It takes nothing to join the crowd. It takes everything to stand alone.Hans F. Hansen
Yesterday, I experienced a very troubling reaction to a message that I shared. It has caused me to deeply reflect on some personal values and beliefs. Society places some heavy demands upon us all to conform to its contrived standards. Sometimes, I agree with this alignment and at other times I see it as false, and I steadfastly disagree with conformity.
If you do a serious crime, then you need to be held fully accountable to society for your actions. You must be responsible for your wrongdoings. In this case, I agree with the demands of our society to prosecute to the full extend of the law. For me, this is especially true when an ‘innocent’ is harmed.
However, there are other times when I object to blind and unconsidered adherence to societal norms. Here is an explanation of my experience from yesterday. A friend passed away last week. So, I shared the obituary on social media. Another person found the obituary to be unacceptable. They saw it as too simplistic, too humble. They insinuated that this obituary was disgraceful and intolerable. I was shocked by their verbal assault. I needed a day to consider it. Here are my conclusions.
The obituary simply announced the passing of a person, no more, no less. But, in the viewpoint of this offended third-party objector, it was not nearly elaborate enough, nor did it successfully share the story of the person’s rich life for others to read. Yet, the diseased person was very humble and would have objected to such a grandiose and excessive description of their life.
I responded to tell the objector that it was not a beauty contest and that every person is an individual and in life and death, they can do as they wished. They had no need, nor responsibility to adhere to some ridiculously contrived made-up standards of society. Many obituaries are long-winded narratives to make the person sound bigger than life and to dramatically embellish upon, what might be deemed otherwise, to be an ordinary life.
The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow.Jim Hightower
Who are these obituaries actually for? Those who have passed away? Or, those who remain? Who sets the standards for these announcements. Who is this society dictator who deems this simple announcement to be unsuitable, unacceptable, and objectionable. No one has the right to judge the merit of an obituary. Full stop.
There should be just one truth. Our own individual truth of who we are and how we lived. If someone wants a half page obit, then good for them. If someone else wants a few simple lines to announce the passing, then that is perfect too. We should leave behind who we are and how we lived and loved. No more and no less.
Conforming to society has both good and bad sides to it. Conformity also carries with it the power to make human beings ignore their own consciences, sometimes to the point of committing atrocities.
In our social media driven, mad society, we are noting a mass polarization towards the outer extremes. People argue some pretty ridiculous debates on Facebook about their views, versus the opinions of others. Even to the point of extreme prejudices, false, misleading thoughts, and outright lies. Social media is warping society and imposing new beliefs that might otherwise be seen as unfounded.
Much of the time, it is in the interest of the individual to follow the crowd, but in the social interest for individuals to say and do what they think bestCass Sunstein
Conformity is the tendency for an individual to align their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those of the people around them. Conformity can take the form of overt social pressure or subtler, unconscious influence. Regardless of its form, it can be a powerful force – able to change how large groups behave, to start or end conflicts, and much more.
Conformity is typically motivated by a person’s identification with a specific group. In theory, to be truly accepted as a member, an individual must adopt the norms and rules that govern the group’s behavior. These actions may, at first, differ from their own personal values. In time, however, the individual’s underlying beliefs and attitudes may begin to shift as the opinions and behaviors of the group become ingrained and automatic.
People learn social skills at an early age by observing and copying the behavior of others. As an individual grows older, the social pressure to conform with group norms becomes stronger. Established group members may use a variety of tactics to persuade outsiders to conform, including praising, criticizing, bullying, or modeling “correct” behavior.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.Mark Twain
Personal leadership is the willingness to move in a different direction than others. If we want to lead, then the real question – for you and me – is how can we resist the pull of conformity and stand courageously in truth and right? How can we live the values that make us and our colleagues trustworthy?
- The first step is to have clear, strong, and committed values. What do you believe in? And how resolutely are you willing to stand behind those beliefs? Are you willing to be vulnerable? To be embarrassed? To be disliked? To be fired? Powerful, trustworthy leaders answer yes to all of those questions.
- The next step is to want to see what is going on around you. Can you see it for what it is?
- Finally, you need the courage to act when something is going on that is out of sync with your values. To say something. To stand up to power, if that’s what it takes. And to do it skillfully, and with respect, so that you are more likely, not only to succeed, but also to preserve the relationships around you where possible.
Utilitarianism is the theory that whether an action is morally right or wrong depends entirely on how beneficial or harmful it will be for everyone involved, only the net balance of benefit and harm matters. Most utilitarians believe that the only thing valuable in itself is happiness, and the only thing bad in itself is suffering; so, to maximize utility is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering.
Utilitarians would be baffled by the common Hollywood cinema Star Trek Vulcan view that emotions are best gotten rid of. According to utilitarianism, the duty to put the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few extends even to people one has personal relationships with, like friends and family. The protagonists of the Star Trek franchise would seem to agree.
The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few
Interestingly, the same movie franchise, in another episode, pondered the inverse rule to the above ideal.
This philosophical question rises well above my meager ability to respond substantively. However, as a person who fancies himself a media critic, I would like to look at it through that lens.
A deceptively simple question, it also stands as a well-used media trope. It is the central theme of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. The question speaks to the philosophical concept of utilitarianism, the doctrine that the best choice of actions is the one that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
At the end of STII, Spock sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, with the line that went on to enter pop culture: “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.” It’s a powerful, emotional scene, especially for viewers who have followed the long friendship between Kirk and Spock, we see the lengths to which friends will go to turn that axiom on its ear, as Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and the bridge crew risk their careers and even incarceration to find and restore Spock’s katra, his essence or spirit or soul. In this next movie, the opposite is now the theme:
The Good of the One Outweighs the Good of the Many
The concept of utilitarianism is often explained via the thought exercise called “the trolley problem”. The trolley problem is a thought experiment in ethics about a fictional scenario in which an onlooker has the choice to save 5 people in danger of being hit by a trolley, by diverting the trolley to kill just 1 person. The term is often used more loosely with regard to any choice that seemingly has a trade-off between what is good and what sacrifices are “acceptable,” if at all.
The trolley problem is also used to point out the differences between utilitarianism and consequentialism, an ethical construct that states that morality is defined by the consequences of an action, and that the consequences are all that matter.
These ideas could conceivably be at loggerheads; for example, in the trolley problem, utilitarianism would want the greater number of lives to be spared. But what if one of the doomed lives was someone who had the cure for all cancer, or the formula for the unified field theory? Consequentialism might hold that person’s life to be of greater consequence than the others, and thus should be spared.
So, it is not an easy question to answer, do we conform or do we walk alone? The best answer is that we need to do both. The trick is to know when to conform or to not conform.
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is to high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.Friedrich Nietzsche
Bergman, P. (2015). The High Cost of Conformity, and How to Avoid It. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 4, 2021 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-we-work/201510/the-high-cost-conformity-and-how-avoid-it
Eberl, J.T. (2021). Star Wars as Philosophy: A Genealogy of the Force, The Palgrave Handbook of Popular Culture as Philosophy, 10.1007/978-3-319-97134-6, (1-18), (2020).
Unknown. (2021). Conformity. Psychology Today. Retrieved on April 4, 2021 from, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/conformity
Williams, H. (2019), Does the good of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Quora. Retrieved on April 4, 2021 from, https://www.quora.com/Does-the-good-of-the-many-outweigh-the-needs-of-the-few
About the Author:
Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.