall in line, wear the clothes that you are expected to wear and hold the ideas that everyone else in the group holds, even if those are lies or pure fictions. “Don’t express your own opinions.” “Keep your head down low.” “Try not to stand out.” That seems to be the route to fitting in most easily. However, what if you cannot abide those ideas and ideals? What if the very notion of wearing the de-facto uniform of the tribe you wish to be a part of rubs you up the wrong way? What if you cannot stand their prejudices and inability to embrace diversity? What do you do then?
The problem with “playing the game”, as it is called, whereby you wear the business suit, or become a cheerleader for neoconservative capitalism, as practised by tax avoiding corporations, or where you turn a blind eye to the social injustices caused by policy, is that you are invited to live a lie. If you have an ounce of integrity, you know that these shorthand conformities are based on little more than fashion and that, if this is what the majority thinks, you don’t want to be a part of it. Of course, the majority may not think as they appear to think, but few are willing to drop their guard and break ranks to reveal it, for fear of expulsion and being ostracised. So, everybody maintains a lie they only half-heartedly believe in, because it’s easier than challenging it. Meanwhile, you’re lending weight and support and your very manpower to upholding the belief system of a sociopath CEO or megalomaniacal politician.
If wearing the suit and saying the orthodox things gets you the job, can you uphold what you detest for very long? Aren’t you just reinforcing the societal prejudices and groupthink that you can’t stand and wish would actually weaken and dissipate? Does it become easier or harder to keep the job, as you suppress and hide what it is that you really feel? Do you find yourself being forced into personal moral compromises because the organisation you joined wants you to act in ways that you have tacitly endorsed, but which you actually find morally repugnant? Do you capitulate, or guided by your own moral compass, take a stand? What will it cost you to take that stand?
It’s no easier as an artist. Unless you look like an artist, nobody believes you’re any good at being one. As a musician, unless you wear the expected trappings and devil-may-care leathers, you have no credibility, as say a guitar player or music producer; however accomplished you might be at either or both. Looking the part, according to the prevailing stereotype, seems to be the only way to be accepted as what you say you are. You have to fit in, or you’re cast out.
Of course, rolling over, capitulating and wearing the requisite uniform of the tribe can leave you with an uneasy sense of wondering whether you are valued and liked because of your actual talents and who you are as a person, or just because of how good you look in the group’s agreed upon uniform. It seems like bloody nonsense, but there you are, wearing the costume, like some bedecked buffoon, clowning around in your uniform, as if it bestows magical powers on you. Do the rest of them really believe this garbage? You know it’s a falsehood, but you’re wearing the damned badges and accoutrements anyway.
Worst case scenario, of course, is that you reluctantly put on the costume, but you still don’t really look like who they want you to be. You might feel so much discomfort, wearing it, that you can’t really pull off the look convincingly. What then? Do you take acting classes, or do something else with your life?
Some artists, it has to be said, are the most conservative conformists that there are, in the known universe, despite their outward trappings of unconventionality, anarchy and rebellion. It’s all an act. The problem with conforming to a group stereotype of how to look, act and think, is that it doesn’t mean the person underneath is anything like that at all, in truth. As a reliable guide to what somebody’s belief system and values are, it’s terribly unreliable, yet people still mistakenly think the opposite.
If you put on the expected costume and adopt the required mind set, as if you really believe in it, do they like you for how you think, the difference you can make and your original uniqueness, or are they simply content that you are willing to conform, obey, think orthodoxies and remain content with your place in the hierarchy? Do they value your powers of disruption and innovation, or your compliance, docility and passivity? Is your contribution of value only to the extent that it supports and reinforces somebody else’s pre-conceived ideas? Did you simply put the costume on, so that you would be approved of and picked?
If you don’t play along, you remain an outsider and are excluded, suspected and denigrated, for your refusal to join in. Your everyday life becomes one of alienation, isolation, withdrawal, rejection and profound loneliness. It can leave you feeling unloved, unlovable, unappreciated, unwanted and unnecessary. You can feel desperately alone, even when surrounded by chatty, vivacious and friendly people, all of whom have chosen to conform. Yes, you might have truth on your side, but nobody else.
How are you supposed to network, if you’re an isolated outsider? With whom can you even have a sensible conversation that gets to the heart of the matter? Does your life dissolve into a series of shallow, insincere superficialities, where you cannot really reveal your most fervently held knowledge, for fear of being regarded as an alien, or worse, having your networking acquaintance spread the word that you are a “wrong-‘un” to his or her personal network, broadcasting your peculiarity, relative to the norm, to all and sundry? Will they simply warn everybody off you, preventing you from even having a chance of being understood and embraced?
If you go back through history, many of society’s norms turned out to be quite odious, in retrospect, yet were widely held at the time. People blithely fell into line with these obnoxious norms so that they didn’t have to think too critically about them. Thinking critically seems to be very hard, judging by how much effort people have put into avoiding it, over the centuries. What makes you think that society’s norms, today, will fare any better, in the estimation of future generations? Which of the norms, widely embraced by society right now, will ultimately prove to be repulsive and reprehensible obscenities too? I can probably make a long list of them, if I’m honest, but I dare not, for fear of offending the sensibilities of odious people, in power or otherwise, who cleave to these objectionable ideas as articles of unquestioned faith, today. With the odium comes retribution for any that point out the fact.
When it comes down to it, conformity is really an extreme form of intellectual indolence. It’s the happy and insouciant acceptance of ideas, many of which might be very bad, in preference to examining, understanding and challenging them, or having to replace them with something better. In effect, it’s an abrogation of personal and moral responsibility. “We were just following orders”, has been the get-out-of-jail card for generations of wrongdoers. Personal responsibility, like critical thinking, must be so hard that people are willing to go to almost any effort and exertion to avoid it.
People fear being outsiders. It feels dangerous and unprotected, because you lack the safety of numbers. We don’t like being individuals, in truth, solely responsible for our own judgements and evaluations of others. Groupthink exists because we want to huddle together and have somebody take away from us the crushing burden of working out who is who, for ourselves. Just give us the lazy shorthand. Give us the visual clues and the stereotypical attitudes. Then we won’t have to think too hard or take the consequences for being wrong on our own. We think there is great safety in being part of the herd, even if the herd is marching toward a cliff, to its own destruction. Give us oblivion, rather than clear sight.
We try to grow and sell uniform carrots for the same reason. We’d rather throw away and waste perfectly nourishing food, discarding the imperfect looking ones, than have to decide which weird looking carrot is good to eat and which is malformed because it is bad for us. At least if our carrots all look the same, we can believe that they’re all uniformly and reliably good for us, even if we had to drench them in carcinogenic and mutagenic industrial chemical compounds, to achieve this uniformity. We impose a standard, orthodox, aesthetic judgement of perfection and deem anything that falls outside of that norm to be toxic and suspect, to be discarded at once, whether or not reality conforms to our made-up idea of what constitutes immaculate excellence. Don’t we discard the humans that don’t fit our fictitious and arbitrarily normalised templates of perfection too? Isn’t that what racism, bigotry and prejudice is actually all about? Isn’t that a terrible waste of perfectly good human beings?
Cheats, liars, psychopaths, sharks, weasels, rat bags and snakes, naturally, know how to use conformity to their advantage, to pass themselves off as trustworthy, to the group. With this disguise and cover, they can manipulate others with impunity, thereafter. So adept are they at adopting their chameleon disguise, that they go undetected for years. Wearing the uniform and echoing the expected orthodoxies, the expected way, is all that it takes for the fox to be admitted to the henhouse. Conformists are so easily fooled.
If you make a stand against conformity, your secret hope is that you will discover other, similar non-conformists that are willing to stand by you, creating safety in numbers, but this doesn’t seem to be what happens. Conformists, by far, outnumber the more rare non-conformists. On the other hand, if you can find another odd person that is thinking about the same things you are, in a similar way, or better yet, a few other people, then you can learn much from each other’s mistakes and accelerate your joint progress, as you plough similar intellectual ground. Who gets the spoils when the jointly pursued idea goes main stream, though?
Finding the other crazy people, even if you are willing to think out loud and in public, is still difficult. You are likely to attract far more nay-sayers and doubters in public than you would in private. All of the detractors might be wrong, in the end, but dealing with their presence will absorb a considerable amount of your energy and attention. There is a paradox at the heart of trying to find other non-conformists to band together with, of course. That is a form of conformance.
I’ve read that the new “squares” are those that claim to be uniquely disruptive and who keep pointing out that there is something outstandingly different about themselves. They say that if you have to point it out, then you aren’t all that outstandingly different. What if you really are, though? Today, everybody has to be an “inner entrepreneur”, networking like an unpaid intern, for all you’re worth, on all the hyper-connected social media platforms du jour, just to get noticed at all. What if you are really unique, but nobody knows it and in trying to draw attention to it, people dismiss you as just one more imposter of that ilk?
Can it really be the case that nobody is unique anymore? They say that genius is more common than we think, based on the finding that several inventors are often working on the same thing at the same time, independently of one another and unaware of the others’ work. This suggests that new ideas, innovations and inventions are inevitable, but I somehow doubt it. Even if the zeitgeist throws up a number of geniuses thinking the same thing, it’s still only a handful and a far cry from the masses and masses of conformists. It isn’t the case, to take the assertion to its logical conclusion that everybody, in a society, was working on the same invention, at the same time, independently. That’s clearly nonsense.
Having an idea for improvement or radical change, however important, urgent or necessary, sets you up for hostility from people that don’t, which is why they regard genuine disruptors as squares, I suppose. It’s a form of thinly veiled envy and passive aggression. They would like to be disruptors and innovators, but have long since conformed, so they would rather deride, belittle and denigrate those non-conformists that do have ideas outside of the orthodoxies of their chosen groupthink, than acknowledge them as important contributors to humanity’s progress.
The thing that everybody thinks, or is supposed to think, fades away very quickly, often. Remember when business men, of any quality or standing, had to wear bowler hats, or when the men’s smoko was thought to be an informal networking event, attended by good blokes, who were not stuck up gits, instead of a guaranteed shortcut to premature lung disease, cardiovascular distress and fatalities?
I wonder if it is even possible to be both a gregarious, sociable human being and a non-conformist at the same time. Does anybody let you? Can you be friendly, meaningfully and to a significant depth, with people you have no affinity with, ideologically speaking? Maybe you can, but maybe it’s also very difficult. Your failure to conform is always there, like a giant, festering carbuncle, which somebody, at some time, is going to point at and ridicule.
The extraordinary people, who cannot conform, are the ones that cause all the progress. Without dissent, progress is not possible. Shouldn’t we embrace such outsiders? Conformism leads inevitably to stagnation and a sclerosis of thinking. Who can bring in any new idea to the group, if the price of admission is that you must believe all the existing group ideas, without question? Yet, those that won’t wear a suit, who refuse to put on the costumes and wear the badges, are shunned, especially if they deliver truths and new possibilities, espousing them through their passion and anger. Do we, as a society, want their talents and insights or not? We have to choose.
It’s a sad reflection on our society that telling the truth will get you fired, or never hired at all, while telling lies will get you promoted. Do we really want to go along with that?