Commentary

Why conformism is a mechanism of evil

At a superficial glance conformism is a neutral thing, its impact depend on what we conform to. But it is not so simple.

According to Wikipedia, conformism is “the act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, politics or being like minded.” (Quoting Cialdini and Goldstein (2004) “Social influence: Compliance and conformity”(pdf)) It also mentions that “People often choose to conform to society rather than to pursue personal desires” and that this “tendency to conform … may result from subtle unconscious influences or direct and overt social pressure.” 

Time and again history has proved that conformism will end up creating frightened and hateful masses stomping on certain individuals and groups among them. It results in genocide. In autocracy. In misery. Yet, we are still contently sitting on our unexamined assumption that conformism in itself is a neutral thing, its consequences depend entirely on what we conform to. We tell ourselves that conformism could be a force for good. Our favorite Wiki article claims that driving on the same side of the road is conformity, for instance. Or making people stop spitting on the floor by peer pressure.

But not all conformisms are created equal and sometimes we are using the same words  but we are talking about different phenomena. We make these unchecked and often unspoken assumptions based on only superficial look at the phenomenon in question. In the case of conformism, we don’t even know what conformism exactly means.

From Wikipedia, for instance, we also learn that “people often conform from a desire for security within a group” and that “unwillingness to conform carries the risk of social rejection”. In other words, those who are making these assumptions are aware of the negative consequences of non-conformism on the individual – yet they ignore it as irrelevant to the essence of conformism, and irrelevant to the outcomes of conformism. But is it really irrelevant?

Wikipedia thus (falsely) concludes that “although peer pressure may manifest negatively, conformity can be regarded as either good or bad.” And therein lies the swindle. It can’t be good, because it is enforced by disapproval (i.e. a threat) and those who conform are trying to make disapproval (a threat) go away – they are not trying to accomplish something positive. And on the other side of the coin, we are all walking dispensers of disapproval (i.e. threats) – and that just doesn’t happen to be the hallmark of those who mean well. Let me explain.

Without an accurate understanding of what conformism is, through what mechanisms it works and what the conformist wants to achieve with it, we can’t even begin to guess the outcomes. And yet, research appears to wash over those details by singling out examples that serve well as illustrations of a preexisting conclusion (aka. hypothesis).

Our alleged conformists, for instance, don’t drive on the same side of the road because they want to be like others. Neither do they do so because they have judged it to be a good thing. Is that were so, I know a few guys who would angrily keep driving on the left side – just to make a contrarian point about something. You all know these people.

The reason people drive on the same side of the road is simply to avoid the negative consequences of doing differently. Right-hand driving is a mere coordination issue, not a value choice, but its enforcement is very real police action, fines and jail (not to mention potential accidents), and our little contrarians are driven by mere punishment-avoidance (rather than a desire to be like all others or do the right thing) when they join the coordination effort. Same-side driving is not en ethical or moral law. Not a value choice. And it matters because driving is a technical, coordination issue, but if we take a moral or ethical rule, its enforcement also becomes more righteous and less rational.

Conformism is not an effort to be good, to do good. It is also not action that is commanded by reality – except in a sense that other people’s disapproval (however irrational that might be) constitutes reality, and a very real danger.

Conformity if not even an effort to get approval. (Real or perceived doesn’t matter here.) If it were, it would be a whole other story. And when it is, when someone actually pats your head and tells you good boy – it raises a number of questions in itself. But other than nice parents, approval is actually rarely dispensed.

Instead, we are all enforcers of conformism – as well as victims of peer pressure. And in our function as conformism-enforcers, we take the liberty to express or imply disapproval. But who threatens with disapproval? And can threatening with negative consequences (bullying) ever be a force for good?

In a world of bullies, threatening with negative consequences is the only way to try. But only to try. And then we end up with bullies who bully each other for virtually everything, and then act surprised when they all turn into cynics and counter-bullies. In this world only the threat is constant, only compliance is achieved – but never any positive goal.

A well-meaning person does not threaten. When it comes to threatening a bully back, a well-meaning person has already broken his own principles – but it is the paradox of the asymmetrical nature of the struggle between authoritarians and non-authoritarians.

Disapproval is no way to enforce good. It does sound logical. And I most certainly believe that no one knows any alternative to influence others – but that is mostly because they never gave it any thought, and because they all regard others as bullies who cannot be tamed without counter-bullying.

In the classification of human motivation (external vs internal, positive vs negative) conformism is firmly in the negative, external motivation group. And that comes with consequences that make conformity the opposite of neutral.

Because why would anyone threaten with disapproval (bully)?

  • to have their own way
  • to distract from own conduct and non-compliance
  • to dominate the moral agenda (signalling by enforcement, not compliance)
  • to keep down naive people who take things at face value and can be used for the bully’s own purposes

And the worst consequence of a world being shaped by negative and external pressure is the crowding out of positively and internally motivated people in favor of making disapproval go away. The evil bullies – the good complies. And this is why in the natural selection of competing moral rules the biggest bully will always prevail and enforce conformity. And that is why conformity is never a driver for social good, even if it makes someone stop spitting on the floor in the short run.

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