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Sympathy for the Conformer

October 16 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye ( Christian tesfaye (christian. is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling. )

It is easier to go down the stairs than up.

Why is this? Is an upward movement of the legs just harder for the muscles?

Not at all. It is just gravity, which pulls downward. It is the law of the universe, and resisting it requires a great deal of exertion and expenditure of energy. Going with its flow - down the stairs - is a great deal easier.

This is a nice allegory for conformism. It offers the path of least resistance. Its ubiquity has to do with more than an innate need to belong to a group. Prevailing political and socioeconomic systems exert such force on the ordinary individual that it is often too tasking, even unthinkable, to be a non-conformist.

Are such people awful? Do they deserve our loathing for complying by and adjusting to prevailing political and economic systems perceived to be harmful? Or do they deserve our pity?

The better question to ask though is whether the majority have a choice but to conform. It seems that most of us do not. The main reason for this is that we are brought up to fit into systems. Although there may be parts that we do not like about them, we often find them to be acceptable.

Sure, we may find our leaders annoying. We may even lambast local practices and traditions we assume are uncivilised. But unless some part of our identity is not rejected by the system, we often go along with what we find ourselves in.

Take veganism, especially in countries such as Ethiopia. To refuse to consume meat in a society that has feasts and rituals built around such food items is downright revolutionary. But as long as that vegetarian is not rejected and prosecuted for refusing to eat meat, that person is likely to continue to tolerate the system.

But that is not real non-conformism, at least not the sort that reminds us of revolutionaries. At best, it is an annoyance at something. Such non-conformism mainly arises out of the view that certain quirks in the system are to be expected and addressing them is a mere matter of clipping some leaves on a tree.

Once again, consider veganism. A rejection of the commodification of animals and their products cannot be divorced from the prevailing traditional, religious and economic systems. These systems have not only allowed the slaughter and sale of animals but actively encourage and sustain it. People who are merely vegans but subscribe to the traditions and economic systems that make meat-eating possible are barely nonconforming.

This is born out of our ignorance, a normal human feature. Attempting to make sense of societies and the economic and political systems and institutions they have built is not an easy task. In fact, there are entire fields dedicated to doing this. There are professionals that go through years of schooling and commit their entire lives to understand how cultures, markets and power works.

The average person is not expected to understand how a heart transplant is carried out. A technician with specific training is required for the job. In the same token, there should be no reason to expect just anyone to make sense of socio-political and economic systems to connect enough of the dots to become meaningfully critical of them.

People have lives. They have bills to pay and social roles to fill. After a certain age, they even often have children to raise. They can be excused for not taking the time to read Marx, Nietzsche or Foucault. If they choose to, they would need to make many painful sacrifices.

Clearly, it is easier to go down the stairs than up. Conforming makes our lives easier, even while it holds us back from maturing as a society. It is a lot to ask of people.

It is also necessary to demand it nonetheless. No single system is perfect, and change has come from the corner of those that have stubbornly swum against the tides.

We should demand non-conformism. No doubt about it. But we should also understand why there is not much of it.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 16,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1068]

Christian tesfaye (christian. is a researcher and Fortune's op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

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