What Does “Conformism” Mean?

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The meaning of a word is often distorted when used polemically. One such word in Georgia is “conformism.”

The word “conformism” is understood in relation to orthodoxy. In other words, it means to adapt to the dominant reasoning and established behavior. A conformist is a person who shares orthodoxy with others not because of any inner belief, but because it is convenient, advantageous and comfortable to do so. Should a new orthodoxy be installed tomorrow, conformists would instantly “change colors” to adjust themselves to the new environment.

Antipodes to conformists, in behavior and attitude, heed their own voices of reasoning and follow their own consciences. They are not afraid of conflicting with fashionable attitudes of the day. To use a concept of classical philosophy, they are autonomous individuals. Simply put, non-conformists are free and courageous people.

The idea that conformism is bad and non-conformism is good derives from contemporary values. The modern world values individual autonomy. By contrast, the traditional world valued a person who conformed to beliefs and customs inherited from earlier generations.

That is clear and uncomplicated, isn’t it? That is what I thought, but….

Conformist to what?

When progressive contemporary Georgian intellectuals and activists use the word “conformist,” they generally mean conforming in only one aspect – in one’s attitude toward the government. For them, a “conformist” is a person who says or does something in support of the government while a “non-conformist” is a person who opposes the government.

An example illustrating that viewpoint is the incessant disparagement of creators of the video clip “Misha is cool.” I do not know the creators personally, but watching their creative activity and civil position makes me think they are gifted, open-minded and internally free individuals. Critics hammer them time and again with one and the same argument: “You have filmed a pro-government video clip and therefore you are conformists.” That seems so clearly logical to them that they cannot even conceive of any counter-argument; just possibly, shooting that video clip corresponds with the internal belief and civil position of its creators.

Such reflexive reasoning results from what I described in a recent Tabula article as “Government Centricity.” People who are government-centric perceive the government as the logical centre of the universe and lose the capacity to view reality from a different perspective.

I think that is a remnant of the Soviet era. If ever a government determined every aspect of every sphere everywhere, it was in the Soviet Union. There, freedom of reasoning and behavior was judged in relation to one’s attitude to the politics and ideology of the government.

In reality, the Soviet world was not uni-dimensional either. During the so-called Brezhnev era, which I witnessed, Marxist communism no longer represented a real orthodoxy. I graduated from the faculty of philosophy in the 1970s, and I remember only one Marxist professor who even then was of retirement age. True, no one opposed the regime openly and dissidents in Georgia were in short supply. But if you did not ridicule everything related to communism and Marxism, you would yourself become an object of ridicule as a “backward dupe.” At that time, an alternative vision of “positive values” was being shaped as well. That stemmed partly from the tough-street-guy mentality and partly from ideas of ethnic – and later, religious – nationalism. When the Soviet regime collapsed, all that became obvious.

It is not necessarily always the state in relation to which a person is a conformist. A person’s immediate social environment actually requires greater conformity; it is there that a person’s status and recognition is validated. Recalling the Brezhnev era again, everyone made fun of official stupidities (though not in public), but hardly anyone would dare not to drink a toast to Stalin during a feast (although that leader had already been deposed from the pantheon by the government).

Pluralism of conformism

In a modern (liberal) world, many orthodoxies fight against one another. Some believe in the uniqueness of Evangelical Christianity; others are committed to world dominance of Islam. Some adhere to leftist “political correctness”; others revere the infallibility of the market. Feminists lash out against misogynists; animal rights defenders fight against biologists and hunters. None of these movements is any less aggressive than medieval Catholics or Calvinists, but they now each have to put up with the situation. Adversaries can no longer be burned at the stake or locked away in a dungeon.

Speaking about “conformism” in modern society makes sense only in relation to a person’s specific social circle. To belong, an individual must share certain opinions and behavioral norms with the group or risk being marginalized and ridiculed. For example, one can call an American university professor who does not support affirmative action a “nonconformist.” But what on earth is “conformism” in relation to the entire society?

Do we have opposing orthodoxies in Georgia today? By my observation, they are being formed now. That makes me very happy because that is the main sign of a free society. At least three directions have been identified: (1) Orthodox orthodoxy – that is Christian Orthodox nationalism; (2) Libertarian orthodoxy – the main forum of which is this magazine; and (3) Left-wing orthodoxy with its “political correctness.” Within each direction, of course, one can distinguish other movements as well.

Does a government or “Mishist” orthodoxy exist? Attitudes that rely on the combination of state patriotism and accelerated economic modernization could be called such. But in actuality, the political practice and public rhetoric of the United National Movement are a pragmatic blend of various attitudes and ideologies.

Under such conditions, the word “conformism” has become an ordinary label (among many other labels) used by intellectually lazy people to convey the following: “People who reason freely (and correctly) are only those who think like me because it is impossible for a normal person to have an opinion different from mine.”

The concept of “conformism” can nonetheless retain its genuine meaning in a pluralistic society. It can be applied to a person who finds it difficult to reason independently from his/her milieu. In this regard, it does not make much of a difference whether you are a libertarian or a leftist, a “Mishist” or an Orthodox nationalist. You either dare to have your own opinion or you don’t.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 101, published 21 May 2012.

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