On Loving Conformity

Notes from the forthcoming “PoPoMo Manifesto” —

Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl, if you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, is a webcomic diamond in the rough. I was reading through the archives the other day and there’s this really awesome one that she does where she introduces the idea of Strummer’s Law, which states that —

Any rebellion against external conformity just reinforces internal conformity.

Which, while initially sounding like something profound and non-obvious, actually makes alot of sense when you think about it. In substance, the underlying principle of Strummer’s Law greatly resembles the Uncertainty Principle of Relationships, which states that —

One cannot define relational momentum and position simultaneously. For a relationship to exhibit motion, it must become ambiguously defined. Similarly, for a relationship to become more discernable, it must by necessity approach stasis.

That is to say, tautologically, that once you know for sure what a social phenomenon is, it ceases to change, or show unpredictability of behavior. Or, in short, that the act of defining defines — it sets boundaries on what something is. Strummer’s Law just states that rebelling against something requires the rebels to enforce some standard on themselves, to define who they are as a community.
In doing so, the community of rebels requires its members to be a certain way, follow certain rules, or believe in certain credos. Indeed, the very act of advocacy is a call for conformity. That is, advocacy is the act of expressing that others should. True, maybe a different code of conformity than what is commonly enforced, but a code of behavior nonetheless.

Of course, there’s an asshat meta-ing that you can do with this argument too. That is, that even advocating for choice is in itself a kind of conformity (conforming to the need to choose). Simply put: believing in ‘freethinking’ is just as constricting a belief as less traditionally free doctrines.

This much is a pretty unoriginal old hat critique on counterculture. What’s more interesting, I think, is how one deals with this.

There are two reactions to Strummer’s Law —

The first, I think is the classic rebel’s disillusionment. That is, to continue to hold the idea that conformity in of itself is bad, and to decry the rebels to be as dogmatic as the Establishment. This devolves into Gen X-esque self-loathing and nihilism that at it’s root is pretty contradictory. It evolves towards the phenomenon of being different just to be different. Or, worse, towards evolving into a movement that is crazed on just showing how terrible the other side is, without offering useful alternatives (since that would require movements towards self-definition).

But I think there’s another, more interesting PoPoMo reaction. That is, to accept happily that everyone conforms. (see e.g. the amazing project — “Exactitudes”) But, instead of seeing this as a threat to the credibility of everyone — reveling in the interplay of accepted social norms and the implication that no individual, really, is independent. That is conformity is a glue that holds people together. Conformity is beautiful, absurd, wonderful, and silly in its necessity to the social process. Rebels play a role in a defined mythology and set of beliefs in the same way that government stiffs do.

We’re born at birth to be addicted to conformity, and its a drug that never does us much harm. But like the difference between Advil and heroin — what you choose as your addiction is important.

In short, a popomo philosophy sees the problem with the Establishment in enforcing a particular vision of the world, rather than enforcing, in a general sense, “conformity.”

I think a movement does well to parse these two elements out in its internal dialogue. It allows one to more easily take a stand that avoids complete, weak relativism (i.e. “if you’re so open minded, why can’t you accept the intolerant”), and focus on building sustainable, alternative ways of doing things that reflect the standards of an actual doctrine.

This isn’t just a call to be a cynic, however. I think there’s a positive variety of the popomo approach that simply discards the assumption that conformity in of itself is bad. This doesn’t, I think, deny one the right to distinguish among types of conformity.

That is to say, while you might recognize that all cohesive communities are defined by some common ethos, and undoubtedly certain ethoses can be smarter, better, more interesting, more creative, more supportive, or more fun to be part of.

Pride is confidence in self-definition. So, take pride in your conformity. It’s awesome.

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Cat said,

    Well said! And (deliciously) paradoxically, I think that this approach to conformity is the only way that new meaning (i.e. non-conformity) can be created.

    Where some shared standard can be recognized and embraced, one can accomodate variation under the umbrella of one ethos and branch out through the combination of ethoi (ethoses?) that has the potential to become a little more interesting than the sum of its parts. When embracing a shared set of standards is made acceptable in itself, staying within one set of bounds gets made stifling all over again and the process resets.

    Take the musical/cultural genealogy musings you had a while back (around the time we met in DC? Or maybe G-Rose made me read that at some point). The fun to be had there is tracing the threads of conformity and seeing where other ones took over until nostalgia kicks in to bring back a given sound.

    Also, I want to be Bad Decision Dinosaur when I grow up. Or the next Halloween I spend in the States. I have two giant lizard costumes in Chicago from, what else? scavhunt. Now all I need is a giant sweater, a crowbar, and some impressionable minds.

    -Cat

    P.S.
    Hi. I saw my name on the wordpress feed on facebook. Poof, I appear.

  2. 2

    Tim Hwang said,

    Cat,

    I totally agree. I think what’s interesting is that this entire construct seems to imply that the only way to break from conformity is not to rebel, but to conform further or to reformulate your particular environment of existing standards.

    Also: yes, yes, and yes to Bad Decision Dinosaur. Did you see the one recently with the Archduke? Priceless.

    -Tim

    P.S.: I am adding you to our blogroll!


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