"Most of my students in public schools think the same way…there is a very high degree of conformity in youth circles." I said.
This is something I bang on about a lot. Students pride themselves on being individuals, but they are conformists, so I try to pop that bubble when I can.
Maybe you could say that there always has been a good degree of conformity, at least in my living lifetime going back to when I was in high school. I myself conformed plenty back in the day, and still do, probably more than I know. But from my experience, hyper conformity abounds today.
In one of my classes after I said this, one student replied, "Well I'm different. I'm from Africa. I don't think like everyone else."
"Not so fast," I replied. I had been listening to him in class discussions for 7 months, and he usually had a lot to say, so I had a lot of “data” to draw on and didn’t say this on a whim "You say the same things all your peers do. Based on that, you might be a lot more like them than you realize."
"No way!" he protested.
"Ok, let’s take a little test,” I replied. “Tell me if you agree or disagree with the following: 'Don’t let anyone tell you who you are—you decide who you are. You and you alone get to define your identity. You do you. Don't let anyone judge you for who you are."
"Of course that's right!" He said. "No one has the right to tell you that you can't be who you are."
Taking a cue from Tim Keller, I shot back: "That's exactly what all your peers say, and it’s a recent, Western notion. Traditionally, and in non-western cultures, you alone don't get to define your identity. Your identity is negotiated with the community and by reference to things like duty to God, family, and others. In non-western cultures, you don't find who you are by looking within, but by looking outward. You've bought into a very modern American way of thinking."
He continued to protest, insisting that no one can judge, and even said that the Bible commands not judging.
I called his bluff: "Here. Take the Bible and look in there to find that. I'll give you all the time you need." He looked for a loooooong time, couldn't find anything, so he turned to googling, then came up with the "don't judge lest ye be judged" verse.
Sigh. I knew he would eventually point to that verse. I told him to keep reading. He was prooftexting. That was not Jesus’ point, but this student had a deeper problem: he also kept insisting that you can't or shouldn't judge someone for "who they are." So I challenged him: "So if a KKK Grand Wizard walked in here, wouldn't you tell him he's got the wrong identity? Think about it and you'll see quickly that some identities are not worth having and expressing."
He STILL protested, digging in his heels. "Well ok, for the KKK guy. But you can't tell a gay person not to be gay."
I was not going to let him off the hook that easily: "All you are doing there is conforming your judgments to what our modern culture says is ok to judge on. Our culture says it’s ok to judge the KKK wizard, so you conform to that. But our culture then says its not ok to judge the gay person, so you conform to that. That alone doesn’t make your judgment right or wrong. However, you can't really take any credit for it because you are just going where the cultural winds blow. Maybe the culture is wrong. Maybe the culture is right. But you can't really say that you are being 'different,' because you are not. "
My point was that if your judgments correspond precisely to what is popular in culture on every or most junctures, that's not particularly unique. This kid, despite being African, in just a few years of living here had bought into the western way of thinking. He also tried to say that American society is so open and tolerant, while African society is narrow minded and strict....bollocks. We are not an open society, at least not as much as we tell ourselves. We have the Bill of Rights so that's certainly something, but we can be pretty judgmental too, just on different points.