Monday, July 27, 2009

The Perils of Conformity

Way back when, in a time before time, our nation was awash in mind-numbing conformity. Between World War II and the Vietnam War Americans wanted nothing more than to dress alike, behave alike, and live alike.

A generation whose character had been formed in the crucible of military service was more than willing to continue the culture that had brought victory to the nation.

If you do not recall that halcyon era, it is depicted in the Richard Yates novel and the recent movie "Revolutionary Road." You can see its last days in the television show, "Mad Men." Or else, you can read Michael Lewis' description of the era of conformity and its decline in an article called "The New Organization Man." Link here.

The era of conformity did not go unchallenged. During the 1950s academic sociologists and itinerant intellectuals attacked it ferociously. Books like "The Organization Man" and "The Lonely Crowd" argued that the pressure to conform, to be normal, to be like everyone else was crushing our God-given individuality and our creative spirits.

After the military ethos was discredited in Vietnam the nation set out to express itself freely and openly, without constraint. In Silicon Valley the absence of uniforms became a badge of creative genius. Before the dot-com bubble burst it was also a sign of extraordinary wealth and worldly success.

No one wanted to be an organization man; everyone wanted to be an artist, a creator, someone whose work involved the full expression of individual potential.

One might argue that the victory of anti-conformist elements in our culture led the masters of American financial institutions to create some strange and ultimately dangerous financial fictions.

Replacing the old Protestant or Puritan work ethic with the anything-goes, let-it-all-hang-out ethic created vast amounts of wealth out of thin air. Now that we have to pay off the binge, our free financial spirits do not look quite so smart.

Of course, the pressure to conform is basic to human being. Only now it is more subtle, because it is more mental than material. As I have noted, the city of New York is a city fully of non-conforming free thinkers, all of whom think exactly the same thing.

It feels like a devil's bargain, the ultimate sell-out for people who trashed organization men precisely for being sell-outs.

Now you get to dress as strangely as you please; you get to behave as rudely as you like; you get to have sex with whomever you want. The only price is that you have to think exactly like everyone else.

It sounds like a Faustian bargain. You have not sold your immortal soul, but you have sold your mind.

Intellectuals today do not worry about selling their immortal souls because the new, fashionable atheism declares that they do not really have immortal souls. Of course, this might mean that they have already sold them, only they do not know it.

The freedom to do your thing has led to rigid intellectual conformity in places like New York City, but also in universities.

Several days ago Nicholas Wade addressed the topic of conformity in a New York Times blog post. He was reporting on research showing that academics and intellectuals have conformist tendencies that they are loath to admit.

Everyone wants to belong. All humans belong to social groups. In the academic world if you eant to belong you must agree with the received opinions of the majority of scholars... even when you suspect that they are wrong.

Does this mean that academics, like Wall Streeters, can be wrong, even about received scientific wisdom. So says Nicholas Wade, tongue suitably in cheek: "If the brightest minds on Wall Street got suckered by group-think into believing that housing prices would never fall, what other policies founded on consensus wisdom could be waiting to become unraveled? Global warming, you say? You mean it might be harder to model climate change 20 years ahead than house prices 5 years ahead. Surely not-- how could so many climatologists be wrong?" Link here.

As Wade suggests, it may also be true that many scientists do not believe the dogma about global warming. They may simply have chosen to silence their doubts in order to conform.

If they fail to conform they can lose both their status as experts and their research grants. Faced with a choice between scientific truth and the need to conform, most of us would choose the latter. It's human nature.

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