The Paradox of Nonconformity

In a film I saw recently (the title of which I can’t recall), a character said something along the lines of, “If everybody’s special, doesn’t that just mean nobody is?” Likewise, another film (Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) exposes the paradox of nonconformity in a scene where Brian is trying to convince a crowd of fanatics that he is not the messiah:

Brian: You’re all individuals.
Crowd: Yes, we’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different.
Crowd: Yes, we’re all different.
Man in crowd: I’m not.

I’ve seen it happen over and over again in real life: people struggling to be different and having to resign to sameness. Many supposed “rebels” and “nonconformists” merely conform to a subculture of the norm. I was at a rock concert recently, and I noticed that there were too many “rebels” there who fit nicely the stereotype of rock concert attendees: scantily dressed, mainly in black, overdone make-up, tattoos, pot-smoking, swearing, loud yelling, etc. What has really happened is that rather than people becoming individuals and subverting the cultural norms individually, people have created subversive “norms” to conform to so that they as individuals do not have to find their own paths, but they as collective individuals within a new “norm” can break away from the greater “norm.”

There’s not just safety but also comfort in numbers, and very few people are afraid to break away by themselves. It is also quite difficult to be truly subversive. Take, for example, gender roles. I—as a progressive, pro-feminist male—have often considered what is the best way for me to subvert the patriarchy without reinforcing gender stereotypes. On the one hand, I have not adopted traditional masculinist notions of appropriate machismo or over-involved myself in the following of professional sports. On the other hand, not living up to those traditional male roles and interests also makes me live up to the stereotype of the feminist man—weak, not manly enough. In some ways, you could argue, it supports the popular notion that feminism metaphorically castrates men.

So there are two obstacles to “true” nonconformity: 1. fear of loneliness (do I have to do it alone?) and 2. inability to find a truly subversive path without reinforcing one norm or the other.

The closest I’ve found to being “truly” nonconformist (though, this is still being part of a larger group, in a sense) is finding the minority group within the minority group. Christians are certainly a minority group in America (practicing, born-again Christians, that is—not Easter-Christmas atheist “Christians”). Feminists are certainly a minority group in America (Gloria Steinem-Ani DiFranco feminists, not Ally McBeal-Camille Paglia “feminists”). In my vain attempt to find true nonconformity, I have subscribed myself to the subset of both groups, the minority of the minorities—Christian feminists, and yet again with Christian male feminists.

Does this make me a rebel? Still a rebel among rebels (not many, granted). Only on a few counts have I found myself close to unique, and these are not overtly political means of nonconformity:

1. For four years straight, I wore flip-flops on a regular basis in New England (including the winter, the snow, etc.). I don’t know anyone else who has done this (not to say no one else has, just that I don’t know or have never heard of anyone who has).

2. Even though I was born right-handed, as a young child I wanted to be ambidextrous, so I began writing with my left hand and neglected to keep practicing with my right hand. Now, I use my left hand for pen, pencil, marker, and paintbrush. I use my right hand for chalk, chopsticks, and sports.

3. More of a birth defect than a choice, but I have found only two other people who have my eye condition: one single-fold, one double-fold. If you don’t know what single- and double-folds are, ask an Asian person (preferably one of Chinese or Korean descent, as I know these two cultures are obsessed with folds).

Still, what is so appealing about being different? I mean, surely, sometimes we are different simply because we are. I’m not a male Christian feminist only because I want to be different. How pitiful would that be? It is ultimately because I’m biologically male, I have adopted the beliefs of the Christians, and I have adopted the beliefs of the feminists. I genuinely believe in those things. Don’t we sometimes, though, find an option appealing if it is “different”? Think about marketing campaigns: “Little, yellow, different.” “Feel the difference.” “Think different.” Nobody wants to hear: “It’s the same product as before.” “Be the same.” Maybe people might want to hear “Stay the same” if it meant looking young (this is a qualitatively distinct sameness, though—keeping a youthful appearance means staying the same as you yourself were before, not being the same as others). There’s definitely a pressure we must all feel to be the same, though, if we find it in our systems to desire (despite our actual state) to be different.

True individuality, true nonconformity, will come about only when the pressures to conform, to stay the same, diminish. Perhaps this analogy might help to make the principle more concrete: We are a bunch of rats on a table. The table is fifty feet off the ground, so we must stay on the table or fall to our deaths. Yet, with nothing on the table, we are free to roam about the full surface of the table. Then, the scientists observing us rats decide to put a cage on the table. It is open on one side, but that opening has a swinging door that is designed to push you in the cage or outside of the cage. If you decide to stay in the cage, you’re in. If you decide to stay outside the cage, you’re outside it. If you want to be in the middle, you get pushed one way or the other. You are no longer free to roam about the table. You can be almost anywhere on the table, but rather than being a unique spot on the table, your space can now be easily categorized as in the cage or outside the cage—it is no longer just a solitary space.

Let’s get the cage out!