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Report From The Field--Conformity

“Does this reading relate to our lives today? How?” That’s a question I frequently ask my students. There is always some connection, something the authors are teaching us, some wisdom that we have to gain from them, no matter how old the text and how alien the culture from which it came.

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with one of my honors English classes. We had just finished with reading the novels 1984 and Brave New World, and the Kurt Vonnegut short story Harrison Bergeron. All three are dystopian stories of a dark and creepy future.

One of the students said "I don't think these novels connect to life today at all. Those dystopian societies were all about conformity to the party line. In those stories the characters couldn't say or do anything that was out of line, and most things were out of line. But today in our modern world, we are all about individuality. You can do and say whatever you want. You can express yourself. We are open."

I pushed back pretty hard. Compared to, say, North Korea or Stalinist Russia, sure we are less conformist than that, but that’s not saying much. 21st century America is much more conformist than she admitted, and no, I don’t mean in a conservative direction. Quite the opposite. Her words were simply overly positive self-talk, but not accurate, like telling yourself “our team is the best!” when your team stinks.

If we are such individuals, then why do all the non-conformists dress alike?

Why does everyone sound the same in class discussion? Why is it that the words 'I agree' is the #1 most frequently said thing in class discussion (at least it is in my class, despite me exerting great effort at shaking them out of this.)? The more controversial the topic, the louder and more frequent the “I agree” chorus gets, ironically. Students either really do think all (or mostly) alike, or some don't but are afraid to say so due to possible social repercussions of stepping out of line. In either case, we are definitely not a society that 'celebrates diversity.' We only celebrate certain kinds of diversity...the socially accepted kinds.

Some diversities are more diverse than other diversities, to paraphrase Animal Farm. I'm betting it’s a combo of both. There are very strong neon lines, and students know what they are and dare not cross them. And the 'lines' i'm referring to aren't, say, someone expressing Nazi hate, walking into class with a KKK hood, or saying that pedophilia is just fine. The lines that exist today and that everyone knows intuitively can’t be crossed are things that almost everyone thought were entirely uncontroversial to say and believe 10 minutes ago, but all of a sudden the wind has changed and we must all goose step in the other direction or be sacrificed to the madness of the crowd. Students sense that this is the way things are going, and they are quick to fall in line. At least that’s my working theory. I mean, I get it: conformity is easy. It makes things efficient, in a way, and is a natural instinct. In a certain amount it's good. If you never conform at all, you are a sociopath. But let's not think of ourselves as more highly than we ought. We aren't as open as we like to think.

Back to the story: so I said that to them. One student objected, saying, well, we've all just been exposed to the same media so we all have the same beliefs. Yes, and that's a problem. The social conditioning is especially strong. If everyone chants 'four legs good two legs bad' on que as a result of conditioning, that is not a compliment, and it doesn’t make the problem go away.

I continued. I said, “lets say we are all in class together, and a new student walks in, and says something--I'm not going to specify what, exactly--that makes everyone cringe and get nervous. It's a real needle on record moment, and some students who hold very strong views about the topic denounce him in the strongest of terms. Now, what did he say? Again, lets move the Nazi and KKK stuff etc off the table. Stipulate he didn't say anything like any of that. You'll still be able to immediately think of several trip wires he could cross that would immediately make people sweat and cringe. Besides the basics I just mentioned, I don't need to put any words in his mouth in the scenario for you at will be able to quickly think of several things he could have said to upset people. That just goes to show you: you all know where the lines are, things that were yesterday widely acknowledged as nonsense but today everyone *pretends* that they are obviously true, and you don't want to look bad, so you conform and don’t dare cross them. That's what operates here.”

In other words, the emperor has no clothes, but because no one wants to look weird, they all “point out” his nice threads.

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