Blog Post: Don’t Be a Conformist: Think for Yourself

Linda Elder
Mar 14, 2021 • 32d ago
Don’t Be a Conformist: Think for Yourself

{"ops":[{"insert":"Living a human life entails membership in a variety of human groups. This typically includes one’s nation, culture, profession, religion, family, and peer group. We find ourselves participating in groups before we are aware of ourselves as living beings, in virtually every setting in which we function as persons. Further, every group to which we belong has a social definition of itself and unspoken “rules” that guide the behavior of all members. Each group to which we belong imposes a level of conformity on us as a condition of acceptance. This includes a set of beliefs, behaviors, requirements, and taboos.\n \nResearch shows that people, to varying degrees, accept as right and correct whatever ways of acting and believing are fostered in the social groups to which they belong. Typically, this acceptance is uncritical.\n \nGroup membership clearly offers some advantages. But those advantages can come with a price. Many people behave unethically because it is expected of them. Groups impose their rules (conventions, folkways, taboos) on individuals. (Consider the way you dress or the sexual laws in your country as obvious examples.) Group membership is, in various ways, “required” for ordinary acts of living.\n \nSuppose, for example, that you did not want to belong to any nation, that you wanted to be a citizen not of a country but of the world. You would not be allowed that freedom. You would find that you were allowed no place to live, nor any way to travel from place to place. Every place in the world is claimed by some a nation (as its “sovereign” possession), and every nation requires that all visitors to it come as citizens of some other country (thus, with a “passport”). In addition, everywhere a nation imposes its “sovereignty,” it requires the obedience of all persons to literally thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of laws.\n \nFor most people, blind conformity to group restrictions is automatic and unreflective. Most people effortlessly conform without recognizing their conformity. They internalize group norms and beliefs, take on the group identity, and act as they are expected to act— without the least sense that what they are doing might reasonably be questioned. Most people function in social groups as unreflective participants in a range of beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors analogous to those of urban street gangs. Group think leads to believe in disinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories.\n \nConformity is one of the evils of human society. Why? Through conformity, arbitrary social rules are treated as if they were inherently good and right. Arbitrary social rules lead to any number of unjust practices. Consider the ways in which people who do not abide by social conventions are marginalized in a culture. For example, consider the groups who tend to be marginalized in the U.S.— atheists, people of color, people who protest wars, people who speak out against unethical government practices when the mainstream is not speaking out. Furthermore, consider how arbitrary social conventions often lead to arbitrary laws, the enforcement of which often results in human suffering (for example, unjust prison sentences).\n \nWhen you have developed as a skilled, independent thinker, you do not mindlessly follow the crowd. You think for yourself. You figure out for yourself what makes sense to believe and what to reject. You recognize social rules and taboos for what they often are: subjective creations of an unthinking mass. Of course, it is often quite difficult to critically analyze the cultural conventions existing in one’s own culture because these conventions are systematically indoctrinated into our thinking throughout a lifetime. As the reigning beliefs, they surround us. Overcoming indoctrination requires committed effort, insight, and courage. It implies a willingness to stand alone in your beliefs.\n \nTo develop as a thinker, assume that you are a conformist. Only when you can admit that you are a conformist can you begin to identify when and where you conform. Recognize that conformity occurs in virtually every domain of life. Look for it in the news. Look for it in your relationships. Look for it in the groups to which you belong. Notice it at work. See it in others. Notice how people profess to be independent even when they are consummate conformists. Notice when you are most likely to conform (for instance, in meetings or in following the ideologies of political parties). Notice when you are least likely to conform. Figure out the consequences of your conformity. Figure out the consequences of others’ conformity.\n \nThink about political conformity. Think about the consequences of “patriotism” (as a form of mass conformity). Figure out when it makes sense to conform (for example, not talking loudly on your cell phone while in a restaurant) and when it doesn’t (for example, mindlessly supporting unethical business or governmental practices).\n \n"},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"Strategies for becoming an independent thinker:"},{"insert":"\n\nWrite down your answers to these questions:\n·      What are some of the taboos in my culture?\n·      What behaviors are considered shocking or disgusting (consider, for instance, sexual conventions\n·      and laws or drug laws)?\n·      What beliefs in my culture are treated as sacred?\n·      What penalties exist for people who do not abide by social rules, even though their behavior doesn’t hurt anyone (and even though these rules come and go over the years)?\n \nExamine the extent to which you uncritically accept the taboos and requirements of your culture and social groups. Monitor your conformity. Begin a list of ways in which you can begin to think independently.\n \nMake a list of problems that people experience as a result of mass conformity to arbitrary social rules. How do you contribute to those problems?\n \nRead our Thinker’s Guide to Ethical Reasoning, to get a clear understanding of the differences among ethics, social conventions, and the law. \n \n\nFor a deeper look at the problem of conformity, get my new book: "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Liberating the Mind"},{"insert":", which you can see at this link: \n \n\n\n[This blog piece was adapted from "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"30 Days to Better Thinking and Better Living"},{"insert":" by Linda Elder and Richard Paul, 2013, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, pp. 61-64].\n"}]}

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