Letter to the Editor

Jason Leddington, Philosophy Professor

Don’t Follow the Herd.

To the Editor:

On Nov. 14, The Bucknellian published an excellent op-ed by Avid Khorramian and an editorial, both of which addressed the lack of diversity on campus and highlighted a pervasive and striking feature of Bucknell student life: extreme conformism. But what exactly is the problem with conformism?

Our lives are full of rules or “norms.” Do your homework. Do your job. Keep your commitments. Don’t take my stuff. Don’t do harm. To conform to such norms—which are often explicitly articulated and codified—is usually a good thing. A society in which people regularly lied to or harmed other people wouldn’t be worth much.

Clearly this sort of conformity isn’t what people are worrying about when they worry about conformism. Instead, they’re worried about conformity to a second sort of norm. These norms shape our lives more quietly, more subtly, more insidiously. Talk this way. Walk this way. Dress this way. Have sex this way. Buy this. Eat this. Drink this. Think this. Be this. Norms of the second type are usually not explicitly articulated, and they are rarely codified, but they’re no less real or powerful. On the contrary, we are immersed in them. Like the air that we breathe, they are generally invisible, and this makes them particularly difficult to challenge. Often, we don’t even realize we’re taking them in, and so, they shape our thoughts and actions without our even noticing.

This sort of “internalization” is especially troubling when the relevant norms are racist, sexist, homophobic, speciesist, xenophobic, or otherwise exclusionary. Unfortunately, despite the progress that’s been made by social movements in the last few decades—visibly manifest in changes to law—many of the invisible norms we take in every day remain toxic—sometimes extremely so. And that they shape us in ways we can’t fully control is borne out by psychological studies of implicit bias, stereotype threat, and related phenomena. It is also borne out by the fact that, despite our enlightened views of race, gender, and so on, social structures of inequality and practices of discrimination persist, albeit less visibly than in the past. Rest assured, though: they’re still with us. A quick study of incarceration rates for black men or pay rates for women should dispel any illusions on this front. The fact is that we live in a society that is hardly egalitarian, whatever we may like to tell ourselves.

Thus, one problem with conformism is that many of the norms that invisibly surround us are not in harmony with our real values—our best judgments about what is right and wrong. This alone is reason enough to practice non-conformism. But it goes deeper than this.

The truth is that a life of conformism is inevitably a bad life. This is because we conform to such invisible norms by watching others, comparing ourselves to them, and adjusting ourselves accordingly. Thus, conformists are always on the lookout for ways they don’t measure up. Because that’s what conformists do: try to measure up. The result is a persistent and destructive anxiety about whether you’re good enough. And at no point does the process terminate. This is a lifelong project. Have fun.

Another feature of conformism is inertia. It’s habit-forming. Once you allow yourself to indulge in the “easy” road of conformism you start to lose sight of your own thoughts and values. It becomes  progressively more difficult to step back and ask yourself what you really think, what you really care about. In this respect, conformism makes you dull. No one interesting or worth knowing was ever a conformist. The most fascinating people are vividly individual. Thus, as Ms. Khorramian points out in her op-ed, if we want real diversity on this campus, we can’t secure it just by attracting people that are superficially different. We must also break Bucknell’s culture of conformism.

So, how do we practice non-conformism? Opportunities present themselves every day. Everyone occasionally feels pressure to look a certain way, act a certain way, think a certain way. Next time you feel  it, you might take a moment to step back and ask yourself whether you have to look, act, or think that way, and whether you really want to. In doing this, you’ll be cultivating your power to choose how to live. This is no mean accomplishment. It’s harder than following the herd, but it’s infinitely more satisfying. Conformism is a pressure-cooker; non-conformism is liberating. And in the end you’ll find that hardly anyone actually cares what you wear, say, think, or do, because they’re too busy worrying about what everyone else thinks about them.

In his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, the late David Foster Wallace gave an interesting twist to the platitude that a liberal arts college education is about “learning how to think.” As Wallace put it, “the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” This, he suggested, is real freedom, and it’s all-too-easy to squander. What you do with it is up to no one but you.

So, have no illusions: if being a Bucknellian is worth something, then it means at least this much: DFTH. Don’t Follow The Herd.

BFF

Jason Leddington, Philosophy

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