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Rabbi Josh Feigelson

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What Do You Conform To?

Posted: 02/27/2012 9:50 am

Conforming has gotten a bad rap of late. Well, not really of late. More like of the last few hundred years.

To conform, for many of us, means to deny something essential about ourselves. Conformity means fitting in with everyone else. In its most pronounced form, conformity means silencing ourselves in the face of wrongs or injustices: corporations profiting at the expense of public health, soldiers standing by as their comrades abuse prisoners, too many of us remaining silent as genocides have raged. All of these are negative examples of conformity, of "standing idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed," as the Bible puts it (Leviticus 19:16).

In less profound terms, this negative kind of conformity is associated with mindless consumerist behavior. To conform is to wear what everyone else is wearing, to listen to the music everyone else is listening to, to drive the car everyone else is driving. (Clever businesses figure out ways to play on our desire to conform while feeling like non-conformists: See this Samsung ad for its Galaxy phone for a great example.)

But conformity isn't always bad, of course. As my wife (the more mechanically inclined of the two of us) has repeatedly reminded me, when you're building IKEA furniture, you need to conform to the instructions. When you bake a cake, you need to conform to the recipe. When you're on a football team, you need to conform to the playbook. Failing to do so in any of these cases will result in a broken play, a lousy cake or a mangled piece of plywood.

Or, when the stakes are higher: Conforming to the law is a good thing (provided the law is just). Conforming to the expectations of friends, coworkers and people who depend on us builds and reinforces trust. Conforming to the orders of a commanding officer during wartime can make the difference between life and death. All of these are good kinds of conformity.

I would argue that the bad rap that the word "conform" has gotten is a bit undeserved. The question isn't whether or not we conform. We all do, all the time. The question is when do we choose to conform, and when do we choose to deviate from the norm? What inner voices drive us in one direction or another?

Our "Ask Big Questions" conversation guide for this question centers on a short story from George Orwell about shooting an elephant. At the heart of Orwell's decision to ultimately kill the pachyderm is his fear of being laughed at. Orwell clearly regrets his decision. But he closes the essay by reflecting on what might have happened had he, the white police officer in the face of the dark-skinned colonial natives, tried to withstand the mob of Burmans urging him to shoot the animal: "If that happened it was quite probable that some of them would laugh. That would never do."

Often we conform for precisely this reason: We're afraid of being laughed at. We're worried about what other people will say or think. But, as Orwell demonstrates, conforming in this sense leads to non-conformity in another. By failing to listen to his inner voice, he fails to conform to his sense of morality. He conforms with the crowd, he conforms with his fear. Looking back, he wishes he had conformed to his courage.

When do we conform? All the time. The question isn't when, but, to what.

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