“Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Ralph Waldo Emerson).
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth” (John F. Kennedy).
The above quotes will shock a lot of people. Many of us are used to conforming to societal norms, or even to that of our social groups. We stick to the unwritten rules and principles laid down by others because we were made to believe they are the right things to do. We have been stereotyped into doing things in certain ways or believing in certain ideologies. Going against those norms creates problems for us because we will be condemned, chided, or, worse, excluded. Hence, in order to belong and fit in, we conform.
But the question we should ask ourselves today is, “Is it proper to be a conformist or not? If yes, why? If no, why not?” Put simply, when should a person conform to existing rules and when should he not? Or rather, should a person even consider conforming to those rules at all?
Note that the word, “obey” is avoided here even though it is synonymous to “conformity”. But semantically, obedience has positive connotation while conformism does not. Apart from that, obedience, unlike conformity, refers to performing a direct request. However, conformity here refers to adopting certain behaviours in order to adhere to social group’s convention. This is what makes it dangerous.
“The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity” (Jim Hightower).
A lot of sociologists and psychologists kick against conformity. They believe every individual should be himself. Some believe societal and group pressure on people takes away their individuality and causes them to lose their identities. Many educators have also discovered that many students perform poorly in their academics because they conform to the ideologies and behaviours of their social groups (cliques). Of course, all these are true; but does it mean conformity is totally wrong?
Yes, like JFK said, you can’t grow by becoming a copy of others. Hence, for you to stand out, you need to be different. Innovations today happened because some people decided to do things differently. Maybe we would have still been in the Stone Age if not for the past nonconformists. But then, if we all choose to become nonconformists in all aspects, well, what will become of the society? How do we pass on our good culture to our younger generations?
Whenever we think of societal influence, we should also think of culture. We maintain our culture by behaving in the accepted way. We also learn positive behaviours by copying others or allowing them to influence us. Imagine if a child decides not to greet his elders in this society, where greeting is cherished. Imagine a child in Igboland addressing his elders by their first names. Imagine students deciding not to dress properly to school. Imagine people taking what is not theirs without seeking for permission. And just think of adults that lack proper table manners or refuse to brush their teeth in the morning. All these and more are behaviours the society expects its inhabitants to imbibe in order to make life easier and smoother. None of them could be learnt without the influence of others. All I am saying here is that not all group influences are bad; some also help people to grow.
The truth is, no extremism is right. Being a nonconformist is good; but when it becomes as extreme as the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson advocated, the people in the society will suffer. On the other hand, when a person conforms without limitations, he is bound to lose himself. Hence, a person should strike a balance between conformity and nonconformity; the scale should not be allowed to tilt on one end.