December 13, 2004

When Non-Conformity Conforms

The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.

-Mark Twain -

When I was at college, I often giggled at the irony of art students, who devote their lives to non-conformity, either dressing in wild attire, or espousing language alien to the non-initiated. Yet, for all this dedication to individuality, the art student is always an easy creature to recognise out on the street. Their uniform may not have stripes and epaulets, but their very choice to break with convention, instantly places them with all the other art students doing exactly the same thing. I suppose, a bead is always a bead, regardless of shape or colour.

The aspiration to be unique is something that people either desire or resist. Most people feel comfortable conforming to the social expectations laid down by society, to varying degrees. Such people are more likely to shun those who do not fit-in.

True non-conformity goes beyond mere fashion statements. It is about challenging conventions accepted by the masses. Those that choose for whatever reason to bend or challenge the rules, must also be prepared for the difficulties that such a lifestyle can lead to. The dangers of alienation, rejection and isolation are forever present. At the same time, while the cushions of conformity are not there to soften the hardships of reality, non-conformity can lead to success.

All great art and ideas have come from individuals willing to break from or test convention. Only out of difference, can contrasts be observed, and new approaches created. Ideas cannot be farmed from within the status quo, but only from beyond it.

For individuals to test the frontiers of thought, it requires an enormous amount of courage. Throughout history, mavericks have been persecuted for promoting ideas that upset or contradict the standards generally accepted by a society at a particular time. Perhaps, the most famous example is Jesus Christ (whose religion interestingly espouses conformity).

Galileo is another example of a dynamic individual. He radically proposed a vision of the Solar System, where the earth rotates around the Sun, contradicting the all powerful Christian Church. In response, he was vilified and placed under house arrest. Similar attitudes were also prevalent towards Darwin, when his papers on Natural Selection were first published.

The non-conformist is an integral component of society, who energizes and challenges culture, often at his or her own sacrifice. They are the dreamers who fuel civilisation. The ideas that these outsiders introduce to us, may seem unfamiliar, even shocking, but slowly they become part of the social fabric; first, being embraced by the intelligentsia, who then interpret the ideas for the masses, through which reality itself is altered.

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