Last week I was at a protest aimed at addressing a lot of issues; women, the environment, Indigenous affairs, education, LGBT, and refugees, amongst others. I went to learn about and support a few of them, but in particular I was rallying for refugees and their rights in Australia (which are very few, particularly regarding their health care, and ability to integrate into society, but I will address that in another entry..). Anyway, so my friend and I were collecting donations for a film being made about the issue, and then some guy walked up to us. He wanted to donate some money. 'How nice', I thought. So my friend started to tell the guy about the film. The guy interrupted and just pointed to my friend's badge- he wanted to donate just to get a badge. My friend smiled apologetically and told him that unfortunately we ran out of badges, so the guy nodded understandingly and took his donation back.
I burst out laughing. What the fuck? Here was this guy, who clearly didn’t care about the issues the protest was addressing, and only wanted to collect as many different badges as he could to seem well aware on the situation of our society. Seriously, who cares? Why did he want to convey such an image of himself? If all he cared about was education, fair enough, we each have our passions and priorities. But why did he feel the need to convey this worldly, caring image, if clearly he didn’t give a shit? Just do you. It reminded me on the perceived pressure to conform that I used to question in high school- based on the idea that conformity is relative.
I know when someone uses the word "anti-conformist", most of us think of a rugged and rebellious, mainstream disputer who listens to emo-alternative or folk music, dresses seven years out of date (courtesy of their local op shop), and eats gozleme for lunch. But consider Chris Rock's joke at the 2003 MTV video awards;
“The Spice Girls sold 10 million records? How come I don’t know anyone who bought one?”
To me, the aforementioned characterisation is redundant- rather, an anti-conformist is one who lives unhindered by social norms. In other words, if they like the spice girls, they will just go out and say it.
Conformity is the action of changing one’s behaviours, attitudes, or appearance to better gel with one’s social environment. It can be positive, where a person learns what is right from what is wrong (informational), but it can get to the point where the desire to be liked erodes a part of the person’s identity (normative conformity). At our age, finding our identity is important, and we tend to use external stimuli to help us. We use our self concept and the way we picture ourselves fitting into the social spectrum to react with social norms and help us develop our ideas, opinions, and associations. For example, if you considered yourself popular, you would try to adopt as much of what you perceive to be ‘the norm’, even if you weren’t keen on parts of it. Likewise, if you considered yourself alternative, you would try to reject as much of the norm (pop culture, music, and fashion), even if you personally liked some of it, in order to cement your image and position in the social spectrum of your environment. The reality is that conformity is relative, and social influence can come from many different places such as family, cliques, and media.
So why do we conform to doing what people expect of us? Well, who wants to be labelled as an outsider by the very people they identify with the most? It is difficult rejecting and accepting social expectations using your personal judgement because that can make you feel like you are the only one doing so, triggering uncertainty in the emotional support available to you.
Emotional support in a group helps make you more confident and comfortable in following your interests, as well as holding your beliefs. However, even though you may have the same education, age, culture, hobbies, or religion as some people, it doesn’t mean that you have to be identical in every dimension. While being in a group helps you find your distinctiveness, you have to make sure it doesn’t define your distinctiveness. In other words, don’t let your peers limit your interests, means of self-expression, or opinions.
What we must remember is that social pressure is more in your head than a reality, and that true friendship is not conditional. You probably will find that being yourself will make others around you feel more comfortable in being themselves too. After all, a group with different people can add spontaneity and substance. Someone conforming too much to social pressure is a person struggling with self identity; someone who doesn’t act like themselves in fear of rejection. So, fuck it. If you don’t care about refugees, who cares? If you want to sing backstreet boys 90's style but still gabber when you go out, go for it. Just enjoy unrestrained living and be yourself. As Doug Floyd once said, “You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note.”