“Conformity is the drug with which we self-medicate.” —The Minimalists
What makes conformity a drug?
It lulls you to sleep. When you conform, you don’t have to think, you can just go with the flow. If everyone believes in segregation, you don’t have to think about whether it’s moral, you just do it. Conformity is the true opium of the masses. Religion is not the culprit, per se, though unhealthy religions know how to use conformity to get people to support hierarchical systems of oppression.
So, if conformity is so bad, why is it part of our DNA, so to speak?
To live in civil society requires a certain level of conformity. I, for example, wear pants most days. This is one of many ways I conform to social norms in order to fit in. I could choose not to wear pants, but I would have to accept the consequences, wouldn’t I? So, in some cases conformity works to our advantage. To most people, it is not worth fighting the social stigma associated with going pants-less in public.
That’s not the kind of conformity I’m talking about.
I want to discuss how those of us who find ourselves with beliefs outside the norm can cope with living in human society.
Here are just a sample of social pressures to conform:
I don’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving. This troubles people deeply. They ask: “What will you eat when you come to dinner?” My answer, “All the other stuff.” Not eating what the group eats is highly offensive and often draws jeers and snide remarks. The pressure to conform to the eating habits of the group are so strong that studies have shown that if you cohabitate with an overweight person, you will become overweight yourself. You will conform unconsciously to their habits. Add to that phenomenon, the media, whom we invite into our homes (and many even pay for) to display hours of images of people eating unhealthy foods. We internalize these images and believe that the habits we see are the social norm and adopt them as our own. A whopping 43% (up from 25% in 1970) of money Americans spend on food is on meals “away from home.” The USDA estimates that increased advertising is one of the reasons.
I had a friend in high school who didn’t say the pledge of allegiance. He became a social pariah. In American schools, the pressure is great to do what everyone else does and not stand alone. He believed that in a free country, one should be free to choose to salute the flag or not. He argued that compelling people to salute a symbol of freedom was ironic and paradoxical. How free are you if you are forced to pay your respects to freedom?
I just don’t get it. Really? Why should anyone care who Brad Pitt sleeps with? However, following celebrity gossip is a huge industry. The social pressure to know the latest celebrity story is very strong in some groups and dominates much of the cultural discourse. Celebrity gossip (which includes the tawdry lives of politicians, sports entertainers, actors, etc.) of one kind or another is presented as serious news from the mainstream networks, to shock jocks, to conspiracy theorists, to grocery store tabloids. They all seem the same to me– pushing gossip to a subculture that can’t get enough of it.
Conformity is a Sly Devil.
Conformity sneaks up on us. It sucks us in before we even know it’s there– like David Byrne wondering aloud, “Well, how did I get here?” It makes you keep up with the Jones’ by purchasing a house bigger than you need, which makes you stay at the job you hate. We go to networking events that we really didn’t want to go to. Conformity makes you hide your true self… the one that wants to indulge in quiet practices that don’t cost money. Worse, than anything, conformity funds a huge industry dedicated to remediating our perceived deficiencies. In essence, conformity traps us in a system that exploits us, drains us of resources, and makes us unhappy.
Imagine a non-conformist view, such as: “What if your love of sitting quietly were an asset?”
On the most wicked end of conformity is the pressure to engage in immoral acts by the prevailing culture. Where would we be today if Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, or Buddha had chosen to do what everyone else was doing? When the larger group chooses to enslave, subjugate, or oppress, shouldn’t we push against conformity? Conformity leads to the Nazi movement, the perpetuation of slavery, and religious persecution.
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.” Rollo May
Feeling pressured to fit in, to conform, to be like everyone else? Perhaps I can help? Click here to learn more.