Chapter 14: What to Do about the Curse of Conformity?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 14: What to Do about the Curse of Conformity?

My dear Ted:

In your present letter you certainly have handed me a grand text --not from the Bible, to be sure, but from Ralph Waldo Emerson. You say that you recently were reading his essay on "Self-Reliance," and ran headlong into this sentence: "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist." That struck home, you say, because of all the current talk accusing your generation of sociaI and moral conformity, of running with the herd. Last Sunday, you write, your minister took up the charge, saying in his sermon that Jane Addams was once asked what she thought about the way girls were bobbing their hair, and she answered that she was not in the least disturbed by the uniformity on the outside of people’s heads; it was the uniformity on the inside that worried her. As for your own personal experience, you say that you had the normal fight for independence which characterizes healthy teen-agers, that you loved your parents but welcomed escape from their daily supervision, that you are now on your own and outwardly in charge of your life, but this, you say, does not solve the problem of conformity. That is an inward matter, and you sometimes feel that with regard to many contemporary moral attitudes and social customs you are a "yes man," not an independent character standing up for your own convictions.

I tackle the problem with humility. Certainly I do not want to lambaste you young people for being conformists, as many are doing now. It was a man of my time, writing not about your generation but about the one preceding yours, who said, "The ideal of Independence requires resistance to the herd spirit now so widespread." Conformity, falling in step with the crowd, consenting to less than the best because "everybody’s doing it"--that is not new. Indeed I’ll match your text from Emerson with one from Paul: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." That has always been a problem. Nevertheless, I agree that its prevalence today is threatening. Dr. Paul Tillich of Harvard said recently that an age of conformity seemed about to overwhelm America, and he urged us to "resist the seemingly irresistible forces of conformity of present-day society."

I recognize that I am looking at this situation from the standpoint of old age. An elderly friend of mine said recently, "When I get up in the morning I first take the newspaper and read the obituary notices; if I am not there, I have breakfast." I have not quite reached that stage yet, but I am coming on. So, make allowances for me, if I seem to bear down too hard on your generation’s problem with conformity, mob-mindedness, being stenciled with the same popular patterns of thought and behavior.

A confusing paradox in this situation seems to me to be the fact that much of what is blamed as conformity is regarded by the guilty parties as independence. Some of the most unsavory things in the moral life of our time are done in the name of independence. If a person wishes to pursue a dubious moral course, the easy way is to disguise his conduct as the action of a free man, uninhibited by old rules, breaking loose and acting on his own. You see what he means by independence -- liberation from the past. On one side an old taboo, an ancient code, an inherited moral standard, some ethical relic of the past, and on the other side himself bravely independent and breaking free --nothing is so crazy in the behavior of our time that is not framed in that picture. To multitudes of people today independence does not mean Socrates, facing death and saying, "Men of Athens, I honor and love you, but I will obey God rather than you"; it means, "The heck with old rules!"

But I ask you: How many of us are really in danger of being enslaved by the past? That certainly is not our characteristic problem now. There have been reactionary times when the past laid its dead hand oppressively upon the present, when all old things were glorified and all new things were hated, when the new iron plowshares were preached against as sacrilegious. when the new lightning rods were regarded as an interference with the will of God, and when the first man who ever carried an umbrella on the streets of Philadelphia was actually arrested for doing so. To represent this generation of young people as facing that problem, however, is absurd. Mighty few of us are bothered by the imprisoning confinement of the past. Our problem is slavery to the present, its fads and fashions, its stereotyped ways of thinking and behaving. The typical spectacle today is some young person, bravely claiming independence, who breaks free from a really worth-while heritage out of his past only to conform weakly to some current craze. So far as most of us are concerned, independence lies not so much in liberation from the past as in nonconformity with the present.

Take drinking, for example. You will agree that a lot of young people -- as well as oldsters -- are drinking too much, and that behind their drinking is a defiant feeling that they are independent enough to drink. Independent of what? Not of the past. Our forefathers could carry more liquor in a day than a practiced modern had better try in a week. My great grandfather was a Baptist minister and on New Year’s Day, so runs the family tradition, he used to call on all the members of his parish, and at every house, according to the hospitable custom of the time, he took his whiskey, until at night, happily mellow, he returned home amid the benedictions of his flock. If you are drinking too much --I have no reason to suppose you drink at all -- you are not being independent of the past. The past drank too much. No, if you are drinking too much you are not being independent at all: you are yessing a current fad.

Or take sexual license. Robert Louis Stevenson said once that there are two kinds of people, one kind "inclining to think all things rather wrong," the other inclining to suppose all sorts of conduct "right enough for practical purposes." I do not need to tell you which of the two applies the more to our present times. Now, sex can be beautifully used, so that out of its dedicated management comes a loyal and enduring home. But I see so many tragedies caused by the abuse of sex and so large a proportion of them flying the banner, "Let’s be independent!" that I wish I could get in on the scene before the catastrophe, rather than help pick up the pieces afterward. Some persons are amenable to sexual temptation which says frankly, Be rotten. But others, of a higher grade, if they are promiscuously to indulge themselves, must have the temptation camouflaged -- as the New Testament says about Satan, fashioned as "an angel of light." To a sin which says frankly, Be rotten, they turn a deaf ear. When, however, the same sin says, Be independent; don’t be a slave of old codes; all the world loves a rebel; show the stuff you are made of by breaking free from cramping restrictions which keep your native instincts down; be a man! -- then to evil, speaking with the borrowed voice of good, they lend attentive ears. As pirate ships used to disguise themselves under honorable flags, so all manner of dissolute and licentious living sails today under the noble banner of independence. But independent of what? Not of the past. Read history and see! Such folk are not being independent at all. They are yes-men, pliable conformists, pushed about by passions over which they have lost control.

Or, once more, take our common estimate of success in terms of money. That stereotype is familiarly used by foreigners in thinking of all Americans and, while that is unfair, there is enough truth in it to be concerned about. When John Calvin died, the reigning Pope, Pius IV, commented on him: "The power of that heretic lay in the fact that he was indifferent to money." Just so! Say what you will about Calvin’s theology, he was not for sale. That is a genuine form of independence which all great characters exhibit -- you cannot buy them at any price. They do not judge other people in terms of financial status, nor do they think that their own life consists in the abundance of the things which they possess. When they face their fellows they are not thinking primarily about what they can get out of them and, as for life as a whole, their ambition is to be gentlemen, as George Bernard Shaw has defined one -- a man who tries, in one form or another, to put more into life than he takes out. And as for doing anything dirty or dishonest for money -- such as payola, rigged TV shows, false advertising, corrupt business deals, political chicanery, etc. -- their consciences are not for sale. Such a character obviously has to resist strong present-day pressures, which to a frightening degree are lowering the level of this nation’s ethical standards. Such moral independence is not rebellion against the past; it is refusal to conform to an ethically debilitated present.

Let’s try now positively to state what genuine independence is. It is the substitution of inward self-control for outward, circumstantial control. An uncontrolled life is not independent; it’s a mess, a shambles. A life controlled by outward pressures, pushed about by fads and crazes, compliantly conforming with popular attitudes and fashions, is obviously not independent. The only way anyone achieves genuine independence is by strong, intelligent, inward self-control -- something inside that judges right from wrong, determines conduct and, if need be, refuses compliance no matter what the cost.

During the rest of this letter I shall be trying to explain what I mean by this idea of independence, but let me start with an analogy. There are two ways in which conceivably you could get a ship across the ocean, if you had to steer it. You might tag after another ship. If, however, you scorned that method, you would face an inescapable necessity -- a compass inside your own ship. And thus to have your own compass and sail by it, is the only way in which you could be independent. Trailing another ship is not independence, and if, renouncing that, you renounce also a compass of your own, you are hopelessly beaten up and down the seas by shifting winds and waves, which is the very opposite of independence. To have an inward compass that you sail by is the only way you can be a free man.

One result of this fact is that independence, far from meaning that we let ourselves go, means that we take ourselves in hand. It is not being undisciplined; it is not being a slave to imposed discipline; it is the joyful choice of self-discipline as the high road to a liberated life. Think of some of the most liberated souls you know about, doing old things gloriously in a new way, or doing new things that only lately seemed impossible -- great musicians, artists, athletes, scientists -- what is their secret? At least one thing always: self-discipline. And then look at these loose, lawless, libidinous, aimless lives, of which one sees far too many, who think of freedom in terms of throwing off all restraint and going it wild. That is not liberty, independence, or anything else worth while. "The Wisdom of Solomon" in the Apocrypha -- although Solomon did not write it -- is everlastingly right when it says that the beginning of wisdom is "the desire of discipline," the love of it, the voluntary choice of it, the discovery that self-discipline is the highway to everything that makes life worth living. Moreover, we ourselves are not an undisciplined generation in any realm save one -- morals. In art, science, athletics, and every sort of practical endeavor we take for granted the necessity of self-discipline. But in morals! Let yourself go, have your fling, unleash your instincts, throw off restraint!

Of all dangerous things going on in our contemporary world, few hold more personal perils than the prevalent endeavor to find liberation by explosion, by touching a match to our powder barrels and letting them blow up. Certain schools of psychiatry bear a heavy burden of responsibility in this regard. They insistently tell us that it is dangerous to repress our native urges, and that health and happiness can come only as we let them explode. Very well, I answer, but it is dangerous also to repress our higher urges. Some time since a patient came to me in tears after consultation with a Freudian psychiatrist. I know that patient. Like all the rest of us he has native animal urges, but he also has a fine spiritual life, involving deep reverence for personality in himself and others, and a high faith in God. And that psychiatrist had told him that unless he threw God away, stopped bothering about morals and his spiritual life, and exploded his animal instincts, he could not be happy. One wonders why even a Freudian cannot see that it is dangerous to repress one’s best in order to give explosive vent to one’s worst. For that explosion starts another, and that another, and that another still, until explosions become habitual, which ends not in liberation and independence but in captivity and servitude. So, first of all, being independent calls for self-discipline.

For another thing it calls for ethical convictions, interior standards of conduct strong enough to resist popular pressure. I am really enthusiastic about your generation; I have often said that I think it is more promising than mine was. Nevertheless, it is disturbing to see so many young people acting on the supposition that independence means escape from the sense of duty, freedom from compelling moral obligation. I hate coercion, they seem to be saying; I will no longer have that whip cracked over my head; I will cut loose, do as I please, and be independent. But when Emerson said, "Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist," he was not thinking of a person released from moral obligation; he was thinking of a person whose conscience said to him, You ought, in such compelling tones that he had to obey it though it meant flouting the opinions of the crowd or even the laws of the land. Do you remember what Emerson said about that detestable Fugitive Slave Law which required all Americans to help return escaping slaves to their southern masters? "This filthy enactment," he said, "was made in the nineteenth century, by people who could read and write. I will not obey it, by God!" That is being genuinely a nonconformist.

Indeed, independence does not simply say, I ought; at its noblest it says, I must. There are two ways in which we humans say, I must. Sometimes we say it reluctantly, rebelliously, bitterly, resenting some imposed coercion. But in another fashion great souls have said, I must, so that they have become the glory of our race. Recall Jesus saying, "I must work the works of him who sent me." Watch Paul, expanding his missionary journeys and saying, "I must also see Rome." Consider Luther before the Emperor: "Here stand I; I cannot otherwise." Watch Lincoln, about to deliver a courageous address: "If it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth." Recall Noguchi, the bacteriologist, going to Africa because a dread epidemic, whose bacteria he had been studying, had broken out there. His friends begged him not to go because it might cost him his death. It did cost his death but he went, saying, I must. Such men were not outwardly coerced; they were inwardly obliged, under the high compulsion of voluntary loyalties; and they are shining examples of genuine independence.

Of course there is another indispensable side to life -- fun, relaxation, gaiety, hours when, as Walt Whitman put it, we loaf and invite our souls. But there is no greatness in any man at the center of whose life there is no compelling loyalty which, even at the cost of sacrifice, makes him say, I must. Such men have been the world’s self-reliant characters. We keep their birthdays long after they are dead. When in history there has been any exhibition of spiritual nobility, some soul standing strong in stormy days, whether in humble duty-doing or in the Garden of Gethsemane, there you find a soul saying, I must. Ted, being genuinely independent amid all the evil pressures of this world is a serious and magnificent business. In Tennyson’s phrase it is being "loyal to the royal in thyself."

You say truly in your letter that one of the difficulties which your generation faces is the confusing variety of judgments about what is right and what is wrong. To stand up against the crowd on a moral issue demands that one be absolutely convinced that he is right, and you say that you are sometimes too unsure about that to take a stand. "How does one know certainly what is right?" you ask. One guide to right conduct which has been of great help to me is the old maxim, "So act that you can will the principle of your act to be law universal." That is, so behave that if everybody everywhere should behave in the same way, it would be well with the world. That is a searching test. If everybody acted on the principle voiced by one youth, "I don’t believe in anything, except myself," what a barbarous mess! If every student in our schools and colleges cheated, so that there were no honest students left, our whole educational system would collapse. If all businessmen were crooks, nothing could save our economic life from ruin. If all wives and husbands were faithless to their mates, decent, happy homelife would vanish from the planet. Well, make the application in the areas where you are troubled by uncertainty concerning what is right and wrong. I cannot escape the conclusion that you will come out convinced that, both in general and in detail, the ethics of the Bible, from the Ten Commandments to the character and teaching of Christ, meet the test. The more of that kind of living the better for all mankind!

And that kind of living does not allow an unmastered life. This is what so many people today think they are going to have and enjoy -- an unmastered life. But there is no such thing. It is psychologically impossible. Show me just one unmastered life -- just one! I see people mastered by crazes, fads, passing fashions. I see people mastered by selfish ambition, driven like slaves to achieve their dreams of avarice or power. I see people mastered by habits -- drink, drugs, temper, lust -- in a tyranny they cannot disobey. I see people mastered by their own moods, tossed to and fro like rudderless boats. I see people mastered by fears -- afraid of life, of death, of themselves, of tomorrow. And -- thank God! -- I see people mastered by unselfish devotion to their homes, by the joy and pride of fine workmanship, by love for their fellows and dedication to great causes. I see people mastered by Christ -- the love of Christ constraining them, as Paul said -- so that they walk through this world as though they were keeping step to music from far above it. That is being a real nonconformist. Freedom is not living an unmastered life -- that is an impossibility. Freedom is being mastered by something that it is worth while being mastered by.

Well, Ted, I suspect that, even in writing letters to a friend like you, the preacher in me sometimes gets the upper hand. I am sure you understand that what I am really interested in is you,

Most cordially,