Society

Conformity: The human identity crisis

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By James Clark Ross

You are born unique: unless you are an identical twin, no one else on Earth will ever share your genome. You are therefore universally unmatched, always distinguishable. You are a continuously evolving product of complex interactions between nature and nurture, between yourself and your relationship with others. You are an individual. You are also at completely liberty to express and celebrate your individuality, enabling others to better understand you – your beliefs, your personality, your actions, your desires. Yet so often this is not our chosen path. We choose to do the complete opposite: we choose to conform.

This irks me. It irks me because individual expression is a beautiful concept. To rebel against conformity is powerful and courageous; to conform to what is deemed socially acceptable is predictable, mundane and completely unoriginal. Conformity tears away everything that is interesting about you and reduces you to a replica – a replica who conceals their insecurities behind a façade of monotony to appear relevant.

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Saying that, though, I cannot see anything perverse in expressing oneself or seeking to (moderately) build one’s self-esteem through one’s identity. Nor can there be any shame in trying to decipher one another superficially. After all, through our image we impart first impressions on people. Our choice of attire and style therefore enables people to understand us better.

But there is an internal battle here: many of us want to fit in and be noticed simultaneously.

Bret Easton Ellis, one of my favourite authors, is the king of commentary surrounding this topic. In American Psycho, perhaps his most incisive work, he mocks conformity through black comedy with such precision. It is brilliant and perhaps a good basis here. I will not ruin it for you if you have not read the book or seen the film, but amusingly (and horrifically) he describes how mundanity is driving everyone insane.

Insanity

The characters are caricatures of ‘yuppie’ investment bankers who are all, naturally, trying to outdo each other, be noticed and be respected. But at the same time they want to fit in. Everybody is obsessed with earning lots of money, sealing big deals, and wearing designer clothes, but this effectively renders everyone the same slick-haired, identically-suited, money-obsessed, decadent lunatic. Consequently, everyone sees subtle differences between one another as hugely significant signs of success. This drives the antihero, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), insane. Take one of the most famous scenes (below), where the pedantry surrounding who owns the best business card brilliantly satires the race to be noticed, even though for most people the differences are utterly trivial.

Obviously this example is a total exaggeration, but sometimes this is required to demonstrate a point. Many of us seemingly share that same great, conflicting urge to stick out but fit in as Patrick Bateman. This tendency is apparent if one considers how we allow fashion to completely dictate how others perceive us. That is, we allow brands to override our own identities, which is perhaps the result of having an increasingly consumerist and materialistic society as a backdrop to our daily lives.

For example, take companies such as Jack Wills and (old) Abercrombie & Fitch. In my opinion, a major cause of their successes is how they have all tapped into peoples’ perceptions of class and social status. By buying an extortionately priced gilet from a store decorated in wood chippings, bunting and owls – a store we are waved into by coincidentally ‘attractive’ employees who are paid to stand there and welcome you in – we are arguably made to feel special and above everyone else.

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Jack Wills, Winchester: Look at the guitar! How wonderfully quirky and imaginative…

Yes, you can argue that you are paying for the better stitching and longevity, but I believe there is a deeper desire to reassure other people that we do not belong to the lower ranks of society.

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The clothes are notoriously expensive and preppy.

Again it comes down to attempting to stand out from the crowd. However, yet again the result is to become unoriginal and unfaithful to ourselves, since we choose the simple and contrived option. Conformity can therefore be counterproductive to its own goal. By conforming and attempting to appear relevant we seek to be noticed by our peers, but what we actually achieve is to plagiarise others to disguise our own lack of originality.

I used to think a lot about this at school, simply because it completely baffled me. Everyone wants to be cool…Okay…Everyone wants to stick out…Right…So why is everyone trying so hard to be and look like…everyone else!

Teen

Another person with the same clothes of the same brand with the same haircut. What is it that we are seeking?

Of course our teenage years are full of social pressures that are unmatched for the entirety of our lives. We can perhaps expect such juvenile behaviour from insecure and immature teenagers, who will do all they can to fit in. But, on a personal level, to this day I am on the receiving end of mockery/’banter’ for not conforming (though this is never explicitly stated as the reason why).

I never really understood why being myself made me more susceptible to insults. Now I am more mature I can make sense of it, but it required tough skin in the past to deal with it. For example, a female friend of mine once said to me: ‘Do you ever wonder if you were born into the wrong body?’

What this person was trying to convey was that I, a person whose passions attract negative stereotypes – greasy, nerdy physicists; angry ‘metalheads’; uncouth men of football – did not belong in the biological vehicle that was my body. That the aspects of my life that I derive enjoyment from are intrinsically related to one of these demeaning stereotypes. This is an outrageous thing to say; a horrible insinuation. Clearly, in her eyes, I would have fulfilled my social potential – conformity – by acting like and being adorned in the same clothes as everyone else. My desire to be myself was something she did not understand.

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And this was just one of many judgements I observed at university – a hub of seemingly well-educated adults. If your jeans were not tight enough, your shirt not sufficiently checked, or your wardrobe not a conveyor belt of much-coveted attire, you were exposed.

To me this all screams insecurity. Only now can I see it. By ridiculing other people, one reinforces the self-image within the wider group. Ultimately, I am glad that I did not pander to people. I remained true to myself.

A countercultural statement is the so-called hipster movement. But the hipster image – an attempt to dissent against the status quo – still fits into a collective symbol. It can therefore be seen as an ironic expression of individuality; a pseudo-rebellion against what is popular.

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Nonetheless, the hipster stance has potential to be a genuine form of expression in my eyes – as long as a hipster’s identity is matched by sincere and well-reasoned views. But maybe I am biased. I fit into a similar category, with my scathing views on pop culture, my ear jewellery, and my inclination towards independent scenes. So am I being hypocritical? I would argue that, like hipsters, I am expressing myself in order to engage with a minority of like-minded people. There is no intention to follow others. Nor is there a stubborn stance against what is popular to fit with my image (and not vice versa) – an accusation often levelled against hipsters. Thus I totally encourage people to express themselves through their identities.

But instead of reaching in and showing the whole world who you are and what you can do, so many of us endeavour to fit in and disregard individuality. Maybe we do this to provide ourselves with security and comfort, knowing that we will not be exposed for being different during the formation of groups. I believe that this is the easy option, so I want to commend true expression and originality, however limited that originality is. In my eyes it is always the person who seeks not to follow but to think for themselves who has something interesting to say. And, ironically, it is these people who will always lead the way for everyone else.

‘…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this—and I have countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing….’

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