Sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? A society filled with people who obey the laws, who behave in the way that makes others comfortable, who say “please” and “thank you” and who cross on the green light. Utopia.
But it doesn’t mean just that. It also means a society filled with people who obey the letter of the law instead of the spirit of it. Who don’t worry about others’ feelings or comfort because they are doing what everybody else is doing.
We tend to praise conformity in our society. We teach youngsters to stand in line and to take turns. We look askance at teens who dress in clothing we can not define. We tell each other what they “should” and “should not” do. Give to this charity. Smile more. Don’t eat at that restaurant. Walk during your work break to keep in shape. Spend quality time with your kids. Wear a scarf this season even though they were “out” last season. Hate this group of people. Love that group of people. Support the troops. Support the protesters. Support your government. Put a ribbon magnet on your car. Adopt a dog. Get married. Don’t get married yet. Join the military. Go to college. Get a job. Change your hairstyle.
It’s easy to conform. It’s easy to hide while you conform. People pick on you less when you’re conforming. People notice you less when you’re conforming.
But is that really who you are? If nobody told you to act that way or believe that way, what would you do? If everyone around you suddenly decided to act and believe differently, what would you do? Are those actions what you really wish to do? Are those beliefs really ones you hold?
There are always other people who believe the way you truly believe. And others who act the way you wish you had the courage to act. It just takes work to find them. And they’re usually called nasty names. Like “dissidents”. Or “heretics”. Or “stupid”. Or “ugly”.
Let’s take a major example – the Declaration of Independence. It contains the line “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” At one time, most people believed that line applied only to men, and specifically only to white men. Those who believed black men were also created equal were called abolitionists. They were white men themselves, in many cases. They were looked down upon, even cursed at and beaten. At another time, those who believed women were also created equal were called suffragettes. They were often women. They also were looked down upon, cursed at, and imprisoned. Yet today we look back and realize that the abolitionists and suffragettes had it correct. Those who conformed to what society considered acceptable were in the wrong.
Each of those people who helped shape today’s public opinion decided not to conform to majority opinion any more. They stood up. They became visible. They got picked on. They were noticed. But they turned off that never-ending voice in their head that kept telling them to be quiet and go with the flow. They thought their own thoughts. They believed a different truth. And they chose to no longer conform. And they were right.
My example was a very serious one. But conformity pops its head up in all sorts of situations.
Have you ever stood up against socially acceptable behavior, that wasn’t acceptable to you? Would you do it again?