I’m a fan of conformity, at least to an extent. Those of you who know me and my nonconformist ways may puzzle over this, but honestly, conformity helps society run smoothly. In many respects, I simply mean following the rules, and you know I’m a rule follower. I believe the rules exist for all of us to adhere to, and not just for the plebeians while the elite operate in their own spheres crushing those without access to their ether, but I digress. I appreciate people who obey red lights and wait their turn in lines, for example. We need conformity, and we need to teach it to our children.
I think where we go wrong, however, is deifying conformity. Conforming is necessary, but conformity isn’t a god to trust. It’s a tool to navigate society, not a medium of personal enlightenment.
We confuse the platitudes we preach with our actions and tell ourselves that we value open-mindedness, when what we really value is conformity. Then we vilify the people who have the audacity not to conform to what we have deemed as open-minded.
Here’s an example.
“What? You don’t believe every religion is an equally valid avenue to God? You’re so closed-minded.” In other words, “What? You refuse to conform to the prevailing attitude of the time? You’re to be ridiculed and discounted.”
Where lies the open-mindedness in that?
We too often assume that someone who thinks differently than us is closed-minded, but that assumption itself closes the presumer off from ever learning what the divergent thinker actually believes. Conformity couched as open-mindedness is dangerous, because it confuses qualified and curtailed thought for freedom of expression and true freedom of expression gets clipped so that the expression never sees light, even though it may be just the opinion to give wings of liberty to the original intent.
Conformity can actually bring about open-mindedness, if we allow it to. Keeping with my earlier example, conformity of social norms, such as fostering friendly dialogue among people with differing views can allow the people who differ to learn from one another. They may never agree, and that’s OK.
I think we go wrong on that point to. It’s OK for people to disagree. Really it is. Just because I may disagree with you doesn’t mean I don’t respect you. Disagreement doesn’t mean I don’t hear you. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand you. It doesn’t mean I’m going to twist your words. What disagreement means is that I took the time to listen to you, weigh what you had to say, learn something from you, and formulate my own opinion about it. To that I say, thank you for helping me grow.
Conforming to the rules of engagement, as it were, helps us to explore. It also frees us up to disagree and learn, finally, how to do so without causing a rift in our relationships. We are not the Borg; we do not have to acquiesce and assimilate into a collective consciousness to get along. Resistance does not have to be futile. Individuality and conformity can and should coexist. And that’s the conformity we should teach our children, but we can’t do so until we learn how to do it ourselves.