It usually starts with your parents. Then, school.
Your teachers and classmates certainly don’t help.
Later, if you go to university you’ll find that nothing’s different their either.
But don’t feel left out if you go into a trade or apprenticeship – you’ll get just as much of it.
In books (movies) like The Hunger Games and The Giver (amongst many others) we are presented with a distopian land of conformity and control.
People dress the same, speak the same, believe the same, experience the same, eat the same. They are monitored, measured, and assigned various roles that suit them.
The heroes are normally the outliers – those who choose not to conform to the way things are done, and find themselves in conflict with the powers that maintain the status quo.
And while enjoying these pieces of entertainment, we quietly say to ourselves “thank goodness it’s not like that”.
But we’re wrong.
Not In Public…
when one of my children is being “too noisy” in a quiet public place, I usually want to shrink up and die.
There are certain rules we learn early.
When we are allowed to be loud, and when we ought to be quiet.
Which piece of cutlery goes in which hand.
How we dress – for play, for school, for home, for Church.
We learn which words are appropriate and which words are not.
But we don’t learn the most important thing… WHY?
WHY are those things the “rules”? They’re not the law. Nobody will (usually) go to jail or disappear if we wear our play clothes to church instead of our “Sunday best”.
It’s Because of Fear
Specifically: the fear of standing out.
My kids are normally pretty well behaved. But when one of my children is being “too noisy” in a quiet public place, I usually want to shrink up and die.
Because people might look at me.
If people look at me, they might think something about me.
Perhaps they’ll judge my parenting. Perhaps they’ll scowl. Perhaps they’ll be bothered by the noise. Perhaps they’ll ask me to quiet my children down.
Perhaps they’ll realise that I don’t have it all together, that my children don’t always do what they are told, or that I’m having a bad day.
And So We Build our Own Little Distopia
Entertainment about the future is normally a comment on the present in one way or another (or at least it’s trying to be).
And I completely agree.
I’m a lawyer – and I see conformity alive and well every day.
I see passionate, idealistic young lawyers gradually beaten into submission. How to think, how to dress, how to speak, how to write.
Over time, they forget why they started (if they ever knew at all) and they start to look, sound and act like everyone else.
There are outliers – sometimes they survive the training process with their individuality intact, and sometimes they just leave, finding the charade of pretending to be like everyone else too tiring and unnecessary.
Is it Bad?
Here’s the thing – conformity isn’t automatically evil. It has some virtues.
A little predictability also offers stability. It allows people to act in a way that will have fairly reliable results.
If I ask somebody to pass the salt at the dinner table, then ideally they’ll pass me the salt. That, of course, is conforming to a social norm. But what if instead of passing the salt they threw their fork into the ceiling?
But as with many things, that isn’t as far as it goes.
And the further it goes, the less we are ourselves. We become our parents, our teachers, our employers – and what we used to be gets smothered in the process, starved of oxygen. It fights for a time, but usually gives up eventually.
But It’s Not Just Anything Goes
It would be easy to take my comments here and think that I’m just an “anything goes” kind of person – where as long as you’re being yourself then it’s fine.
Which is rubbish.
The fact is that there ARE things that are good, and things that are bad.
There is truth, and there are lies.
Some conduct is unacceptable.
But the list of those absolutes probably isn’t as long as most people are taught.
Where’s the Oxygen?
Which parts of you are being starved of oxygen?
Look back over the last few years – how have you changed? Were those changes chosen by you, or were they imposed upon you? Are they good? Are they authentic?
Or is it you just gradually trying to fit in, so that you don’t get too much attention?