Nonconformity is widely idealised in our western societies. A quick scan of recently published books turns up such titles as Originals, The Art of Nonconformity, and Unfollow: Living Life on Your Own Terms. The classic Apple commercial of 1997 (The Crazy Ones) perfectly portrays our cultural perception of nonconformity as a heroic ideal: the lone genius, the world-changer, the rebel artist. (Also featured in the slideshow for this week’s class – see Slideshare.)
We also have a plethora of quotes about nonconformity – here are a few:
And we have come to demonise conformity:
In the military: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
— General George S. Patton
In social justice: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
In the law: “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
— Henry David Thoreau
And yet the research shows that there are many benefits to conforming to society and to the status quo. It would be an exhausting and chaotic world indeed in which everything was being constantly questioned, and nobody was conforming to anything. So clearly nonconformity is not everywhere, always, and for everybody a good thing. In fact, nonconformists require conformists in order for their nonconformity to exist.
So “conformity” should not be seen as pejorative.
Many good points were made in class this morning, one of which was that the long, dark shadow of fascism may have made us unduly suspicious of conformity. We are still so horrified that something like the Holocaust could ever happen, when some kind of collective wilful blindness seems to have overtaken an entire armed force, that we use nonconformity as a kind of magic spell to guard against this ever happening again. Producer Vic and I also discussed this in the podcast, and having spent a great deal of time in Germany, he verifies that Germany celebrates nonconformity more than any other country he knows.
Another good point was that, even if we are nonconforming with regard to one thing, we are likely to be conforming to its opposite. It is now nothing out of the ordinary that Silicon Valley CEOs will wear t-shirts and sneakers rather than suits, and so their nonconformity has become the new normal.
The danger here is that we end up aspiring to nonconformity as an end in itself. But there is a world of difference between someone who plays the part of a nonconformist in order to be perceived as cool or in some way superior, as if the rules don’t apply to them, and the authentic nonconformist who really isn’t thinking about how they are perceived but is simply living their life the way that feels right to them.
Hmm. Let me try that one again.
I may think it is befitting of my position, or in some other way advantageous, to project an aura of nonconformity. Research shows that people generally tend to assume that nonconforming people are more successful, and I may wish to exploit this tendency. So I deliberately construct an image that makes me appear nonconforming. But authentic nonconformity is not one of those things that can be faked. We intuitively know when someone is a genuine original, and when they’re just pretentious.
You might enjoy this spoof article from The Onion, about high schoolers experiencing peer pressure to be nonconformist, to the extent that conformists feel like the odd ones out.
Bell Curve from Conformity to Nonconformity
Of course, we’re all unique in our own ways. (I very much like this TED talk by Caroline McHugh, relevant to this.) But some of us want to stand out, others want to blend in, and the majority are somewhere in between.
We can picture this as a bell curve, and there will be separate bell curves for every realm of human endeavour – some may want to stand out for their fashion sense, but blend in when in the classroom.
Others, like Gilbert & George, may want to be utterly predictable in their everyday dress and lifestyle, in order to devote all their energy to creating extraordinary art.
And, as with most bell curves of human behaviour, those on the far extremes arouse deep suspicion, or even clinical diagnoses of mental disorders. The 2016 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders contains a new mental illness: Oppositional Defiant Disorder (with no hint of ironic awareness of its acronym), defined as “Ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behaviour”. (Gandhi?)
The danger is that, as those on the extremes get labelled, and medicated to bring them safely back into the bulge of the bell curve, those who now find themselves as the new outliers will be regarded as the deviants, and so the bell curve narrows towards a bland average.
And maybe that is why we love and celebrate nonconformists, because the Apple advert does somewhat have that right – most of humanity’s greatest achievements have been initiated by the outliers, the weirdos, those who see the world in a different way (while noting also that history overlooks the outliers and weirdos who achieved nothing at all).
But is it Courage?
Back in Week 1, we defined courage as a wilful, intentional act, executed after mindful deliberation, involving objective substantial risk to the actor, motivated to bring about a noble or worthy purpose, despite the presence of fear. It qualifies on some counts, in that it involves risk – of social ostracism at the very least. Is it always wilful and intentional? If not at first, societies have a way of letting the nonconformist know when they have strayed, so if the nonconformist persists, it can be said that they are wilful and intentional.
Overall, we decided that nonconformity is indeed courageous – even now that inquisitions, witch-hunts, and holocausts are (mostly, but sadly not entirely) in the past.
If there are any conclusions to be drawn from this discussion, they might be:
Authentic nonconformity is not nonconformity for its own sake; it is the expression of deeply held, self-originated, and unusual beliefs about how life should be lived. It is the unique expression of one’s essence.
But we also need conformity, and a great deal of it, to enable and support nonconformity. Even nonconformists will be conforming in many areas of their lives. So we should be wary of judgements around conformity, or lack of it.
Being different can require courage, especially when relatively young. (The older we get, the less we generally care what people think of us, which is an enormous relief.) Finding that courage is important, not only to our own happiness and mental health, but also for the greater good, because those with a different way of seeing the world have the capacity to make it a better place for the rest of us.
As usual, Vic and I have a chat about the topic of the week in our podcast. Vic mentions this article about The New Tribalism and the Decline of the Nation State, which I recommend.
A reminder that the slideshow is here.
And to end on a lighter note, that great philosopher, Monty Python, has this to say about nonconformity and individuality….