updated February 5, 2008
On Conformity is included in the print anthology Rising in Words with this introductory note: "In this essay from 2001, I examined one of two basic inclinations I regard as vital to all life. Neither is definitively superior or thoroughly preferable (contrary to many points of view about them). We know one in genetic terms as mutation, and it appears in cultural exceptions, mental originality and social dissidence. The other inclination involves continuation of a trait, maintenance of the same, known as conformity in social terms."
I have written about conformity before (in The Promethean Manifesto), when I identified conformity as an "acceptance of sameness and interdependence" on an individual and a mass scale. I discussed it primarily in the derogatory terms of its being both a warning sign of a suppression or decay of mental fortitude and independence, and a potential catalyst for that suppression or decay by the replacement of one's own active faculties, turning over to others one's self-reliance and responsibility. These are useful ways of thinking about conformity in many instances. Those who would push themselves forward, those who would push humanity forward, fight and must fight conformity. It tends to be the many, exhibiting disbelief, fear, and hostility, that stand in the way of progress, improvement, and what is superior. Those tend to come by way of the rare and the few, or the one.
In the pursuit of individualism and individuality, by its very nature a struggle for what is special and unique, and more individual by comparison, it is sometimes easy to demonize conformity. Even if this is avoided, it is easier to dismiss conformity as entirely disagreeable, so that one is always in the position of wishing to argue for the unusual, for the exception, simply because it is different. In most cases, this is a position warranted in order to correct the heavy, combined weight of mediocrity that people have become accustomed to endorse in the traditions of normalcy, convention, expectation, and similarity.
But most criticism of conformity entirely misses what should be the real point. Most criticism of conformity consists of little more than a contempt for what is conventional merely because it is not different, without judging its possible merits (which might explain how it came to be followed), or of criticizing those who follow the example of others, on the assumption that they are feeble-minded as sheep. Reflex anti-conformity is still too simple, too predictable. It is time to cease reactionary attacks on what is conventional, instead accepting the truly revolutionary responsibility of judging what is best, from among both what is old-fashioned and what is new-fashioned. Always "rebelling against conformity" becomes a habit, a conformity in itself. It is not a substitute for the real strength which allows one greater freedom of choice to judge whether the less popular, less accepted or the more popular, more accepted ways are better.
Conformity is a complicated phenomenon, and there is much to consider if we wish to understand the worth or worthlessness of conformity as measured by the standard of life, to understand the impact of conformity on our lives, on their fulfillment and advantage. That is, after all, the one Promethean standard.
First of all, if conformity were always such a hindrance to the fullest expression of life, it would be puzzling to explain just why it is so ingrained in human behavior. If we consider conformity as simply following the path established by others without deliberation, conformity would include every instance of following an established convention which has not been consciously examined, a potentially infinite list. Surely, if we stop to consider every convention we follow with every action and every thought, we will get nothing done. Nor do we actually have the choice. Our mental faculties are incapable of pausing to reflect on everything, including the very elements of language, symbols and conceptual models we use to formulate thoughts, which already exist to be absorbed from others, including the fact of reading the lines on this page from left to right. So, at the extreme generality of what we might mean by conformity, clearly it is innate, and it is necessary.
Or, if we take the more specific meaning of following a common pattern of behavior without due reflection, conformity is unavoidable. To consider the wisdom of all one tends to do because one has learned it from parents, friends, neighbors, or widespread cultural material, frequent exposure to others would leave one practically unable to function due to the time for reflection it would demand. And besides being necessary, following what already exists can also be useful, in order to build upon it.
It is natural for all animals, humanity included, to follow some patterns of behavior established either by genetic programming, or by genetics in combination with the constructions of culture. But that is not of course the kind of conformity that is worth talking about; almost always conformity refers to patterns of behavior in areas which seem fitting for deliberation, such as lifestyle, artistic form, political ideology, scientific principles, or philosophical ideas.
We should still ask why that sort of conformity is such a consistent part of human behavior. In fact, wherever it exists conformity by its very definition is the common practice, and it is obvious that there are strong drives within us all to be accepted, to receive approval and other reinforcement from others in what we do. There are usually either instituted or informal (but still expected) rewards for conforming to an established pattern or system, such as money, promotion, position, rank, respect, or affection, making the proverbial 'road less traveled' a potentially far more difficult one in practice than the more-traveled path.
If we are really honest in reexamining everything according to the standard of what is life-advancing, we must admit that conforming can happen to be quite advantageous for those who follow it, and not only for the rewards that have been built up around it (which would not explain its existence in the first place). Positive conformity might take the form of following already established and quite popular life-advancing customs and ideological precedents. A blunt example is the nearly worldwide, if diversely expressed, bias against murder (at least, outside of the allowed exceptions in war, honor-killings, and so forth). Or, positive conformity might take the form of following less mainstream, subcultural, more unpopular life-advancing traditions simply because of a greater exposure to them, or some other conditioning which got them accepted. The most common way this happens is almost certainly inheritance of subculture from parents. For instance, not every advocate of what is, after all, frequently a minority, subcultural opinion, the principle that individual freedom has essential importance, has arrived at this idea through careful seeking and deliberation. Parents are the most likely catalyst of its acceptance. Probably in just about any group of any size, there are behaviors, beliefs, and principles taken for granted which really do stand up to careful scrutiny under the light of what is or is not of true advantage.
But, the possibility that unquestioned tradition first became established thanks to being truly advantageous is not enough of an explanation for the repeated human preference for what is the same at the expense of what is different, even when what is different might be entirely helpful and more enjoyable for all concerned, and even to the extent of ostracizing those who create such positive differences as though they are cancerous cells in the bloodstream of society. This is demonstrated time and again in history and surely prehistory, recent centuries actually being a remarkable improvement, in comparison. On the face of it, this phenomenon would seem to make little profitable sense for those concerned, because improvement through human action can only be possible in the first place through an individual who originally presents it to the others in a group, never from some spontaneous change from the group as a whole (very popular nonsense among theoreticians, but impossible nonsense nonetheless, due to the individual nature of human creation and thought). And, there is no specific reason why what is unique or unusual from an individual would usually be worse than what is common and traditional. It certainly might be, if tradition really represents the collected wisdom of a group as preserved over time. But although this is true of traditions sometimes, quite often it is not true at all. Many cultural traditions are as surprising as they are to outsiders because outsiders are unfettered by superstition concerning them, and can apply just a few seconds of common sense to conclude that a given tradition is amazingly ruinous, burdensome, nonsensical, or otherwise far from wise or purposeful. The typical reason traditions are followed is not that they are good traditions, it is simply that they are traditions. People have already been following them, so they continue to follow them.
Realizing these things, it becomes tempting to damn conformity as something that gets in the way too much and has no essential place in an individualistic, diverse, unrestrained, and vibrant human society. But before we jump to that conclusion, let us assume that the substantive category of conformity identified above, the sort which concerns areas of importance, the kind which is the most subject to choice, and also the most potentially troublesome kind for the individual who represents advances, might present an additional advantage of some kind besides the haphazard one of preferring what is common to what is uncommon. After all, if it did not, why then would it have become an integral part of us?
The answer is probably that like the flocking behavior of birds or the herding behavior of grazing animals, the human urge to conform to what is perceived as established cultural practice is an evolved protective advantage of sorts. Conforming to a norm can protect against change which might be more detrimental than advantageous to the group of individuals, quite possibly including the individual who would introduce it.
Consider the example of the internet. It comprises all variety of electronic media and content from the most conventional and mainstream to the most eccentric and bizarre, is a vast array of human expression and an excellent opportunity to observe both diversity and uniformity. In using it to develop and promote a new movement and a new philosophy which is intentionally different, I have had ample opportunity to experience what has uncharitably been labeled "the lunatic fringe," which is to say the domain of ideas outside of the common and mainstream. Much that is innovative, or simply different, is relegated to the fringe of what has already been accepted. Here, there is genius. There is brilliance. There is that which is not yet understood but one day will become accepted as mainstream (or at least, deserves to become accepted), simply because it is so ahead of what is commonly understood. There is also freakish oddity. There is absurdity without purpose. There is both abject and highly colorful stupidity, beyond the slow, normal and boring stupidity more likely in the mainstream. Usually masking what is truly innovative or ahead of the norm, there is the much more palpable lunacy that fills out the 'lunatic fringe' — generally more noticeable from the conventional viewpoint, justifying disdain for the unusual, even the unusual genius, by association.
Conformity is the name for those forces in the psyche and the interrelated psyches within a group of people which keep both the desirable and undesirable deviations, such as the array in evidence on the internet, from drawing as much attention and accreditation as what is more 'normal' because it is already accepted. Effectively this functions as a rough substitute for the much more difficult (but more accurate and potentially rewarding) efforts necessary to differentiate between the two. It would be unrealistic to expect the expenditure of those efforts in every case, so it is easy to see why conformity has to exist in some cases as a backup, particularly where the capacity to tell the difference is lacking.
So in general, the factors which contribute to conformity do exist for a reason: conformity serves a species (whether in a biological or cultural sense) in that it keeps the oddities, the mutations which are not beneficial and spectacular from taking root and spreading. Surely human conformity evolved as a social defense mechanism against problematic change from within. But so often it dominates so much which is advanced, along with much which is flaky or abhorrent and only 'exceptional' for the literal reason of being an exception to the usual. The conforming tendencies we have inherited have become dangerous in their own right, for we are a species within which relative uniformity is no longer the defining, basic characteristic it is for other species. We are in a way a species of species. If the tendency to conform encourages uniformity among people, then it truly is an abomination to the way human life works when at its best. The expression of individuality allows a chance that in at least some of the infinite permutations of human beings, wonderful possibilities can be realized. To be sure, some of those permutations are bound to be just oddball, or pathetic, or dangerous — something different, but not promising or fulfilled or potent. But uniformity discourages all possibilities which deviate from what remains the same.
The discriminating task of those who would fulfill the nature and the potential of the human species, as a species whose greatest strength may be individuality, is not a futile attempt to eliminate conformity or harass it at every turn, but to align a society in which conformity can continue to function as safety ballast, yet the rare and exceptional because it is superior, advanced, or beautiful is not held back from becoming known, agitating if need be, and spreading out.
Preferably, it is also encouraged and made welcome. Although, if we consider Nietzsche's theory that pressure upon the stubbornly different strong individual may be necessary to inspire him to shine, as in the formation of diamonds from the weight of thousands of tons of coal, perhaps it should not become too easy for the individualist, if indeed it ever could. The need for pressure against change in order to inspire change might be yet another hidden function of conformity, a seemingly paradoxical one which nonetheless is plausible to me due to many apparent examples in its favor, including my very own experiences. However, it is quite a difficult theory to test.
The "safety ballast" aspect of conformity tends to come from the subtler influences of convention against insurgent difference within a situation of free association. It comes from self-regulation in the face of this. It too really comes from within the individual, when comparing himself to the example of others, rather than from the actions of those outside to persecute, or from the establishment of an official orthodoxy which becomes too unquestionable according to what is promoted and policed as good conscience or seemly behavior.
Thus, a balance between conformity as ballast and a readiness to put conformity aside when it is desirable to do so is most likely in the circumstance of radical individual freedom, sans government or any other forceful bureaucratic institution which centralizes, dominates, and reinforces orthodoxy and cultural stasis. That radically free and open condition would exist in a Promethean society, where at the very least we can say that force, official indoctrination and official punishment for deviation, and systematized normalcy of behavior would not be factors reinforcing an innate desire to be like other people, and the exceptional individual need only overcome his own hesitancy to be unlike others, so far as he and they have built it up. Even more promising, it is likely that the recognized value of individuality and diversity will help others to feel that they can recognize innovation and improvement brought by an individual despite its difference, rather than showing disapproval as a reflex or simply not showing support, which would remain appropriate as a response to dangerous, problematic, or substandard deviation. That reaction should always remain an acceptable option even among advocates of individual expression. For in all honesty, it is a benevolent outlet for the inherent human desire to conform.
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on March 17, 2001